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FEATURE-Under watch: Indian city workers protest digital surveillance

Reuters | Updated: 17-03-2020 10:44 IST | Created: 17-03-2020 06:30 IST
FEATURE-Under watch: Indian city workers protest digital surveillance
Representative Image : Image Credit:Flicker

By Anuradha Nagaraj CHENNAI, India, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - E very evening at the end of his shift, Anil Sharma heads to a rally ground in the Indian city of Chandigarh to join hundreds of colleagues protesting a new initiative that lets the local administration keep track of city workers using GPS watches.

A municipal gardener in the capital of the northern Punjab state, Sharma has been protesting against the watches that city employees are being told to wear to track their efficiency, a move he called "humiliating" and "unethical". "I have worked for 25 years to keep this city beautiful and now they want to make me a bonded labourer and humiliate me," Sharma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Besides, we have supervisors who monitor our work and this tracking cannot be forced on us. It is unethical," he said in a phone interview. As India pushes ahead with its plan to turn 100 urban centres into smart cities, local governments are using technology like GPS watches to provide data they can use to improve efficiency and tighten budgets.

But city employees, campaigners and technology experts have raised concerns about privacy and the potential misuse of that data, as well as the susceptibility of the watches to failure like weak GPS signal or the devices switching off. For three months Sharma and his colleagues from various departments like horticulture, sanitation and health have been gathering to demand that officials in Chandigarh, hailed as one of India's cleanest cities, stop using the GPS watches.

They are among a growing number of municipal workers in a dozen cities across India who are protesting the linking of surveillance data to performance and salaries. Under the project, which launched in Chandigarh in February, workers are mandated to wear the GPS watches during their working hours.

The watches feed a stream of data to a central control room, where officials monitor the movements of each employee. If workers remove their watches, they are penalised, although there is no comprehensive data available on how many workers have been fined so far, or by how much.

"The efficiency trackers seem like an over-reach," said Nandini Chami, deputy director at IT for Change, a Bangalore-based non-profit. "Given the nature of the employer-employee relationship, it is essential to know what are the boundaries of this surveillance and what will be a worker's right to appeal any data they want to contest," she said.

Municipal commissioner K. K. Yadav, Chandigarh's top civic official, said in a phone interview that the programme is about improving efficiency. "This is an efficient way to check if our workers are on the ground doing their jobs," added Yadav, who said he also wears a watch, to set an example.

"Their salaries will be linked to this tracker and all the data will be put in the public domain eventually for increasing accountability." Yadav noted that there is no expectation of privacy for government employees while they are at work and that complaints and appeals would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

ON THE JOB Suresh Kumar Sharma has been driving a sewer-cleaning machine for over two decades, unclogging street drains throughout Chandigarh.

He said he has raised questions with his supervisors and other senior officials as he tries to understand the need for GPS surveillance. "Sometimes we receive five complaints (of blocked drains) in a day, but are able to attend to only one because cleaning blocked drains takes time," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The GPS tracker is going to reflect that I was only at one place and did not attend to the other four complaints. It will indicate that I did not complete my job and that will reflect in a pay cut. How is that okay?" Sharma said officials have reassured workers that there will be a complaint mechanism in place, though no details were provided.

Despite concerns from rights groups and protests from workers, the efficiency tracker project has been rolled out across India since 2017. The initiative has been praised by civic bodies aiming to both make their cities smarter and meet the goals of the Clean India campaign launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.

"It is the need of the hour," said Sumedha Kataria, municipal commissioner for Panchkula city in Haryana state. About 950 city employees in Panchkula have been wearing the watches since the programme started there last year, said Kataria.

"There are targets to be met for the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) mission. Also, if we are vying to be a smart city then digital intervention is important for us to achieve our targets. It is the smart thing to do," she said in a phone interview. Without a comprehensive data privacy law in India, the personal information of the country's 1.3 billion citizens is openly available, with no regulation over its use or protection for its users, digital rights campaigners say.

The Personal Data Protection Bill, which is pending parliament approval, will create a framework for data protection dictating what kind of data can be collected, and how it is collected, processed and stored. The bill also introduces hefty penalties for the misuse of that data.

But the draft bill has met with opposition from various groups, including human rights organisations, for not meeting global privacy standards. Chami at IT for Change noted that the GPS watches for municipal workers are constantly collecting potentially sensitive data, including personal information and behavioural patterns.

"Without mechanisms to allow the worker to audit his or her tracker data ... and appeal (or) contest errors stemming from remote tracker malfunction, workers' rights will be squelched," she said. WAGE CUTS

Nagpur city, in the western state of Maharashtra, has had more than 7,000 workers under watch since 2017. Pradeep Dasarwar, the health officer in charge of the project in Nagpur, said that since the project started, absenteeism has dropped by half, from 15% to 7%, and that wages were being cut for contract workers.

Around the city, areas have been virtually fenced off, with street names and localities that have been earmarked for each worker fed into their GPS watches, Dasarwar explained. Unlike before, when workers marked their own attendance at the start and end of the day, the GPS watch project tracks their whereabouts automatically, making a note each time they leave their designated work area, he said.

The watches provide data on how many hours they spend at work, how many breaks they take, and the number of work orders they respond to. "In the cases where (workers) are not doing their job properly, salary cuts have been initiated and we have data to show for it," Dasarwar said, over the phone.

But Sharma, the gardener, does not see the watches as the key to efficiency. To him, they are a digital tool to "threaten" and exploit workers.

"At the end of the day, we don't know how they will use this data. Wage cuts are just the beginning."


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