On February 29, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced that the use of the biometric identity card, Aadhar, will be provided with statutory backing. Last Thursday, the Centre presented the Aadhar Bill. It is important to note that the Bill was introduced as a money bill in the Lok Sabha. This aspect will be dealt with later in the column. Even though this newspaper has been critical of the government’s Unique Identification System (UID), there is little doubt that if implemented in a robust manner, the Aadhar Bill could become one of the most progressive pieces of socio-economic legislation in the country’s history. Suffice to say, the UID system could play a major role in decreasing political and bureaucratic corruption in the delivery of social schemes through direct income transfers. Much of the excitement surrounding the unique identification card has to do with these intended benefits. Its use a tool against corruption stems from the technology involved. “A unique number linked to an individual’s biometrics means that no one else can pretend to be the person receiving benefits, and, therefore, cannot defraud him or her,” argues Nandan Nilekani, the former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India. “We have often heard about the truly deserving being defrauded of benefits such as pensions, or food rations when these were stolen or diverted by someone else pretending to be them.” Nilekani goes on to explain that such diversion will be difficult since the intended beneficiary can be verified using their biometric data, such as a fingerprint. “More importantly, what Aadhaar will do, as it has already done for LPG connections, is to provide bank transfers in the name of the woman head of household,” according to Surjit Bhalla, a renowned economist, who extolled the virtues of the Aadhar Bill in a recent column for Indian Express. “In his budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley stated the government has embarked upon ‘a massive mission to provide LPG connection in the name of women members of poor households’. This can now be used for other welfare payments (food subsidies, NREGA, etc).” Along these lines, it is easy to understand why the government sought statutory backing for Aadhar. Of course, there are unfinished debates on the robustness of such a system, primarily on the possible exclusion of intended beneficiaries and privacy.
Even the Centre’s recent Economic Survey has recommended that the government must establish a union of Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and Mobile numbers, in order to ensure the benefits of subsidies reach the intended beneficiaries. The survey points out that by December 2015 the total number of Aadhaar enrolments in the country is expected to exceed 1 billion and that linking an Aadhaar Number to an active bank account will be crucial in implementing direct income transfers to the poor while preventing leakages. But on the question of privacy, technology experts have argued that the government’s assurances that it would protect biometric data from State abuse are not enough. In its defence, the government argued that the biometric information of those enrolled under Aadhar will be protected under relevant provisions of the Information Technology Act. “While the government has said that the biometric information of those enrolled under Aadhaar will be safeguarded as per sections of the Information Technology Act, 2000, technology law experts say the adjudicatory system for disclosure of sensitive personal data under the IT Act has structural flaws and is not functional,” according to a recent article on the news website Scroll. Moreover, the Unique Identification Authority of India’s own “Biometrics Standards Committee” has noted that retaining biometric efficiency for a database which will possibly run into millions “has not been adequately analyzed”. And then there exists the practical reality of taking fingerprint scans from rural labourers, who have enrolled under MNREGA. The fingers of rural workers who work with their hands are prone to cuts and scars while working. Such fingerprints might not match once the finger has healed. This is not to say that linking MNREGA with the Aadhar card is a bad idea. The question is whether the government seeks to deprive its own citizens of a public benefit or service for the want of an Aadhar card. Critics have argued that Bill will do just that. “The Aadhaar project was sold to the public as a voluntary facility,” said developmental economist Jean Drèze, who has long argued against the government’s decision to make Aadhaar mandatory for MNREGA workers. “The Supreme Court sensibly ruled that this would preclude making Aadhaar compulsory for any basic services. The government has reappropriated that power under the Aadhaar Bill, ending the pretence that Aadhaar is voluntary.” To the uninitiated, from September 2013 to March 2015, the apex court passed three orders saying that the government cannot make Aadhaar mandatory. No one, it argued, should be deprived of a public benefit or service for not possessing an Aadhaar number. However, late last year, it allowed the voluntary use of Aadhaar in certain schemes, including MNREGA. For the record, the Centre challenged the order.
In passing the Aadhar Bill as a money bill, critics have argued that the government has circumvented the Supreme Court’s orders and avoided a series of crucial debates on the Bill. According to PRS Legislative Research, “a Bill is said to be a Money Bill if it only contains provisions related to taxation, borrowing of money by the government, expenditure from or receipt to the Consolidated Fund of India. Bills that only contain provisions that are incidental to these matters would also be regarded as Money Bills”. The government has argued for a money bill because of Aadhar’s fundamental role in the delivery of welfare subsidies. On the legislative front, the money bill is only presented in the Lok Sabha and requires no assent from the Rajya Sabha. With the Lok Sabha majority on its side, the NDA government will not be compelled to address some of the key concerns associated with Aadhar. Besides questioning the rationale of presenting the Aadhar Bill as a money bill, Lok Sabha MP Tathagata Satpathy of the Biju Janta Dal has argued that the government is setting “a dangerous precedent” in circumventing the Rajya Sabha. Admittedly, it is the government’s prerogative to present the bill, however, it deems fit. More importantly, the final decision about whether or not Aadhaar is a Money Bill rests with the Lok Sabha Speaker. But in the interest of the people who will be directly affected, the government must hold greater deliberations before it gives Aadhar the necessary statutory backing. As the above column shows, many points of criticism remain unaddressed.