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The Big Picture – Legislative backing for Aadhaar: How will it help?

The Big Picture – Legislative backing for Aadhaar: How will it help?

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After years of criticisms and discussions over Adhaar, the unique identification number, the NDA government has decided to give legislative backing to it. This move was, however, initiated earlier by the UPA government. The Adhaar bill has now been introduced as a money bill. It is being said that this move is aimed at avoiding any possibility of the opposition blocking the bill in the Rajya Sabha where the government does not have a majority. However, even this bill has been criticized by some quarters for some issues in the bill including privacy issues. But, the government has insisted that the Adhaar is not compulsory and only those who wish to avail government services like subsidies and scholarships among others need to have it.

What’s good about Adhaar?

Aadhaar gives every resident an opportunity to possess a portable national identity. It is unique because it anchors demographic attributes such as name or gender to biometric attributes like iris patterns of individuals. When this unique identity is combined with universalisation of banking and communication through mobile telephones, we have a historic opportunity to transform the leaky and corrupt distribution of welfare. The benefits of a transition to direct transfer are twofold: price distortions in the economy will end and people will be liberated from local power brokers.  

What’s there in the new bill?

The stated idea of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, is to provide for “efficient, transparent, and targeted delivery of subsidies, benefits and services”. This, along with a clause that says the unique numbers will not be considered as proof of citizenship, is welcome.

  • The Bill seeks to give statutory backing to the processes of enrolment, authentication and use of Aadhaar-related information for delivery of various benefits, subsidies and services by the government.
  • Also, it has provisions to guarantee the security and confidentiality of identity information and authentication records of every individual who has been issued an Aadhaar number.
  • To ensure that the number of people excluded from Aadhaar’s fold is minimum, the bill also talks about special measures that will be undertaken by the Authority to issue numbers to women, nomadic tribes, street dwellers, senior citizens, persons with disability and unskilled and unorganized workers.

Why we need legislative backing for Aadhaar?

The fact that there is no law in place, based on which the Aadhaar enrolments and use in government programmes have been happening, always makes the UID scheme open to challenge. Nor is there any legal recourse now for a person in the event of any misuse of identity information collected in the course of enrolment or authentication. All this uncertainty would end once there is a law governing the Aadhaar project.

How critics view this bill?

They see it as a move which is meant to dilute whatever is happening in the court. The court has already systematically and consistently said that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory. But, government, through this bill, is making it mandatory.

Concerns:

  1. Introduction as a money bill:

The process of legislating for Aadhaar has not been wholly reassuring. The Bill has attracted immediate criticism for being introduced as a money bill, by virtue of which it does not require approval of the Rajya Sabha. Bypassing the Upper House’s vote does give the Bill an easy route to becoming law. The question is, given that Aadhaar was a signature project of the Congress-led UPA, could not the government have made the effort to reach out to lawmakers across the board on such a crucial, bipartisan issue?

  1. Data protection:

Another key concern over the collection of personal information on this scale is data protection. There are provisions in this Bill that seem to address the concern, including one that prohibits any official from revealing information in the data repository to anyone. But the exceptions cause unease. Two provisions are particularly troubling-

  • The first is Section 29(4), by which no Aadhaar number or biometric information will be made public “except for the purposes as may be specified by regulations”.
  • The second, which experts have already flagged, is Section(33), under which the inbuilt confidentiality clauses will not stand when it concerns national security.

The only reassurance could be that in such cases the direction has to come from an official who is not below the rank of a Joint Secretary to the government. Nonetheless, without robust laws to protect their data, citizens would be rendered vulnerable. It is not about just snooping. It is also being said that in order to be useful and effective, Aadhaar data might have to be used alongside other databases. That could trigger further privacy questions.

Other concerns:

  • The bill also does not speak about the rights of people.
  • And, Section 7 of the Bill makes proof of Aadhaar necessary for “receipt of certain subsidies, benefits and services”. This must be read in the backdrop of a Supreme Court ruling that said Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory.

Conclusion:

While a law enabling Aadhaar which will pass judicial scrutiny will go some way in plugging leakage in the payment of subsidies, it is important to point out that even biometric determination of identity will not be a panacea. Leakages through impersonation and duplication of payment will be curtailed, but eligibility for subsidies is governed by determination of income. Electronic systems are no help there. Hence, the government should find ways to address these issues too.