28 July 2020

On 2 April 2020, the Government of India launched the Aarogya Setu app with the stated intention of curbing the pandemic—and a lot has happened with it since. Post its launch, the app was heavily promoted and made mandatory by different public and private entities for various purposes. The prescription of a state-sponsored app raises many concerns. In addition to the issue of data privacy and security, such an imposition can lead to an infringement of fundamental rights. It can exclude those who do not have access to a mobile phone.

On 2 April 2020, the Government of India launched the Aarogya Setu app with the stated intention of curbing the pandemic—and a lot has happened with it since. Post its launch, the app was heavily promoted and made mandatory by different public and private entities for various purposes. The prescription of a state-sponsored app raises many concerns. In addition to the issue of data privacy and security, such an imposition can lead to an infringement of fundamental rights. It can exclude those who do not have access to a mobile phone.

Concerned about these consequences, especially on marginalised groups, we launched the Aarogya Setu tracker on 8 May 2020. The entries on the tracker are dynamic in nature as they are continuously updated. Data about cases are collected from both primary sources and secondary sources. The below info-graphics are based on this data. (Please note: the map does not reflect the 37 pan-India cases)

Wide reach of the app:

Made with Visme Infographic Maker

(Graphics conceptulisation and creation credits: Devashree Somani)

To our surprise, we found many more cases of its imposition than anticipated. Two months since its inception, the tracker only continues to grow. As of July, we have recorded over 100 entries on the tracker. Out of these entries, there are fifty-seven cases of the app made mandatory. There are also nine cases where it was reported to be mandatory in the future at the time of documentation. (Out of this, two measures have now become mandatory). Additionally, in nine cases, the app has been used to ensure people behave a certain way. In many of these nine cases, we can observe an arbitrary exercise of power by public officials. Prescribing the app as a pre-condition for bail by the judiciary, making curfew violators download the app before release from detention are a few examples of this. Lastly, the app has also been heavily publicised/endsored or requested to be downloaded by organisations and individuals. The tracker records twenty eight of such cases.

Documenting the 100th entry felt like a ‘milestone’. But unlike traditional milestones that call for celebration, this one has left us rather gloomy. Today, we briefly look at the journey of Aarogya Setu as recorded in the tracker.

Continued mandatory use of the App

The Central Government’s stand on the app has seemed to change over time. Initially, there was a strong push to make the app mandatory - this can be seen in the office memorandum issued on 29 April that made the app mandatory for officers and staff working with the central government. Guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on 1 May stated that the app had to be downloaded by all those in containment zones and by all private and public sector employees. The 17 May notification issued by the MHA signalled a change in language, stating that employers should ensure the downloading of the app on a ‘best effort basis’ and district authorities may ‘advise’ the app’s use. Subsequent central government orders on lockdown strategy issued on 30 May and 29 June also continue to reflect the ‘best effort basis policy’.

However, as we have previously argued, little changed on the ground. On 4 June, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for preventive measures for offices, religious places, malls restaurants and hotels. One of the clauses in the SOP for offices mentions the installation and use of the app as part of the mandated measures for all employees and visitors. SOPs for religious places, malls, restaurants and hotels ‘advise’ the app.

Additionally, different state governments and other public officials have continued to prescribe the app. In Andhra Pradesh and Haryana, passengers using inter-state bus service were asked to download the app mandatorily. In another case, the Telangana State Council of Higher Education asked candidates who have smartphones appearing for the TS EAMCET to download the app. In Maharashtra, guests staying at hotels/lodges/guest houses are required to download the app. In a few states, the app is needed to enter malls. Private companies also continue to impose the app on their workers.

Responding to a petition in the Karnataka High Court, the central government clarified that the app was voluntary for air and train passengers. However, the roll out of the move is unclear. At the time of writing, Air India website states that all passengers must download the app.

Thus, while policy may change on paper, the app continues to be a popular tool. It almost seems as though one needs to trade their personal data in order to earn a living, travel, and write important exams. In addition to straining our digital rights, such measures can curb fundamental rights necessary to live a meaningful life. All of this has made us quite wary about this anniversary. It does seem like we do have miles to go before we can truly celebrate. Until then, we will be continuing to record such instances on our tracker. Please do continue to share your stories with us.

Note: This piece has been edited by Devashree Somani.


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