The first half of the budget session closed with the passage of the Aadhar (Target Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill on Wednesday. With only the President’s assent required, the ambitious project will now receive statutory backing. To the uninitiated, the Aadhar project seeks to provide unique identification numbers to each individual and in the process collect demographic and biometric information. Money distributed through government subsidies and benefits will go into the bank or post-office accounts of beneficiaries linked to the 12-digit biometric identity number provided by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Presented as a money bill before Parliament, it required no assent from the Rajya Sabha. With the numbers on its side in the Lok Sabha, the National Democratic Alliance government disregarded some of the important amendments suggested by the Rajya Sabha and passed the Bill. Even though this newspaper has been critical of the government’s Unique Identification System (UID), there is little doubt that if implemented with proper safeguards, the Aadhar Bill could become one of the most progressive pieces of socio-economic legislation in the country’s history. Votaries of the system often argue that the technology used could stem political and bureaucratic corruption in the delivery of social schemes through direct income transfers. Much of the excitement surrounding the Aadhar card has to do with these intended benefits. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley argued that it could save the government thousands of crores by plugging leakages and targeting those individuals most in need of benefits and subsidies. However, these claims have been questioned by experts on the ground, who have extensively studied the dynamics of government benefits and subsidies. “Wild claims are being made about Aadhaar’s power to plug leakages. In reality, Aadhaar can only help to plug specific types of leakages, such as those related to duplication in beneficiary lists. It will be virtually useless to plug leakages in, say, the Public Distribution System (PDS), which have little to do with identity fraud. On the other hand, recent experience has shown that Aadhaar could easily play havoc with the PDS. Wherever Aadhaar authentication has been imposed on the PDS, there have been complaints of delays, authentication failures, connectivity problems, and more. The poorer States, where the PDS is most needed, are least prepared for this sort of technology,” argued Jean Dreze, an eminent development economist. With such divergent views on the subject, many were disappointed with the government’s refusal to take on board important amendments suggested by the opposition.
Section 7 of the Bill makes proof of Aadhar necessary for “receipt of certain subsidies, benefits and services”, even though the Supreme Court ruled that it cannot be made mandatory. Suffice to say, there was some consternation among opposition members of the Rajya Sabha. Congress MP Jairam Ramesh moved an amendment, asking the government to make it optional so that subsidies can be accessed even without the unique identity number. In fact, a committee of experts on privacy, chaired by Justice AP Shah, had recommended that individuals should have the choice to opt-in or out of providing their Aadhaar number, and a service should not be denied to individuals who do not provide their number. As stated earlier, the apex court also said the same thing, when it passed a judgment against making Aadhar card mandatory. Such a recommendation does hold some water, according to experts. “For instance, MGNREGS functionaries have cancelled job cards on a large scale for the sake of achieving ‘100 per cent Aadhaar seeding’ of the job-card database,” argues Dreze. “MGNREGS workers have been offloaded by rural banks on Aadhaar-enabled ‘business correspondents’ who proved unable to pay them due to poor connectivity.” Imagine denying these workers access to subsidies and benefits for the want of an Aadhar card. Another key concern among critics is data protection for the massive amount of personal information collected by the government. Does the Bill allow Aadhaar authorities to share your personal data? In the interest of “national security”, the answer is a resounding yes. Legal experts have argued that the phrase “national security” remains undefined in the Bill. Therefore, the circumstances in which an individual’s information may be disclosed remains open to the government’s interpretation. Considering how willfully past and present governments have used the “anti-national” tag to target dissenters, it could set a dangerous precedent. However, the amendment suggested by the opposition in this regard was no better. Congress MP Jairam Ramesh sought an amendment, which would replace the phrase “national security” with “public emergency or in the interest of public safety”. Finance Minister Jaitley is right when he argued that this amendment may pose “dangerous consequences” as they gave wider powers to the government to share information.
In response to the criticism over the “national security” clause, Jaitley argued that the disclosure of information requests will be specially directed to a joint secretary-level government official. Every decision made will be reviewed by a committee headed by the cabinet secretary. “Nonetheless, without robust laws to protect their data, citizens would be rendered vulnerable,” an editorial in The Hindu argues. “It is not about just snooping. It is also being said that in order to be useful and effective, Aadhaar data might have to be used alongside other databases. That could trigger further privacy questions. There is little doubt that India needs to streamline the way it delivers benefits, and to empower citizens with a basic identification document. But this cannot be done without ensuring the strictest protection of privacy,” the editorial goes on to add. In this context, the government has indeed ridden roughshod over privacy concerns in allowing the wider use of a citizen’s personal Aadhar data by private bodies under clause 57 of the Bill. The opposition asked the government to completely drop the clause, but to no avail. The government’s urgency in passing the Aadhar Bill is understandable. But with inadequate safeguards for data protection, among other concerns, the government has avoided critical and detailed questions on the nature of the Bill.