India has begun issuing blockchain “caste certificates” to up to 65,000 tribal members in a remote region in an attempt to stop fraudulent claims on government benefits for the disadvantaged.
Political corruption led to the idea
The project, in the western state of Maharashtra, was announced in March and is the brainchild of Shubham Gupta, 28, an officer of the Indian Administrative Services. Gupta conceived the idea after encountering a former elected politician in his area of jurisdiction who had fraudulently acquired tribal land by presenting himself as a tribal member with a fake caste certificate.
While the politician had been convicted by the Supreme Court of India, it took Gupta's administrative muscle to make him return the land to the tribes. It was just one of a large number of cases of politicians and job seekers using fake caste certificates to win benefits.
India's caste system remains a deeply entrenched reality, and despite laws, such as the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, social discrimination and atrocities against disadvantaged castes continue to persist. Of the country's 1.3 billion population, more than 40% belongs to disadvantaged castes, and 9% are tribal members.
"Nobody here knows what crypto is but ..."
"Today, as a start, we are delivering 100 caste certificates, which are built on blockchain through a paper representation with a verifiable QR code," said Gupta, who is effectively the administrative head of the Etapalli subdivision of Gadchiroli in the state of Maharashtra.
Of the region's population of 250,000, roughly 80%, or 200,000, are tribal members. The first phase of the project will see the delivery of certificates to 65,000 members.
"Everyone thinks of development as providing basic livelihood needs like food, bamboos for shelter, a cow or a goat (through animal husbandry schemes), but nobody has thought of equity for them, probably because the people here are not tech savvy," Gupta said. "So, what I tried to do was give them equity through exposure so that their children may learn about blockchain and do something in the future."
While the implementation is being done by a three-man government team led by Gupta, Legit Doc – a private platform using blockchain to make tamper-proof digital documents that was commissioned through a government process – brought the idea to life on the Polygon protocol.
"We are using polygon to make caste certificates impossible to forge and easily verifiable," said Neil Martis, co-founder and project lead at LegitDoc.
Gupta sold shoes as a child
As a 15-year-old, Gupta used to work in his father's shoe shop in Dahanu, a small town his family had moved to after suffering setbacks in the major northwestern city of Jaipur.
"My sister and I had no option but to take a 5:50 a.m. train from Dahanu to Vapi everyday," recalled Gupta. "As a bigger city, Vapi offered us proper schooling. We would take the return train at 1:30 p.m. so that I could come back by 3 p.m. to run the shoe shop till 10 p.m."
Gupta made four attempts to get a top rank in the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), India's premier central recruitment agency for all Group "A" officers. He didn't qualify the first time, but ranked sixth in the country in his final attempt.
"It was during my preparations for the UPSC exams that I was fascinated by blockchain technology," Gupta said.
In a coincidence, Gupta's blockchain caste certificate project happens to be starting on the same day when India for the first time has elected a tribal member as its president, with Droupadi Murmu garnering a majority of votes.
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