Superimposition: App-Based Contact Tracing in the Indian Pandemic and Its Unexpected Intimacies

Signal and Noise, or the Balcony Scene

5 p.m. on March 22, 2020. The clamor starts near the end of a one-day “Janata Curfew” (People’s Curfew) declared across India by the central government a few days prior to what would become a national lockdown in the face of pandemic threat, the brief curfew experimentally instituting the ethical and governmental form of what would follow. Individuals—perhaps by the millions, at least it felt that way on television—collect by windows, stand on apartment balconies or roofs, or lean out from the threshold of rooms and pavement dwellings, banging pots and pans, clapping, ringing bells. The feel, as in the image above of three family members making noise out on their balcony, to the beat of the nation, is celebratory, holding together a range of visible affects.

Pandemic noise was proclaimed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an expressive gesture of gratitude to frontline medical workers. Like other expressions of party and state will offered to “the people” as their own autopoietic force and affect, the invitation to clamor of this event,  also labelled the “Janata Thank You”—along with the curfew it enjoined—were closely identified across televisual, newsprint, radio, and social media with the welcoming display of Modi’s body and words. Though opposition newspapers and progressive media were critical of the noise, reducing it to empty political theater coopting a global genre of protest (see essays by Ranjona Banerji and Shree Paradkar), dominant readings by mainstream media and right-leaning intellectuals characterized the noise as a masterful gesture asserting the patriotism of the lockdown to come and creating lasting memories of civic commitment (NDTV News Desk 2021).  In sonic memes that flooded social media after the Janata Thank You, one familiar scene of such commitment was the view of an apartment block, story after story of balconies with individuals leaning out making noise, amplifying the effect of images such as that of the cover image.

Massed verticality has become a familiar feature of a self-consciously urban nation, joining the density of older industrial forms like the chawls and suburban estates of Mumbai to the elite high rises of the post-liberalization information economy. In literature and film, one notes a shift in the reflexivity of what Sharon Marcus has termed the “apartment story” from the tragicomic in depictions of the multi-storied chawl (e.g., Kiran Nagarkar’s Ravan and Eddie) and urban enclave (Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu, and Dilip Kumar’s Cat in the Agraharam and Other Stories) to the horrors  of elite urban verticality for marginalized characters in Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tower and the films Bhoot (2003) and Trapped (2016).

So: horror.  State logics of COVID-19 prevention emerged, singling out “migrants” as the locus of viral threat, and constituting the proper biopolitical object of state care as those with a secure and immobile relation to “home.” The hailing of the migrant body as the site of risk amplified both the reason of proper (Hindu) belonging of the prime minister’s party and the regional anti-migrant formations most acutely palpable in the states of Maharashtra and Assam.  Across instantiations of anti-migrant covid publicity, urban architectural form stood in for Modi’s repeated injunction to “stay at home.” A months-long lockdown followed the “People’s Curfew.” The preventive rationality of the state emerged most viscerally with police threatening violence against those in the streets, out of place.

And the tragicomic. In the vertically-dominant publicity of the Janata Thank You, news media and memes additionally featured individuals on the urban social margin: slum and pavement dwellers making noise without access to high-rise life. The noise of what we might term the horizontal janata signaled humor and pathos: even the most abject could contribute to the prime minister’s call for national noise if in funny and heart-tugging ways.

And, it appeared, the epic: despite criticism of the anti-migrant policy by public health experts and more anemically by the political opposition, for the remaining months of 2020 India seemed to evade the pandemic mass death that marked the situation in much of Europe, Latin America, and the United States.  The state regime of enforced immobility (for the vertical and horizontal janata) or mobility (for the migrant) appeared to have worked. A celebratory ethos dominated state media and carried over to mainstream journalism, until the devastating emergence of a second wave dominated by the deadlier Delta variant.

For several abysmal months, the state was seemingly unable to provide access to minimal respiratory care, and its claims to preparedness centered on software enabling self-surveillance, to which this essay now turns. What would emerge, over successive months as software replaced noise as dominant state enchantment and reason, was the carving out of exclusionary zones in which the horizontal janata became migrant-like, horrible, in effect species of life that could be abandoned.

A Better Mousetrap

Around the time of the Janata Thank You, Indians were encouraged by the ubiquitous figure of the prime minister, who appeared across the platforms constitutive of civic life urging citizens to download a free app called Corona Kavach, or “Corona protective shield.” Corona Kavach was developed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. One was expected to upload one’s covid status, and the app would then track the user in relation to other users.

This “shield” was quickly and quietly discontinued and replaced by a second app, named Aarogya Setu (“Bridge to Health,” literally to “Non-Disease”), more intensively publicized by the Modi-image in its hailing of proper citizens. In speaking of the “Modi-image” as the source of the hail, I refer to the ubiquity since 2014 of the visual figure of the prime minister’s body indexing every right, service, and demand of the Indian state in relation to its presumptive citizenry: in print and electronic media and across urban and rural landscapes.  I treat the image as not merely effect but actant.

Aarogya Setu was indeed a bridge in a way the shield it replaced was not: if Corona Kavach depended on the self-reporting of one’s infection status, Aarogya Setu linked its user to the official database of the latest infection status of all Indian residents who had been tested. It could assess which users had tested positive for COVID-19, independent of self-report. The intimacy called forth by Aarogya Setu was thus not confessional, not one where those who tested positive for an infection were expected to remember, list, and then reach out to all those with whom they had had close contact—however closeness is defined for the infectious situation in question.

Imagine the intimate demands—the expectations for and limits of contact tracing—after one tests positive for a sexually transmitted disease, say HIV,  for which a range of inter-corporeal gestures may transmit infection. Now imagine the COVID-19 situation as you have learned to live with it. COVID-19 extends and amplifies the sphere of intimacy: for example, to all individuals within a spatial range with whom one has spent a given amount of time indoors. The office suite, the apartment or hostel room, the classroom, the clinic, the vehicle, or the restaurant become sites of intimate danger. This amplification extends the scale of stranger sociality far beyond the network and memory of lovers, and the biopolitical state may attempt to amplify the machinery by which intimacy is felt and reckoned.

Aarogya Setu monitors the positions of all its users and alerts them when they are near other users who it presumes to be positive for COVID-19 infection from their status within a database. One can argue its rationality is necessary for the exception that is the coronavirus pandemic. One can argue that its rationality is founded on a refusal of the stranger sociality constitutive (if variably) of the experience of modern urbanism and its ethics.

Like other utopian state claims on big data, Aarogya Setu engendered both popularity and critique. Like the national biometric ID called Aadhaar, the potential mass scale of its database was isomorphic with the nation and appeared impervious to the aggressions of more localized bureaucratic encounters. (See my articles “The Nation, De-Duplicated” and “The Social De-Duplicated.”) For the arguable majority of Indians who were attached to the charismatic beneficence and forceful instrumentality of the Modi image, an image interwoven with each distributive and disciplinary scheme of the state, Aarogya Setu extended the affective condition of prime ministerial care: users could imagine themselves wrapped up in Modi’s burly arms in something like a Winnicottian holding environment. MeitY publicity, amplified through the anodyne apparatus of contemporary news media, broadcast the app’s unprecedented popularity: Aarogya Setu had more users than Pokémon GO.

Serious critique emerged as quickly, if under the cordon sanitaire delimiting elite Anglophone alternative media and academic writing. Its template largely followed both the legal and evidentiary lines of analysis that had emerged in challenging other big data regimes and most notably Aadhaar. Thus:

  • Those without the app, including those on the economic margins who lacked a smart phone, were being excluded from livelihood and mobility, as well as the presumptive utility of contact tracing, intensifying existing hierarchies of access and of care.
  • Despite such exclusion, Aarogya Setu was quickly becoming a de facto requirement for livelihood and the exercise of rights even though MeitY and other arms of the state lacked legal authority for its imposition.
  • Aarogya Setu violated a presumptive right to privacy, of particular concern given the authoritarian bent of the prime minister and his party.
  • The app was a poor substitute for traditional contact tracing involving a public health workforce operating at far smaller geospatial scales.
  • The app was inaccessible to individuals with a range of disabilities.
  • The app’s performance was mediocre given multiple bugs in its design; addressing these was hampered by secrecy clouding its authorship and its code.

These criticisms—and there are multiple others—were well-founded. MeitY responded to the last of these points of critique, if ignoring most others: national “Bug Bounty” de-bugging contests to improve Aarogya Setu, in the spirit of the technical know-how and jugaad (improvisation or bricolage) of the so-called common man, were promoted.  These contests emerged together with an archive of complaint, across the internet, chronicles of app failure in support of a better fix.


One complaint in particular provokes my reflections here: a comment by a friend who noted that the satellite positioning of the app labelled inhabitants and visitors dispersed across many floors of his multi-story apartment building as being dangerously close. It was as if all of the levels of the building were superimposed, collapsing into a single proximate field. The app triggered an alarm and the threat of confinement because it registered that residents were not isolating, when in fact the residents were simply on different floors of the building. Stories of these glitches got picked up by elite progressive media, as in the case of a Delhi-based man who thought a repair technician triggered Aarogya Setu’s warning (and subsequent demands from unnamed “local civic authorities” that he self-isolate), when it turned out to be a neighbor on a different floor.

The complaint—in which the massive apparatus of state control fails in its precision targeting—echoes the constitutive failures of twenty-first century securitization from anti-terror operations to drone warfare. And it strikingly mirrors and inverts the widely circulated aesthetics of the Janata Thank You, the constitution of “the people” set against migrant and stranger.

One might read the varied failures of Aarogya Setu in a doubled way. Aligning ourselves with a significant body of critical work in the wake of Michel Foucault, we may attend to the ways security rationalities produce a distinction between the population to be cared for and that supplement to be abandoned. Indeed, one of the effects of the uncertainty the app generates for those who lack the proper phones, bandwidths, and embodied and linguistic capital to negotiate it is the wholesale (and entirely illegal) banning of those without Aarogya Setu from residential and office complexes where they work or need to go for services. The category of the dangerous quickly expands to encompass the informal and marginal, the horizontal janata. At the same time, one can draw on a no less robust set of claims that the Indian state is not, as a rule, invested in the life or health of even its more formally, civilly constituted populations, and here the inequities amplified by the failures of pandemic preparedness suggest less a polity axiomatically split between cared-for and abandoned populations, between a biopolitics and a thanatopolitics, than something else. After Veena Das, inquiry may demand more localized attention to diverse and shifting conditions under which claims to the city, to liveability, and to health are made and variably fail, than the dominant critique of digital governance allows.

Empirically, displaced as I am from familiar modes of work on the margins of verticality by my own habitation of pandemic affect, I have yet to give myself over to the intimacies of research and these brief words can only stand in for a practice of localized inquiry. Yet I am caught by the condition of superimposition within this formerly contested, now hegemonic regime of India-as-database. To be sure, Aarogya Setu marks yet another failure of the hyped-up promises of government through the engineering of datified subjects. Here the failure is of the promise of datafication as the ground of biological citizenship, of the promise by the Modi-image to protect the janata from being given over to its death.  Far from unifying India as the Janata Thank You seemed to do, the app extended an emerging abyss between those the reigning party deems to belong to a properly settled India and those it does not, bringing what I am calling the horizontal janata, the informalized urban poor, under the condition of abandonment already demanded of both Muslim and migrant subjects.

But Aarogya Setu’s failure gestures as well to something else. If we take user complaints of superimposed spaces of threat and safety seriously, we note that infelicities in the app’s design prevented it from accounting for the very massed verticality of urban life that the mega-aarti of the Janata Thank You would hail and affectively exploit as the condition for properly immobile, settled, vertical, and inevitably Hindu citizenship. (An aarti is a frequent element of Hindu worship in which light, usually from flame, is offered to the deity, usually accompanied by noise-making, song, and in particular the use of the metallic clamor of bells. In several renowned tirthas, sites of sanctity adjoining bodies of water, aarti has in the twenty-first century become an amplified spectacle of light and sound, and it is this amplification that is in effect cited in the Modi-image’s call for a nationwide joyful noise.)  Oddly enough, the tracing app flattened the spatial order back into horizontality, engendering through superimposition at least a temporary limit to the state’s regime of spatial specification and exclusion. The uniqueness of vertical habitation collapses, every room on a vertical axis the same or rather a duplicate of every other. One’s fellow human twenty-six floors below on the footpath or trying without the right software to get into the high-rise to go to work appears on the app screen as a familiar, as no further than one’s adjoining bedroom, a technical situation pulling presumptively unique individuals within the policed density of vertical India into unexpectedly intimate congress and duplicated identity.


Cover image: Ashwin Prasath, Chennai family on apartment balcony making pandemic noise. New India Express, (PTI 2020).

Lawrence Cohen

Lawrence Cohen is professor of anthropology, UC Berkeley, and is the author of No Aging in India, on Alzheimer's disease and the cultural politics of bodily degeneration and senility. His recent work engages biometric identification and surveillance capitalism in India, focusing on the technical apparatus of what is termed de-duplication in the economy and control of subjects of data.