Amidst all the analysis on the Union Budget, there was one significant announcement by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley that had gone a little under the radar. In his Budget speech on Monday, Jaitley declared that the government will offer statutory backing to the Aadhar Unique Identification (UID) scheme. “We will undertake significant reforms such as the enactment of a law to ensure that all government benefits are conferred upon persons who deserve it, by giving a statutory backing to the Aadhaar platform,” Jaitley said in his budget speech. “Public money should reach the poor and the deserving without any leakage.” Even though key concerns surrounding certain aspects of the UID scheme are under the scanner of the apex court, the Centre has sent out a clear signal that to be a beneficiary of any government scheme, you will need an Aadhar card. Suffice to say, the statutory backing will provide a legal foundation to Aadhaar for expanding its use for a range of developmental purposes.
Till date over 98 crore Aadhaar numbers have been generated. In order to propel the direct benefits transfer (DBT) scheme and the Jan Dhan Yojana forward, the Modi government has incorporated the UID scheme. In October 2015, after a long and protracted battle, the apex court allowed the use of Aadhar number for all state and central schemes, including the MGNREGA jobs programme and Jan Dhan Yojana, among others. The order had come as a source of relief for millions of poor beneficiaries, who had registered under the unique identification scheme of the Indian government. The interim order had put a hold on the disbursement of these funds.
The stated aim of the Aadhar scheme is to weed out fakes and duplicates and ensure that no eligible person suffers or is denied any benefit or service. Much of the excitement surrounding the unique identification card has to do with its intended benefits. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), “substantial benefits would accrue to the government by integrating Aadhaar with schemes such as PDS, MGNREGA, fertiliser and LPG subsidies, as well as housing, education and health programmes. The benefits arise from the reduction in leakages that occur due to identification and authentication issues”. Such a conclusion is entirely plausible. But the NIPFP study was criticised by many noted economists. According to its critics, Aadhaar-integration can resolve only certain types of leakages, for which reliable data is unavailable. The NIPFP authors do not deny this fact, claiming that they have been “elaborately careful in pointing out its limitations”, which includes not having adequate data.
Moreover, there is the question of exclusion. One only needs to look at the abuse of Below Poverty Line cards in India to understand the level of social exclusion involved in past identification systems. In its deliberations, the apex court said that no intended beneficiary should suffer for want of an Aadhar card. When the previous UPA government introduced Aadhar-based pilot projects across various districts to determine whether welfare services are delivered to the doorstep of the intended beneficiary, it ran into many problems. These include poor internet connectivity, bank technology up gradation, lack of data security, doubts over the integrity of banking correspondents deputed by the state government. Suffice to say, these problems have not disappeared under the current NDA government at the Centre.
In theory, a law to validate the UID scheme and bring it under a clear regulatory mechanism could allay the concerns raised by its critics. Besides the ones stated above, serious concerns remain about the possible abuse of the biometric data given by those who have enrolled. However, in practice may not make much of a difference. Although the NDA government seeks to allay these fears, greater deliberation is required on the subject. Moreover, questions of data abuse are being heard by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court. Therefore, speculation that the government could present the UID bill as a money bill in the Parliament is unfortunate.
To the uninitiated, a 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 the Aadhar bill. Admittedly, it is the government’s prerogative to present the bill however it deems fit. But in the interest of the people who will be directly affected by the law, once enacted, the government must hold greater deliberations before it gives Aadhar the required statutory backing it sorely needs. Many concerns remain unaddressed.