Panchkula, Haryana — At little after sunrise on a cold winter morning, 52-year-old sanitation worker Bhanmati appeared as a green dot on a giant screen at the Command and Control Centre of the Municipal Corporation of Panchkula.
While Bhanmati shivered outdoors as she swept roads, bent low to scoop the garbage into her pushcart and moved from street to street, the climate-controlled control centre kept track of her every step by monitoring a smartwatch-sized “Human Efficiency Tracker” strapped to her wrist.
The tracker, or smartwatch as the municipal corporation calls it, had a microphone and a camera so a supervisor could hear and watch her as she worked, and a GPS tracker to ensure she stayed within her assigned area. A sim-card embedded in the tracker meant her supervisor could call her at any moment. If Bhanmati’s tracker switched off during duty hours, or if she strayed from her GPS-monitored geo-fence, the system would alert her supervisor who could punish her by docking her monthly salary.
A surveillance revolution is sweeping India’s government departments, aided abetted by private and state-owned companies who have spotted a lucrative opportunity to push largely untested, deeply invasive systems by pitching “digital innovations” for programmes favoured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Municipalities that have “ICT enabled attendance” — a version of the Panchkula experiment— for their sanitation workers, for instance, earn 10 extra points under the national Swachh Survekshan rankings, an annual index of the so-called cleanest cities under the much ballyhooed Swachh Bharat initiative of the Government of India.
As a consequence, Panchkula’s Municipal Corporation has spent over 35 lakhs in only 9 months in 2019 on this worker surveillance system, but has failed to provide basic safety equipment like masks, gloves and boots to its workers. Meanwhile, sanitation work across the country remains distressingly dangerous, with workers frequently succumbing to fatal accidents.
Panchkula isn’t alone; versions of this system, a Human Efficiency Tracking System in the jargon of the trade, has been implemented in at least seven other municipal corporations — Mysore, Lucknow, Indore, Thane, Navi Mumbai, Nagpur, and Chandigarh — most of which are controlled by the BJP.
These intrusive surveillance systems are being implemented with little oversight, no worker consent, and no public conversation on how this data is being stored, tracked or analysed. Many of these human tracking experiments are being conducted on the most marginalised members of India’s workforce.
Many of the sanitation workers tracked by Panchkula’s Municipal Corporation are contract workers from the Dalit caste. This raises troubling questions of dominant-caste supervisors literally tagging Dalit workers, tracking their every move, and penalising them by slashing their salaries for any perceived shortcoming.
“In ancient India, dominant caste people would tag us by tying chains to our legs,” a Dalit sanitation worker told HuffPost India. “Now we are asked to wear smartwatches to track our movements.”
The tracking, workers interviewed by HuffPost India said, continues even after work ends as they must take their trackers home at the end of each shift and charge them overnight. Some women workers have stopped going to the bathroom during work shifts as they fear the camera on their trackers might be used to record them in the toilet. Others fear their supervisors might use the devices to snoop on conversations in workers homes.
“It amounts to slavery. Workers have privacy rights even during duty hours,” said Usha Ramanathan, a legal theorist who has worked extensively on data, privacy and surveillance. “The government has created an obnoxious level of hierarchy where a person sitting on top believes that he has a privilege to sit in his office and can see everyone working under him anytime in the day.”
Human Efficiency Tracking System
The Municipal Corporation of Panchkula’s creepy “Human Efficiency Tracking System” has been implemented by Indian Telephone Industries Ltd (ITIL), a state-owned company, using technology provided by the Indian subsidiary of Imtac Software Solutions, a private company headquartered in Oman, according to documents obtained by HuffPost India under the Right to Information Act. Imtac sells this particular suite of software and hardware as a product called Empyreal.
The contract, signed in February 2019, commits the Panchkula municipal corporation to renting 958 trackers for Rs 467 per worker per month for a minimum of 45 months — or a total sum of approximately Rs 2 crore — exclusive of taxes. The replacement cost for each tracker is Rs 8000.
Each tracker shows the time, has a camera for “manual face capture”, a microphone, and a GPS tracker that monitors the location of every worker and how much distance they have covered each day and transmits the data in real-time to a control centre. The tracker, Huffpost India learnt on a visit to the control centre, is fitted with a SIM card, and generates a unique id for each worker that is linked to their personal information including their name, employee id, salary account and Aadhaar number.
It is unclear how this data is secured and who has access to it. The contract documents simply require Indian Telephones Industries Limited to provide a cloud-based storage system, but place no caveats on data security nor any penalties in case of a data breach.
The system in Panchkula, a representative for the company said, was based on a similar system implemented by the Municipal Corporation of Nagpur in 2018 to track over 7000 workers.
“That was our first human tagging programme in India. The surveillance device works on a mobile sim that can track the presence and movement of every sanitation worker inside the work fence assigned to him,” said Hargun Singh, a Panchkula based representative for ITI Limited.
In two short years, Singh said, the project has expanded to at least seven other municipalities. In each case, Singh said, only contract workers have been tagged. The decision to tag only contract workers is no coincidence, workers told HuffPost India.
“We have no opportunity to voice our complaints,” a contract worker said, seeking anonymity as he feared he might lose his job.
Singh claimed the system had improved efficiency and had stopped workers from sub-contracting their work.
“The permanent employees used to run their own businesses, hired local youths at a meagre amount to do their jobs. There was no check on them in the fieldwork,” Singh said. “With the help of HETS, MCP detected personal impersonation and deducted salaries of over 15 workers who were found negligent in their duties.” HETS is an acronym for Human Efficiency Tracking System.
Singh, however, refused to answer questions on data storage, privacy or security.
Workers told HuffPost India they were deeply unhappy with the new system.
As mentioned earlier, each active worker is represented as a green dot on a giant display. But should a worker stray out of their assigned area, or pause to catch their breath, the dot turns red — prompting a call from their supervisors.
The mindless monitoring of their movement, workers told HuffPost India, often forced them to keep walking even if they had finished their work. “Work that used to be finished in an hour, nor takes twice the time, and is more stressful and exhausting,” a worker said.
The presence of a camera and a microphone that can be controlled remotely has added to their concerns.
Women workers told HuffPost India that they were hesitant to go to the bathroom whilst wearing a tracker fitted with a camera. Yet, taking off their trackers while on duty was not an option.
“I don’t know how the watch works. What is the camera fitted on the screen works all the time?” a woman worker said. “I can’t even take it off as we are not allowed to do so.”
As a consequence, she only uses the bathroom once her shift ends at 6 in the evening.
Bhanmati, the sanitation worker, said her tracker often switches itself off when the poorly designed power button presses against the bangles on her wrist. \
“I have to remind her to switch it on many times in a day,” said Suresh, her supervisor. “But I can’t tell her to take off her bangles as they are a symbol of her marital status.”
Workers must also take the trackers home each night and charge them overnight to ensure they function through the day. But several workers told HuffPost India they were scared to take the devices home, as they feared the gadgets would record personal conversations with their family members.
“We do not have any option. A dead watch will not record our footsteps and we will be marked absent from work,” said one worker. “So, I lock it in my two-wheelers when I get home and bring indoors to charge only after midnight once everyone is asleep.”
The SIM card fitted in the device has created its own problems. While ITIL, the company implementing the project, is supposed to ensure that the SIM cards have call restrictions, workers say their trackers ring almost incessantly with the usual assortment of spam, robocalls and call-centres offering loans and insurance.
“Every day, we keep on receiving calls from banks and insurance companies who offer us loans,” said Satish, a sanitation worker. “We are already under huge debt and cannot afford to get further loans.”
Satish also questioned how these telephone agents had found their numbers.
Data Security Concerns
Panchkula Municipal Commissioner Rajesh Jogpal told HuffPost India he had no idea how the data gathered by this system was being stored, and who the data was being shared with.
Neither Jogpal nor the officials sitting at the Command and Control Centre claimed to know if the system only tracked workers during duty hours or if it continues to monitor them once they logged out for the day.
Commissioner KK Yadav of the Municipal Corporation of Chandigarh, a city that has just implemented the system, claimed he needed no consent to track his employees.
“How can I check 4000 people manually every day? The technology will promote efficacy and productivity in their work,” said Yadav. “There is nothing illegal as I am only tracking my employee during working hours.”
Ramanathan, the privacy expert, disagreed. “There is no reason why workers should be tagged for live surveillance,” she said, describing the department diktat for workers to wear trackers without their consent as unconstitutional and unethical.
Nonetheless, the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation will soon start crediting salaries only after checking worker performance statistics logged in their personal trackers.