Pratap Vikram Singh
It was no less than a roller-coaster ride for Aadhaar, a programme formulated by the UPA government to assign a 12-digit unique number to every Indian resident. From the time it came into being in 2009, Aadhaar drew a volley of criticism, thanks to the misgivings and apprehensions that various critics and civil society organisations had. It was criticised for lack of a clear purpose, degree of effectiveness and absence of a privacy law and was virtually thrown into the bin by a parliamentary panel headed by BJP’s Yashwant Sinha in December 2011.
When the finance minister Arun Jaitley, in his budget speech, announced that the government would introduce the Aadhaar bill during the budget session, expectations were already set high. The bill, giving statutory backing to the unique identification authority of India (UIDAI), the implementing authority, was passed by the Lok Sabha on March 11.
While the privacy and voluntary versus mandatory provisions are under the consideration of the Supreme Court, the bill makes way for linking Aadhaar with all government subsidies, benefits and services. The law on Aadhaar, former UIIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani wrote in the Indian Express, will help the government in going paperless, presence-less and cashless. The legislation, however, fails to deliver on several counts.
However, prior to evaluating the bill (yet to be passed by the Rajya Sabha at the time of this writing though it is a money bill), let us take a look at its major aspects. For those, who always wondered whether Aadhaar is mandatory or voluntary, the bill 2016 makes it mandatory to avail subsidy, benefit or a service from the government.
The bill has provisions related to information security and confidentiality (section 28) which not only extend to employees of the UIDAI but also consultants and external agencies working with the authority. The proposed law restricts information sharing. It bars UIDAI from sharing core biometric information – the bill defines it as fingerprints and iris scan – with “anyone for any reason whatsoever” or “used for any purpose other than generation of Aadhaar numbers and authentication under this Act”.
The section 32 of the bill entitles Aadhaar number holders to access her or his authentication record. It also bars the authority from collecting, keeping or maintaining information about the purpose of authentication. While the intent is clear and is aimed at streamlining welfare schemes to ensure it reaches the bottom of the pyramid, cutting through the long chain of pilferage and subversion, the bill, however, has several shortcomings.
To begin with, the government should not have taken the money bill route to pass the legislation – tactfully avoiding any conclusive discussion and debate in the Rajya Sabha, where it is in minority. The bill assumes that the technology and the biometric system used by the UIDAI are flawless and it doesn’t provide any recourse in case of denial of a service.
“If your fingerprint is not matching and you lose out on service, then what is the alternative mechanism you have,” asks Sumandro Chattapadhyay, research director, centre for internet and society (CIS). The bill doesn’t provide for recourse. “What if the scanning machine fails? What if the identifiers of two people match?”
Based on experiments conducted in the initial days of the Aadhaar programme, Hans Verghese Mathews, another CIS researcher, did a study on the probability of matching of identifiers of two persons. “For the current population of 1.2 billion the expected proportion of duplicands (users whose identifiers match) is 1/121, a ratio which is far too high,” Mathews wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly in February.
“It is like putting the technology in a black box – which can’t be reviewed,” says Chattapadhyay. The bill doesn’t talk about setting up an independent body to review the logs and keep an eye on wrong and duplicate matches. According to public policy experts, it is an attempt to seek “minimal legitimacy” from parliament and further adds to the unbridled power of the executive.
Although the bill restricts information sharing in section 29, sections 33 and 48 provide exemption in cases of national security and public emergency, respectively. The legislation, nevertheless, doesn’t elaborate on what constitutes national security and public emergency, leaving it to the executives. The section 33 reads: “Nothing contained in… shall apply in respect of any disclosure of information, including identity information or authentication records, made in interest of national security….”
Similarly, section 48 states that if, at any time, the central government is of the opinion that a public emergency exists, “central government may, by notification, supersede the Authority for such period, not exceeding six months, as may be specified in notification and appoint a person or persons as the president may direct to exercise powers and discharge functions under this Act”.
Says Jayati Ghosh, professor, centre for economic studies and planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, “National security is a very opaque term. Who decides what national security is? Today, the whole JNU is being projected as a threat to national security.”
Swagato Sarkar, associate professor and executive director, Jindal school of government and public policy, OP Jindal Global University, says, “The bill has provisions for oversight on the use of Aadhaar, but then it suspends those provisions in case of emergency in the later sections, giving the state the power to use biometric information for whatever it deems fit.”
Sarkar adds, “It seems the bill is simply an instrument for seeking minimum legitimacy from parliament. The bill tries to address the concern of privacy minimally and it hardly serves any purpose.” He believes that there is a need to define the broader contours of democratic control of the state and reassess the changing state-citizen relationship, instead of rejecting whole idea on the basis of surveillance and privacy. In other words, there is need for strong parliamentary oversight, and that the Aadhaar related matters shouldn’t be completely delegated to the executive.
In its recommendations on formulating Privacy Act, the justice AP Shah Committee in 2012 provided for establishing the office of privacy commissioner at the regional and central levels, defining the role of self-regulating organisations and co-regulation, and creating a system of complaints and redressal for aggrieved individuals.
Since the country still doesn’t have any legislation on privacy, people are left on their own in case of an infringement or violation of privacy. Moreover, section 47 states, “No court shall take cognizance of any offence punishable under this Act, save on a complaint made by the Authority or any officer or person authorised by it.”
In its report, the parliamentary committee headed by Yashwant Sinha notes that “enactment of national data protection law… is a prerequisite for any law that deals with large scale collection of information from individuals and its linkages across separate databases”. The committee notes that in absence of data protection legislation, it would be difficult to deal with issues of access, misuse of personal information, surveillance, profiling, linking and matching of databases and securing confidentiality of information.
The Sinha committee also takes a cautious view of the role of Aadhaar in curbing leakages in subsidy distribution, as beneficiary identification is done by states. It notes, “Even if the Aadhaar number links entitlements to targeted beneficiaries, it may not even ensure that beneficiaries have been correctly identified. Thus, the present problem of proper identification would persist.”
According to Ghosh, the biggest danger in using Aadhaar for social welfare programmes is that the fingerprints of the rural working class is not always in good shape and hence Aadhaar will not be the best way of identification. “If I am misidentified, I can go to so many places for recourse. But what if a labourer in a remote Jharkhand village is misidentified? Where and whether he would go?” the economist asks.
Besides, the bill doesn’t limit the use of Aadhaar and defines areas where it can be used. Section 57 says that the law will not prevent the use of Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual for any purpose, “whether by the state or anybody corporate or person, pursuant to any law, for the time being in force or any contract to this effect.”
According to a PRS Legislative review, since the bill also allows private persons to use Aadhaar as a proof of identity for any purpose, the provision will open a floodgate and enable private entities such as airlines, telecom, insurance and real estate companies to mandate Aadhaar as a proof of identity for availing their services.
Since the bill doesn’t restrict its application, people will not have a choice to identify themselves other than using Aadhaar when corporate organisations make it mandatory, says Chattapadhyay of the CIS. Adds Sarkar, “The bill should clearly mention sectors or services where Aadhaar will be potentially used (or made mandatory). Every time a new sector or service is added to the list, it is done after parliamentary approval.” So far, 98 crore people have been assigned Aadhaar number. So far the project has costed Rs 8,000 crore.