The NDA government is sailing pretty close to the wind by trying to sidestep a Supreme Court order that specifically says that Aadhaar, the Unique biometric ID being issued to residents (and not necessarily citizens) by the Unique ID Authority of India (UIDAI), cannot be made mandatory for anything.

In two separate cases, one in September 2013, and another in March 2014, the Supreme Court not only said that Aadhaar cannot be insisted upon for the delivery of subsidised products like LPG, but also that the government has to withdraw all orders that make the use of this ID mandatory.

There are no signs that this is happening.

Ever since Narendra Modi has been sold on the idea, the government has been stepping up efforts to make the use of Aadhaar widespread. However, it seems to be using a pressure tactic that makes life easier for those who use Aadhaar without openly flouting the Supreme Court orders.

In the Jan Dhan Yojana for opening zero-balance bank accounts for the poor, the use of Aadhaar has been more or less ubiquitous.

The newspapers today (11 November) report that you will get your passport issued faster if you have an Aadhaar. The Indian Express says that the “centre is likely to do away with police verification prior to the issuance of a passport, if the applicant has a UIDAI number…”. This is clearly an inducement for applicants to get the Aadhaar so that they can get their passports within a month’s time. Or else…

The LPG subsidy scheme, which is being rapidly shifted to direct cash transfer mode from 15 November, will depend substantially on Aadhaar as authentication. There may be no formal note indicating that this is mandatory in view of the Supreme Court’s orders, but who will argue about this at the LPG dealers’ end? Your ordinary LPG consumer will quietly go and get herself an Aadhaar to avoid hassles.

A few days ago, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, under fire for his stand on disclosing the names of black money holders in foreign banks, announced that he would like to make Aadhaar compulsory for real estate transactions. The idea, says a story in Mint, is that it will “provide a trail of all real estate transactions by an individual.”

This is a red herring. Real estate transactions already mandate so much documentation that anyone who wants to follow the trail can do so. Among other things, PAN card numbers are mandatory for property transactions, and even lease agreements call for police verifications. Not only that, to prevent the seller from escaping capital gains taxes, the buyer of a property has to deduct 1 percent TDS from the payment and deposit it with the taxman, complete with seller’s details.

So, Aadhaar is hardly going to make things even better. If Jaitley wants to sniff black money in realty transactions, the scent should already be reaching his office.

What is becoming clear is that for various reasons, the Modi government is emphasising Aadhaar even more than the UPA. But we have not heard even preliminary noises about legislation to make Aadhaar fully above board and legal, and with in-built privacy protection provisions.

The Express report, for example, says that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is being asked to “establish a system for validation of criminal antecedents for the applicant.” Passport applicants will then be checked with the NCRB’s records for criminal antecedents.

The Aadhaar logo. Image courtesy UIDAiThe Aadhaar logo. Image courtesy UIDAi

If Aadhaar is going to be linked to the NCRB’s database, one cannot escape the suspicion that sooner than latter Aadhaar is going to be a critical element in monitoring citizen activity from an internal and external security point of view.

As I have noted before, by pushing Aadhaar without any legal protection for the citizen, enormous power is put in the hands of governments and bureaucrats. Any society that values citizen’s rights should be wary of keeping an entire population’s biometric and personal details in huge databases controlled by a faceless bureaucracy. We need only refer to the widespread accessing of mobile call data records by the powerful to know how much misuse is possible.

Aadhaar is being sold as a way to empower the poor who don’t have an identity but need government subsidies to survive. But it is being covertly pushed to the entire population using the coercive power of the bureaucrat’s pen. If bank accounts, provident funds, mutual funds, gas connections, and big financial transactions of citizens are going to need an Aadhaar number, this means the government has forced a unique ID on us indirectly without even legally being entitled to do so. Now you can add passports and real estate transactions to the list of coercive actions that will push Aadhaar.

Aadhaar empowers the state at the expense of the citizen. Once your income-tax numbers, bank accounts, credit card transactions, and asset purchases are linked through a common Aadhaar number, anyone in any part of a coercive tax system can blackmail you if your assets and financial details are leaked. Not only that, when the next big terror attack happens, suddenly the government will have a huge justification to use the data to track potential terrorists. After that, we will be sliding down a slippery slope to lower levels of privacy protection for all citizens.

We are getting into dangerous territory from the citizen’s privacy protection point of view.