PACS news / November 5, 2019

Digital Impact: Reflections from Mumbai

In India, scale is everything. An organization that serves more than one million meals per day to schoolchildren reaches only 1% of the eligible population. Its newly-implemented Aadhaar system, with more than 1 billion registrants, is the largest biometric database controlled by a nation, but only the second largest such database in the world, falling behind Facebook’s in scale. As the world’s largest democracy – one whose population is coming online at ever faster rates – the possibilities and responsibilities of digital civil society are present every day and everywhere.

Digital Impact Mumbai included more than 100 participants from almost every part of the country. The Digital Dependencies panel included representatives from industry, philanthropy, and government, including representatives from the authority that manages Aadhaar. As in other contexts, nonprofit capacity to use and govern digital data topped everyone’s list of concerns. The opportunity, and the need, for civil society organizations to better understand their own data collection and use practices in this time of ubiquitous, networked identity is of growing concern. The idea of digital dependency takes on a new meaning in the context of universal biometric identification. Multiple voices throughout the day raised practical concerns about vulnerability and exclusion, as the digital identity program goes into effect even before the country can provide reliable digital connectivity across its vast geography.


India’s civil society is actively engaged in shaping national and international debates about digital public policy. Recently, a national advocacy campaign succeeded in getting net neutrality laws passed, after previously defeating efforts at allowing corporate tiered internet service. The country is also in the midst of court hearings on privacy and data protections, both of which involve significant civil society action. As in many places, however, the connections between digital rights actors in civil society and broader nonprofit and philanthropic infrastructure actors is weak. Given the recent successes, and the national attention to digital identities, India has a chance to be a global leader in building bridges between digital rights and civil society advocacy efforts.

Digital Impact Mumbai featured nationally and globally recognizable digital nonprofits. Apnalaya’s success in extending its direct services work into successful municipal advocacy holds lessons for organizations everywhere and is an outstanding example of a nonprofit achieving the “new social calculus” of multiple benefits produced from a single (safe and ethical) data collection practice. EkStep’s work to create open digital platforms for educators across the country to build upon emphasizes the possibilities of reimagining the digital tech stack for civic purposes.

The outstanding leadership of GuideStar India made the Digital Impact convening in Mumbai a success, and it energized an important ongoing conversation about infrastructure across India. The possibilities of infusing such an infrastructure with expertise on digital policy, practice, and democratic ideals is an opportunity of both national and global significance. We look forward to carrying insights from India with us to our next stops in Colombia and the U.S.!