The last few weeks of UID Aadhaar-related government notifications have felt like a reenactment of the Martin Niemöller poem: First they came for the journalists, then they came for the pensioners, then they came for the ration card holders, then they came for the children…. The UID project began its life as an Executive Notification dated 28th January 2009. Even as the project has been working its way into the government for the last 7 years, it only obtained legal backing in 2016. The Aadhaar Act, through a sneaky process that circumvented the scrutiny of the Upper House of Parliament, became law as a Money Bill in March 2016. A batch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the UID project has been ongoing in the Supreme Court since 2012. The petition has been pending a hearing by a bench of 5 or more judges on the question of whether Privacy is a fundamental right in India.No less than 5 orders of the Supreme Court have held that possession of a UID number cannot be made mandatory to access entitlements or benefits.The most recent of these orders was in October 2015. Despite the passage of the Aadhaar Act in March last year, the Supreme Court, in September 2016, recognised its earlier orders and stated that the UID number could not be made mandatory for availing certain scholarships. Thus, the UID number cannot be mandatory for any purpose whatsoever.The notifications making possession of a UID number mandatory are blatantly illegal.The UID project has always operated outside the law and continues to do so.While it might seem like we already give our data unthinkingly to various private and public bodies, the UID project is unique in its ability to connect and centralise all the dispersed and diverse information about ourselves. We as citizens are vulnerable in the absence of any regulation of data collection, data processing and surveillance. We do not even know who operates the systems that will control our data and whom they will share it with.
The latest proposal to make the UID mandatory for all those who are required to file Income Tax returns will affect a smaller chunk of the population than the notification making the UID mandatory for rations. But interestingly, if you do not file your Income Tax returns, it is not exclusion, rather you can face penal action. In effect, no tax payer will be able to choose to be outside UID system without being criminalised. Nothing allows the government to take away my entitlements, or criminalise me if I do not comply with the project declared by the highest court of this land to be voluntary.
The Aadhaar project has been marketed to us in many ways. First as a measure to improve welfare and corruption, and now as a tool for digital payments and the cashless economy. In terms of welfare, this year itself, incorrect details entered in Aadhaar enrollement led to 7 lakh pensioners being declared dead in Rajasthan. It has led to the exclusion of around 30% of ration beneficiaries, around 1 crore people, under the Public Distribution System in Rajasthan. Inflated savings claimed to be the result of the project have been repeatedly punctured by academics and the government’s own reports.In the almost inexorable onward march of this project, we have willingly and unthinkingly accepted its insidious entrance into every aspect of our lives.
When it was made mandatory for ration card holders to avail grains under the PDS, a small number of people questioned the government. More recently, when they came for the children with the notification making Aadhaar mandatory for mid-day meals, a larger furor was raised with protests in Delhi and statements from rights-based campaigns. The latest attempt to make it mandatory will bring into the net all those previously unaffected.Now is the time to speak up.They’re coming for you.
The writer is a working committee member of the Rethink Aadhaar Campaign