UPA government convert operation called UIDAI

By Srinivasan K. Rangachary

The Supreme Court ruling stand by for yet another twist in the tale of Aadhaar — that special number supposed to give every Indian citizen a unique identity. And this time, it is a welcome move. The apex court has now stated what was once obvious — that Aadhaar is not mandatory, it is purely voluntary. The government cannot force you to get an Aadhaar card. The government cannot demand that card in order to provide a service to you. Excellent. So we are back to the basics.

Aadhaar or the Unique Identity (UID) number was first introduced to us as a voluntary project. You could, if you so wished, get yourself registered. You could arm yourself with some ID that would make you eligible, stand in queues, obey the pompous barks of unimpressive clerks with impressive equipment, and offer “biometric data”. They would take your fingerprints and photos of your face, their cameras would look deep into your eyes to capture the special pattern of your iris. After all that, they would give you a unique 12 digit number. You would have the pleasure of knowing that the number belonged wholly and entirely to you, that you did not need to share it with anyone. That was about all. The UID did not get you any benefits.

Unlike a ration card that gave you access to subsidised rations, or a voter ID card that allowed you to vote, or a passport that allowed you to travel beyond the borders, or a bank account number that gave you access to banking, or any useful card or number, Aadhaar did not offer you anything besides the satisfaction of having a number. Naturally, not too many flocked to it. What was the point? But Aadhaar was an ambitious project, costing the taxpayer thousands of crores, and projected worldwide as a unique, gigantic, fantastic identification scheme. The government and UID boss Nandan Nilekani could not just sit around waiting for the occasional volunteer to wander in for the fun of it. So it was quickly linked to various government services. The UID may not inherently give you benefits, but it could take away your benefits. Aha! Now are you interested in getting Aadhaar? The government quickly honed its blackmailing skills. You needed Aadhaar to get government subsidies, to get your rations, for payments under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), for direct cash benefits, for salaries, for cooking gas connections and refills, for school admissions of poorer children, for students fee waivers, for scholarships, for marriage registrations, for property transactions, for crop loans, for caste certificates — the list was ever growing. There was even a suggestion — I can’t remember whether it was passed — that Aadhaar would be necessary to file a Right to Information (RTI) petition.

So Aadhaar was the big bully that marches into a playground and gets his way not by offering the kids his own bat and ball, which he does not have, but by threatening to take away the bat and ball that the kids are already playing with. Sure, enrolling with Aadhaar was quite “voluntary”, in a stifling culture of bullies and brazen coercion.

So now that the Supreme Court has brought us back on track and declared that the government has no right to hold back services if you did not have an Aadhaar card, we are back to the original question: what is Aadhaar good for? What happens to the UID project that has already guzzled several thousand crores of our money? Or should we not be concerned about the SC ruling? After all, the government has muscled its way through in the Aadhaar issue, ignoring the voices of reason. Even failing to get parliamentary approval, which would have made it legal, has not deterred it. Would this desperate government, getting increasingly frantic as the polls approach, pay attention to the Court ruling? I certainly hope it does because the UID project is unique among government projects in its bullying, lawless dash for power. First, it dangerously blurs the boundary between government operations and private enterprise in the area of data collection. The government collects personal data from its citizens and hands it over to the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI). Even the National Population Register data, compulsory for all citizens, is automatically shared with the UID. And then, incredibly, this data becomes the property of the UIDAI — to sell or share as it chooses.

So is the UIDAI a government entity? There was no democratic process or law behind it. When years after arbitrarily starting the UID process, the government finally drafted a Bill to convert the UIDAI into a statutory authority, it was rejected by Parliament. Yet Aadhaar flourishes.

Once it has all the data in place, the UIDAI will simply become a profit seeking business enterprise. Unlike a government body, it would not be accountable to the people. It would offer identity authentication as a paid service to both private and government agencies. And every time someone wants a gas connection, a bank account, a PAN card, a passport, a credit card or whatever, the UIDAI would make money, unless the SC ruling is acted upon.

Besides the peculiar logic by which the government gives birth to and incubates a commercial company and then pays good money to use its services, there is a more fundamental problem with this UID model. It is about privacy. Sharing data with the government may still be okay (though I have serious doubts), since there is trust involved and the government is supposed to protect the information on its citizens and not use it to its own benefit. Giving out the information to commercial companies is a breach of trust. It violates the citizen’s right to privacy as guaranteed by the Constitution.

This can be very dangerous, particularly since India does not have specific laws to protect either data or our privacy. Data mining is the new power tool, and all this information — say on caste or religious identities — could be misused politically. And when a private enterprise owns such massive data, there is no state accountability, and information on Indian citizens may be used by any paying customer for their own purposes.

Aadhaar is a unique, gargantuan mess. Its advertised aim of stopping corruption and terrorism may have been respectable, but its methods and chances of success are not. Hopefully, the SC ruling will make the government take a long, hard look at this hugely extravagant project, its relevance and uses, if any. INAV

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