UID is about data for surveillance, profit, not serving citizens
The Unique Identity (UID or Aadhaar) project lost its innocent appeal a long time ago. It is now no secret that it is not about giving the poor an identity, it is not voluntary, it is coercive, and it is brazenly unmindful of the law, court orders and public opinion. Anyone worried about being on the UID database, or not wanting to link their number to any service, or those unable to enrol or link their number, is punished. "Why would we not follow directions that ask us to place our number everywhere, unless we are corrupt? or laundering money? or evading tax? or are terrorists?" we are asked. If we are none of the above and yet we do not put our numbers in, then we must be ghosts, fakes or duplicates, it is implied.
Three occasions mark the descent into public dismay. The first was when the Attorney General claimed in court that the people of this country do not have a right to privacy. Why would the government deny what has become a part of our fundamental rights jurisprudence, and why in this case? After all, they were saying quite the opposite at the same time in another case where the criminal law of defamation was under challenge.
Why did people have to explain why they valued the right to privacy, instead of the government being asked to justify why it wanted to erase this right? A nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court has set this question at rest, recognising privacy as an inherent right that is neither given nor can be taken away. It is now akin to the right to life and personal liberty. Yet, the government, and even the court, continue to act as if the privacy judgement does not exist!
The second was when, around February this year, the government began to issue scores of notifications that made Aadhaar mandatory for all manner of things. Midday meal, disability assistance, rehabilitation of persons getting out of manual scavenging, Bhopal gas victims, 'rescued' womenâ€¦and over a hundred such situations! And then, it reached income tax returns and the PAN card. By now, criminality had begun to be attributed to all of us; and so, we needed to be checked and kept under watch. This demeaning treatment of citizens has now become the norm.
The third occasion was when people started dying because they could not get their rations, and they had nothing to eat. The problems had begun a while ago, but it did not reach public notice till an 11-year-old died in Jharkhand. The family had the UID number, but they had been unable to link it with the ration card.
In April this year, the Jharkhand chief secretary had issued instructions that ration cards which did not have Aadhaar number linked to it would be ineligible for rations. The state prided itself on having struck off 11.5 million ration cards, and so having saved money by getting rid of ghosts, fakes and duplicates from the list â€“ that phrase again! Santoshi Kumari, the 11-year-old, had become one, and fallen off the radar.
There is tragic-irony that a project that was supposed to give identity had actually taken it away, resulting in death due to poverty and exclusion. Since then, more episodes of exclusion, deprivation and death have been reported from Jharkhand and Gokarna in Karnataka. On December 1, 2017, Premani Kunwar "died of hunger and exhaustion", as a fact-finding team of the Right to Food Campaign reports. Her pension went into another's account, she was denied rations in August and November, and the government's response is again one of denial. How many people have to die before the failure of the UID system is acknowledged?
The court seems to have lost the plot on why earlier benches said there was urgency in having the case heard. In February 2017, a two-judge bench hearing another matter where no UID petitioner was present, allowed the government to use the UID to verify mobile connections -- and the government misrepresents this as an order from the court to use the UID for verification. In June, another two-judge bench upheld the IT-PAN linkage and left issues of life and liberty to be decided later. And the main case is still awaiting adjudication. These are strange times. Plainly, the court needs to recover institutional memory, and to hear what the petitioners have to say.
The passage of the Aadhaar Act as a Money Bill, deliberately to forestall debate, itself has to be tested for its constitutionality, and for what it means for the relevance of Parliament. The law has provisions that, for instance, give the authority to the UIDAI to 'disable' or 'omit' any number â€“ a process capable of causing civil death.
What besides privacy is the problem? Biometrics is untested technology, and it is failing the people. The government's own Economic Survey cites failure rates of 49% in Jharkhand, 37% in Rajasthan. Government databases echo these figures. Indeed, the UIDAI itself felt the need to set up a Biometric Centre of Competence in 2015 to conduct 'research' to try and make biometrics work. But under attack on biometrics, the government denies that such a centre even exists!
Moreover, companies such as L1 Identity, Safran and Accenture, which are biometric service providers for Aadhaar, have relationships with, and are conduits for data to, America's CIA and Homeland Security Department and the French government. These relationships have clearly been exposed, not least by WikiLeaks. Any sovereign government and any sovereign people should be worried about this, but apparently the Indian government isn't bothered.
Early concerns about Aadhaar were over the creation of a "surveillance state", buwwwwt that has now extended to the emergence of a whole "surveillance society", where the state mandates all manner of agencies, public and private (such as banks and mobile phone companies) to collect, keep and transmit information about people on its behalf; and authorises them â€“ illegally, of course â€“ to punish those who do not comply. Mobile phones can be disconnected, bank accounts frozen.
Nandan Nilekani, the 'architect' of Aadhaar, has explained the business interest in this project. He calls it `trickle up'.
Many in this country have little wealth, but they have something that businesses want â€“ data. This is about data for profit. We stop being citizens, or even subjects, but become data. That, and control through surveillance, is what Aadhaar is about.
(The writer is lawyer and activist)