Mandatory Aadhaar : Arm-twisting Republic

The government's push to make Aadhar mandatory should frighten everyone. It is an Orwellian nightmare coming true

Nikhil Thiyyar Delhi

The Union Government seems to suffer from a basic lack of understanding of what the word optional means. At least that's what the Apex Court implied while hearing a public interest litigation that challenges the government’s move to amend the Income Tax Act through the Finance Act, 2017. The Supreme Court was categorical in its reprimand of the government's machinations when it said,"“How can you make Aadhaar card mandatory when we have passed an order to make it optional?" What must be noted here is that the Supreme Court's consternation has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. Not only has the government flouted the SC's instructions, it has defiantly gone in the opposite direction. 

In the light of the government's push to make the UIDAI system mandatory perhaps the more pertinent questions to ask regarding the Aadhar Bill are: does it provide enough privacy safeguards and does it ensure access to public services? The answer to the first question is an outright no. In defending the Aadhar Bill, the Attorney General (supposedly a public representative) has argued that we the citizens of India essentially have no right to privacy. This is adding insult to injury. The bill was passed with no public consultation of what privacy safeguards to implement and has no built in safeguard for public or independent oversight. The Aadhar database is a disaster waiting to happen. A single breach could mean that sensitive data of millions of our citizens could be compromised in one stroke. In what can only be an eerie sign of things to come, FIRs were filed against eight websites for illegally collecting Aadhar data. As if this was not enough, the Aadhar bill gives law enforcement officials access to the database in matters of national security. In the guise of strengthening our public distribution systems, the government is pushing us towards becoming a surveillance state. It will be child's play for any intelligence agency to track anyone they want to for any whimsical reason. The Report on surveillance in India by the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) found that on average, the Central government alone taps more than 1 lakh phone calls a year, with around 7500-9000 phone interception orders being issued by it monthly. Combining this with requests from the state governments, the report concluded that, Indian citizens are routinely and discreetly subjected to government surveillance on a truly staggering scale. With Aadhar becoming mandatory this situation is set to degrade into a bottomless abyss where privacy becomes an urban legend. 

The exclusionary aspect of Aadhar has been commented upon multiple times. Nevertheless, it is a fact that needs to be reiterated once more: the Aadhar card is actually a tool to deprive our poorest and most vulnerable citizens of access to public services. There was the tragicomic example of a village in Jharkhand where in order to achieve 100 percent seeding of Aadhar for MNREGA beneficiaries, the village panchayat simply struck off all the names from the rolls. If there were no beneficiaries, no card required either. Aadhaar authentication requires not only internet connectivity but also biometrics and mobiles to work at the same time. In many villages of our country, not a single one of these technologies can be relied upon. Almost a year after Rajasthan introduced it, only 45 percent ration card holders used Aadhaar at ration shops. Biometric machines failed to authenticate about 10 to 15 percent of the drought-hit state’s one crore ration beneficiaries. 10 to 15 lakh people went without essential food grains because the much-hyped system went kaput. 

The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016, as the name suggests, aims at targeted delivery of subsidies. The government has issued close to 22 notifications making Aadhaar mandatory for the receipt of a range of services, ranging from the Mid-Day Meal scheme to maternity benefits. The Aadhaar number is likely to become a pre-requisite for filing income tax returns and applying for a PAN card. Any marginalised member of our society who doesn't have an Aadhar number can say goodbye to a host of public services that are critical to his/ her survival. Like a Kafka-esque novel where a lunatic bureaucracy keeps devouring itself, the Aadhar card is a classic case of good intentions gone horribly wrong. Making it mandatory would only make matters worse.