Achche Din and the Aadhaar con

Last Updated: Tue, Mar 28, 2017 11:31 hrs
Making a document such as the Aadhar card would deprive the citizenry of their privacy something already in short supply in a country like India.

Back when the idea for the Aadhaar card was first mooted, as the Unique Identification project by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2009, the Bharatiya Janata Party called it a violation of privacy.

Nandan Nilekani made the case that this was an entirely voluntary project, where citizens in good faith would surrender their demographic and biometric data to the government, because, why not?

Having fought against the Aadhaar when the first version of the Bill (National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010) was floated, the BJP – now that it is in power – is coming up with ways to enforce the card and preclude all options for debate.

With the deviousness that has characterised most of its moves since 2014, from demonetisation to forming government in various states, it has introduced the Aadhaar (Target Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, as a Money Bill.

Having first promised not to implement Aadhaar, and then promised that it was not compulsory, and then tried to fight a Supreme Court order that said no service could be denied on account of the applicant not having Aadhaar, the government has not just circumvented the judiciary by bringing in a Bill, but ensured that it will become an Act by calling it a ‘Money Bill’, which does not need the approval of the Rajya Sabha, where the Opposition is in majority.

How can one make the argument that the Aadhaar Bill is a Money Bill, which relates primarily to taxation and government funds? By that argument, if I were happy to do without welfare subsidies, I should be able to do without an Aadhaar card. Instead, I stand to have my PAN card cancelled unless I enrol for an Aadhaar card. Why can’t someone’s entitlement to subsidies be checked with a combination of PAN card and ration card? The other reason being offered is that the Aadhaar card would prevent identity fraud.

This argument doesn’t really hold water. It follows the same pattern of reasoning most of this government’s surprise announcements do – demonetisation was first to catch out hoarders of black money, and then to stop counterfeiting of notes, and then to promote Digital India. Why does the government need our biometric data to prevent identity fraud? Even if we were to ignore the irony of the about-turn by the BJP over the Aadhaar, how can we ignore the fact that it is subverting democracy and law to suit its will?

The current version of the Bill, which is not up for debate, does not take into consideration any of the recommendations given by the Justice Shah Committee on Privacy in 2012, which examined the 2010 version of the Bill, which has now been withdrawn.

The Aadhaar card is frightening because of all the information it collects – other than the details in our passports and driving licences and birth certificates (name, date of birth, gender, residential address and so on), it requires biometric data which includes a scan of fingerprints and irises. Section 8 of the Aadhaar Act mandates that the government must be informed if either the demographic or biometric data changes. There is no limit on what other information the government will be entitled to demand. We will not be allowed any say on the changes that stand to be made to demand more information.

There is no limit on what aspects of our lives are open to surveillance. There is no clarity on the powers that the private entities which have access to our Aadhaar numbers will have. If one were to open an account with a private bank, or engage the services of a telecom company, or switch jobs, what data about one becomes available to the bank or service provider or employer? The card cannot be surrendered. No other proof of identity is compulsory in itself – not the ration card, electoral identity, passport, driving licence, or even PAN card.

Why is the government seeking to put us all into a single database with so much information on each of us? And why is it doing it through such disingenuous methods? The Bill seeks to open us up to state surveillance – and perhaps private surveillance too – without telling us which authority will handle cases of violation of privacy. In a country with barely any safeguards against misuse of information, this is alarming.

At a time when people’s Facebook posts and tweets have them harassed to the extent of needing police protection, what could a database with such intimate details do for us? Despite the Supreme Court order of March 2014, people are already being asked for Aadhaar cards to open bank accounts, invest in mutual funds, and register marriages – flagrant violations of the apex court’s judgment.

The Aadhaar Act would make it mandatory to have an Aadhaar card to do anything – get an education, get a job, get a seat on a train or flight or bus. For each one of these, one had options – we needed one, or a combination of two, proofs of identity. Now, we won’t have a choice. What is even more worrying than this one identity to rule them all is that no government will ever be opposed to it – it has too much power, quite like Tolkien’s ring

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.