By Aashish Gupta, Praavita Kashyap and Reetika Khera
The Aadhaar project, to provide a unique number to all residents in India, was packaged as a welfare-enabling programme. It was sold as an initiative for greater inclusiveness in welfare, a tool against corruption, greater efficiency and so on. Six years down the line, there is mounting evidence of the destruction of welfare programmes due to Aadhaar-linkage. Moreover, the Aadhaar project has a sinister side to it – it is a surveillance-enabling programme, which threatens privacy and democratic practice. People have been lulled into believing that privacy is the price we have to pay for better implementation of welfare programmes. In fact, the Aadhaar project is endangering both – welfare as well as privacy.
The UIDAI claims that over a billion people have been enrolled into the system, several legal challenges to the project have been filed (but not heard for over a year), a law has been passed, but the interim orders of the Supreme Court that attempted to rein in the project still stand, but have been flouted with impunity. The Aadhaar project with all its fundamental weaknesses and dangerous effects, is steadily becoming a part of daily life for millions.
In order to create greater awareness on the worrying aspects of the Aadhaar project, pasted below are excerpts from articles which discuss each of these aspects: the propaganda on welfare, exclusion and disruption of welfare programmes due to Aadhaar, the legal concerns, surveillance-enabling aspects of the programme, as well as some indications of the commercial interests that might be behind it.
“Aadhaar was built on a techno-utopian foundation to plug leakages. It abridges the rights of citizens, and imposes severe hardships on the poor.” (Threats to Citizen’s Rights, Usha Ramanathan)
“The Aadhaar Bill, passed as a money bill, has uncertain benefits, and opens the door to mass surveillance. This danger needs to be seen in the light of recent attacks on the right to dissent.” (The Aadhaar Coup, Jean Drèze)
“In view of the afore-mentioned concerns and apprehensions about the UID scheme, particularly concerning the contradictions and ambiguities within the Government on its implementation as well as its implications, the [Standing] Committee categorically convey their unacceptability of the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 in its present form…The committee would, thus, urge the Government to reconsider and review the UID scheme as also the proposals contained in the Bill in all its ramifications and bring forth a fresh legislation before Parliament.” (And the UID juggernaut keeps rolling on, Reetika Khera)
Propaganda on welfare and savings
“UID cannot prevent exclusion errors. Other technologies, simpler, safer and cheaper than UID, can help reduce corruption and improve portability.” (UID: Does Evidence Matter?, Reetika Khera)
“Aadhaar was supposed to be a “game-changer” and improve the implementation of welfare programmes. Indeed, it is living up to its game-changing promise – except, it is doing this by wrecking welfare programmes.” (Yes, Aadhaar is a game changer in wrecking welfare, Reetika Khera)
“While the government painted a highly exaggerated picture of savings from the direct benefit transfers for LPG, the media played along with this portrayal.” (Big Media’s Take on Aadhaar-LPG Savings Saga Highlights Why We Can’t Trust It, Reetika Khera)
Exclusion and disruption of welfare programmes due to Aadhaar
“The UIDAI project had two important goals – provision of ID documents to everyone, and better inclusion into government programmes. While both goals are desirable, the experience so far tells a different story. On the first (providing ID documents to the ID-less), the project has achieved next to nothing so far (only 0.22 million out of nearly 830 million Aadhaar numbers were issued to the ID-less). On the second, the UID project cannot do much. The UIDAI’s understanding of the source of exclusion was inaccurate.” (UID: From Inclusion to Exclusion, Reetika Khera)
“The imposition of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication in the Public Distribution System threatens to disrupt recent progress with PDS reforms. It also deprives millions of people of essential food entitlements.” (Dark Clouds Over the PDS, Jean Drèze)
“Some of the most vulnerable people, Rajasthan’s elderly poor, have been denied meagre pensions due to errors in linking their details with Aadhaar numbers.” (Rajasthan’s Living Dead, Anumeha Yadav)
“Pilot cash transfer projects taken up in Jharkhand for MGNREGA wages have achieved little success due to a variety of logistical, human and technological problems. A year after the launch of these projects, the problems remain unsolved.” (To Pass Biometric identification, apply vasline or boroplus on fingers overnight, Anumeha Yadav)
“The Aadhaar Bill has been passed with no public consultation about the privacy safeguards necessary for such a database and no provision for public or independent oversight. The rights to liberty and freedom of expression cannot survive if the right to privacy is compromised.” (Privacy is a Fundamental Right, Chinmayi Arun)
“Critics say the Aadhaar Bill does not address concerns over privacy, even as government is rushing the Bill without adequate parliamentary scrutiny.” (Seven Reasons Why Parliament Should Debate the Aadhaar Bill, Anumeha Yadav)
“In 2012, the Justice A.P. Shah Committee suggested nine distinct principles canonising the right to privacy. An analysis of the Aadhaar bill shows that it does not even recognise some of these nine principles.” (The Basis of Privacy, Apar Gupta)
“The concept of Aadhaar appears to be good. In Utopia. But after going through this Act, I am a little worried about how this system can be misused by our dear politicians and bureaucrats. I just don’t trust the people who will handle this system. They are known to be incompetent in matters related to technology” (Aadhaar Act, Why You Should Panic, Meghnad S)
“What technology has broken cannot be fixed by the law. Aadhaar is a broken technology; it is surveillance technology disguised as developmental intervention that identifies people without their consent and authenticates transactions on their behalf.” (Aadhaar is actually surveillance tech, Sunil Abraham)
“The lack of a public debate on the effectiveness or safeguards created for the Central Monitoring System, NATGRID, and Aadhaar puts data at the sole discretion of the government.” (Towards a database nation, Chinmayi Arun)
“The cult of technology is intolerant to blasphemy. For example, Shekhar Gupta recently tweeted saying that part of the opposition to Aadhaar was because “left-libs detest science/tech”. Technology as ideology is based on some fundamental articles of faith: one, new technology is better than old technology; two, expensive technology is better than cheap technology; three, complex technology is better than simple technology; and four, all technology is empowering or at the very least neutral. Unfortunately, there is no basis in science for any of these articles of faith.” (Surveillance Project, Sunil Abraham)
“Information being collected for the unique identification project will be sold back to the government through specially created, privatised, for profit utilities.” (Your data, going on sale soon, Usha Ramanathan)
“An investor note…said that the implementation of DBT for food subsidies can result in Rs 45,500 crore annual rise in disposable incomes of targeted households, which in turn can drive a 14 per cent increase in rural FMCG demand. Hindustan Unilever, Colgate and Dabur are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries, the brokerage said. While the methodology adopted by Ambit could be questioned, there cannot be any doubt over the business opportunity Aadhaar and DBT linkage offers for another segment – the mobile phone operators and the software companies.”(Aadhaar’s Identity Crisis, Joe Mathew)
“From the welfare perspective, other than being an employment guarantee scheme for the recession-hit IT/BPO sector, there is no apparent need for the multi-million dollar biometric Aadhaar database…Like those opposing Aadhaar as a matter of principle today, Mahatma Gandhi too refused to get fingerprinted — not because he had something to hide, but because fingerprinting legal citizens is..a violation of civil liberty that sets the stage for a police state.” (Why Nandan Nilekani’s Sales Pitch is Hard to Buy, Siddharthya Swapan Roy)
The Status of the Project
After the Aadhaar Act of 2016 was passed many have wondered whether the challenge to the project in the Supreme Court have now become redundant. A short explanation is given below –
- The petitions before the Supreme Court are not infructuous. They were filed to challenge the entire UID project. The fact that there was no law at the time of the initiation of the project was only one of several challenges presented in various petitions, and therefore the petitions before the court remain valid. The batch of petitions referred to as Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) & Others Versus Union of India & Others has been referred to a Constitution Bench which has not yet been constituted.
- In the meanwhile the orders of the Supreme Court in K.S. Puttuswamy continue to hold.
- The two orders dated 11 August and 15 October 2015 are particularly important. The 11 August order restricted the use of the aadhaar number to PDS and LPG, and made even that could only be voluntary use, and they had asked that it be advertised that enrolment was also not mandatory.
- The Supreme Court’s reasons for restricting use of the UID was because, if the number was used in multiple data bases, they saw that the challenges that had been raised in the court about surveillance, profiling, tracking and violations of privacy would have to be resolved before anything so drastic as the project could be permitted; and it was possible after all that the court may hold the project, or aspects of it, unconstitutional.
- The 15 October order allowed the government to use it in a few other fields, again voluntarily – and that was the promise on which the use was permitted.
- The 15 October order expressly says that the government may not change the conditions – either of voluntariness or of expanding the fields – without further orders from the court. The passage of the law makes no difference to this.
- The 2016 Act nowhere authorises the `seeding’ of the aadhaar number in any database. This is very important. This is a significant omission in the law, especially as they have been trying to do it these past years, and so certainly knew that that was one of the things happening in the field, and something that the government was itself doing. The 2016 Act clearly speaks only of `authentication’, viz., asking the UIDAI database to verify that we are who we say we are. So asking anyone to put the number in any other database (the LPG database, for example, is unsupported by the law).
- The UID number and the UIDAI database can at best be used for `authentication’.
So to make Aadhaar mandatory is –
- in contempt of the Supreme Court orders, which, you may clarify to the authorities, as in force, and will be so long as the case is pending before the court
- not supported by the 2016 Act, which does not authorise seeding
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