Over to Supreme Court

On April 11, 2017, the Aadhaar debate entered Parliament and, for what appeared to be the first time in a long time, the Opposition took to the floor and rallied for the people of India. Members from across party lines got engaged in a heated discussion on the pitfalls of the Aadhaar (Unique Identification or UID) project. The hard facts presented and the damning indictment of the project were shrugged off by Minister for Information Technology Ravishankar Prasad, like water off a duck’s back.

Concerns raised included the verification of the UID database, UID being mandatory for welfare entitlements, privacy concerns, the legality of, and liability relating to the project. The UID project has multiple weaknesses. Aadhaar was marketed as being a foolproof ID based on biometrics, what is discussed less is that no physical verification is carried out by any authority of any documents submitted at the time of enrolment. Thus you have incidents of Pakistani spies, the god Hanuman, and coriander plants getting Aadhaar numbers.

Before the Aadhaar Act was passed in 2016, over 100 crore people had been enrolled without any form of verification being carried out. Rajeev Chandrashekhar, MP, asked about verification and pointed out that the only time the database was scrutinised was by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance which concluded that the UID database was ineffective even for directing subsidies. He reminded us that the RS Leader of the House conceded that privacy is a fundamental right, even without the Supreme Court saying so.

The IT minister’s response to concerns of privacy and surveillance was that the UID database was a “marvel of technology” and could not be breached. Who knows whether the UID database can be breached? Even the Pentagon was breached. What we have, without speculation, are instances of third parties, including government agencies, leaking vast amounts of data online.

Assurances aside, the minister failed to answer Trinamool MP Derek O’Brien’s concern on the leak of the information of 14 lakh minors. O’Brien pointed out that there was no regulation on third parties with access to the UID database. The UIDAI itself blacklisted 34,000 operators since 2010 for “polluting” the database. On April 19, 2017, UIDAI filed FIRs against eight websites for illegally collecting Aadhaar numbers and enrolment details from people.

Incredibly, Section 47 (1) of the Aadhaar Act, 2016 states that, “No court shall take cognisance of any offence punishable under this Act, save on a complaint made by the Authority or any officer or person authorised by it.” Thus, only the UIDAI and no one else can complain of offences under the Act. When asked who would be accountable for Aadhaar failures, the IT minister responded “Aadhaar works under the IT ministry, I am accountable to parliament and they (UIDAI) are accountable to the parliament through us.” 

Several MPs discussed exclusion caused by the linking of Aadhaar to welfare entitlements. Congress MP Jairam Ramesh cited the example of Rajasthan where seven lakh pensioners were removed from the list of beneficiaries after Aadhaar linking. Eminent lawyer and parliamentarian K T S Tulsi said that he had never seen as poor statutory framing in his life as in the Aadhaar Act. The CPI’s D Raja was concerned about denial of en­titlements due to various failures of Aadhaar.

In the public distribution system, the exclusion rate in Rajasthan was 25%, according to government figures. That is, 25 lakh people had not got rations since Aadhaar-based biometric authentication was made mandatory. In Bhim block, (Rajsamand district) almost 1,500 out of 3,000 elderly whose names were cut after being declared “dead” or “duplicates”, were found to be alive and were restored to their pensions. The IT minister claim­ed that Aadhaar led to savings. He quoted figures that have been repeatedly debunked, including by the CAG. He called the CAG report “judgemental” and cited the World Bank and UNDP reports in support of the project. The World Bank’s figures have also been rebutted.

The World Development Report 2016 states, “This (LPG) is just one of many subsidy programmes in India that are being converted to direct transfers using digital ID, potentially saving over US$11 billion per year in government expenditures through reduced leakage and efficiency gains.”

Hollow promises?

In fact, the source of this $11 billion estimates states that “The value of these transfers (NREGA, pensions etc) is estimated to be Rs 70,000 crore ($11.3 billion) per annum." Thus, for the World Bank, ‘potential savings’ refers to the entire social welfare budget.

Promises made to the people on the floor of the House are worth as much as cobwebs and moonshine when the minister can boldly stand and state: “I want to make it very clear on behalf of the government that no poor shall be denied his subsidy rights at all…we are only saying, you also come on Aadhaar. But no denial shall be there.”

What is the minister’s word worth? No notification making possession of an Aadhaar number mandatory for any service has been withdrawn so far. What we have instead are deadlines for enrolment and the poor being denied their entitlements. The minister made many claims, including stating that the Aadhaar database will not be linked to the intelligence database of the NATGRID. But again, there is no law to stop this, and no notification, nothing more than the minister’s word.

No concrete steps or plans to keep Aadhaar truly voluntary have been made or given. The mad dash for Aadhaar continues as pensioners, ration cardholders and NREGA workers are pushed further into destitution and vulnerability, as our national security is made vulnerable, and we are left to the mercy of an all-seeing surveillance state.

The Supreme Court must intervene. Until then we are told to just believe the words of the minister for IT that “the Aadhaar is robust. Aadhaar is safe. Aadhaar is secure, and totally accountable.”

(The writer is with Rethink Aadhaar Campaign)

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