Our identity crisis
S Madhusudhana Rao
For over five years, we have been facing an identity crisis of a different sort. The predicament is unique like a plan that is supposed to give crores of Indians a permanent digital identity. After spending thousands of crores and enrolling almost three-fourths of the population in the scheme, governments in States and at the centre as well as people are still groping in the dark.
The scheme, known as the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), was set up by the Government of India on January 28, 2009 with a mandate to issue a 12-digit unique identification number (UID) to every resident in the country. The Authority, tasked with formulating policies and laying down rules and regulations, was attached to the then Planning Commission for seamless functioning.
In post-Independent India, it was one of the most ambitious initiatives ever undertaken to digitalize personal data of crores of residents. Despite usual opposition in some quarters that it was intended to classify and categorize people by the UPA government led by Congress, it has made headway amidst criticism and legal challenges.
The scheme’s significance and importance can’t be overlooked: Almost every country in the world had some sort of identity for its citizens/residents and India was the only nation that did not have an ID proof for residents until UID was launched. The only legal and valid proof was passport, given only to those who wanted to go abroad. Otherwise, the vast majority of people had remained without proper identity.
While school and birth certificates, in the case of educated classes, were other proofs, the rural masses were left listless. Their only identities were voter cards and land or house documents. These were all prone to manipulations and they had become sources of rampant corruption and misuse of funds allotted for the welfare of poor people.
Among more serious problems non-identity had faced were infiltration from neighbouring countries and non-Indians settling down in Border States and trying to displace local populations. In numerous cases, frictions between illegal migrants and locals had led to bloodbaths. In the absence of a well-established personal identity system, the social and community turmoil was exploited by political parties at regional and national level to consolidate their positions in the form of vote banks.
The prime aim of UID was to eliminate all these ills and link it to government welfare schemes so that only the needy would receive the benefits. On paper, like all our other schemes, Aaadhar looked flawless. But, down the line, it hit roadblocks in execution.
The latest in legal challenges is the Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday (August 11, 2015) that Aadhaar card was not mandatory for availing of government subsidies. This was a re-statement of an earlier order issued on September 23, 2013, saying that “no person should suffer for not getting Aadhaar as the government cannot deny a service to a resident if s/he does not possess Aadhaar, as it is voluntary and not mandatory.”
The apex court’s ruling had come in response to some petitions filed by civil liberty groups like Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties and Indian Social Action Forum and rights activists who had opposed the ambitious scheme arguing that it violated an individual’s right to privacy.
However, many state governments had ignored the apex court’s fiat and continued to insist on Aadhaar card for extending welfare benefits and basic services to ordinary people, prompting the Supreme Court to issue a fresh warning on Tuesday. A three-member Constitution Bench, dealing with PILs that again challenged the Aadhaar scheme as an encroachment into the public’s right to privacy, clarified that officials’ demand for Aadhaar proof is a clear violation of the apex court’s interim order of September 23, 2013.
“Aadhaar is being insisted upon by various authorities. We do not want to go into specific instances. We expect the Union of India and all the States to adhere to the order dated September 23, 2013. We will take the officers concerned to task if any order comes on record making it (Aadhaar) mandatory,” the court has observed.
The three-member Constitution Bench has referred the privacy issues raised in Public Interest Litigations to a larger Constitution Bench for its opinion. Meanwhile, the Central government has been instructed to widely publicize the Tuesday’s ruling that Aadhar card will remain optional for availing of government welfare schemes except in the case of PDS distribution system and subsidized LPG. However, Aadhaar card details can be used for criminal investigations but personal info of ordinary citizens can’t be shared or disclosed.
The contentious issue in UID project is right to privacy and resistance to the way personal details had been collected. In other countries, before a resident permit/ ID card was issued, personal details too would be collected, not by outsourcing but by security authorities. Thus residents/citizens can at least feel that their personal info would not be compromised by the authorities. But, here, the job had been done by private agencies whose digital data safeguards were questionable.
Before issuing a 12-digit Aadhaar card, a resident’s basic demographic and biometric data such as the person’s photograph, fingerprints of both hands and iris scans of both eyes are taken and stored in a data bank that is accessible to authorities anywhere any time in the country. But the lacunae are the data stored can be manipulated, hacked and changed thus compromising a person’s right to privacy.
According to reports, as of August 8, 2015, over 89.3 crore Aadhaar numbers had been issued and the government had spent a staggering amount of Rs 5,630 crores on the project.
The larger issue now is not whether the Aadhaar cards should be made mandatory for all services and social benefits to the people but our right to privacy that is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. At the moment, we don’t have laws worth mentioning on cyber security, data protection, data thefts and third party liabilities if the personal details are sold for pecuniary benefits. The larger Constitution Bench has to take a call on these vital issues and direct the government accordingly.
It is essential to have these laws in place in a digital age that is increasingly witnessing cyber terrorism at personal and global level. As far as Aadhaar linkage to services and benefits are concerned, officials seem to be going overboard to deny the people what they are entitled to. It’s nothing but harassment that should be curbed by the government. The Supreme Court’s directive should prod the government review the project in such a way as to realize the scheme’s original objectives rather than turning Aadhaar into an instrument of creating more hassles for ordinary people.