By denying basic services, Aadhaar is doing a disservice to the very people whose interests it’s supposed to protect
Aadhaar, a 12-digit unique identity number issued to all Indian residents and based on their biometric and demographic data, is in news due to a huge data leak. This has raised the issue of its possible misuse and is a major security breach. Initially conceived as a system of identification and verification, Aadhaar is increasingly becoming riddled with issues of exclusion, privacy, and implementation loopholes, especially when it becomes mandatory for accessing services.
Systemic Exclusion of the Aam Aadmi
Exclusions can be systemic — where the system fails, computers and scanners don’t work etc, and people are denied services even when they have cards. Or they can be due to an oversight in registering people with disabilities who may not be able to give requisite biometrics. Similarly, migrants maybe left out for not having fixed addresses.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly clarified that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for accessing services and entitlements like MNREGA and pensions. Later, it permitted voluntary use of Aadhaar for most such schemes including the PDS, yet the ground reality remains very different and exclusions abound.
The issue of Aadhaar exclusions caught mainstream attention with the tragic death of 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari from Jharkhand who died of starvation. Santoshi’s family was denied food rations from the Public Distribution System (PDS) as their Aadhaar was not linked to their ration card. Another death, that of a rickshaw puller called Baijnath Ravidas, followed. This was also due to hunger as his family did not have either ration card or an Aadhaar.
It emerged that the state government had passed an order that led 11 lakh ration cards being cancelled because the cardholders had not furnished their Aadhaar numbers. The order has since been retracted.
As this report points out, these exclusions were not the only one, and many people – often poor, old, infirm and vulnerable – are struggling with Aadhaar-Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA). They are being denied their Right to Food under the National Food Security Act, 2013.
ABBA is a two-step procedure, in addition to the scheme card linked to Aadhaar, the beneficiaries have to authenticate their biometrics through fingerprint and iris scans. The process is easier said than done. Either computers or scanners don’t work or the Internet connection fails.
Even if glitches are smoothened, the system is not fool proof as Sajida Begum, a 65-year-old leprosy patient in Bengaluru, realised when she was informed that her pension would be stopped since she doesn’t have the required biometrics upon having lost her fingers and eyesight. Leprosy patients everywhere are facing similar problems and there is no clarity on how they can register for this unique ID.
The problem in accessing legal rights and entitlements is not limited to any region nor is unique to any particular scheme. Children are being denied Right to Education as the Delhi government has made Aadhaar compulsory for school admissions. While the move is to ensure that ghost children are not enrolled on paper and duplication is avoided, activists contend that this has led to a drop in enrolment and economically weaker sections are now being forced to move to private schools.
The worst hit are the children of poor migrant families who do not have fixed addresses. Moreover, scholarship schemes and mid-day meals (often the primary reason for children to attend school) are linked to Aadhaar, and if children are unable to furnish it in time they are denied even this.
Particularly worrying is the denial of health services in a country with an already poor public health record. National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), since 2015, has been asking the states to collect Aadhaar numbers of patients to avail antiretroviral therapy. It was supposed to ease the process of availing the services, however, concerns have emerged regarding privacy and data leaks.
Many patients fear that compulsory submission of Aadhaar card for medicines and ART could lead to the disclosure of their identity and cause social stigma. This is leading to many dropping out of treatment.
On the other hand, in some cases, exclusion is by default. For instance, TB patients were asked to submit Aadhaar numbers for monetary compensation to support nutrition and loss of work, but it is proving to be a long wait. The Ministry of Health is still to finalise the Direct Benefit Transfer Scheme, that transfers money to the account of patients registered with the government-run TB treatment programme.
Privacy is a concern in areas such as health, where data is sensitive and personal, and finance where data leaks may lead to fraud and losses.
Allegations About Violation of Human Rights
In other instances, Uttar Pradesh government has made it mandatory for patients to have Aadhaar cards to avail free ambulance service. In Mumbai, a pregnant woman was denied treatment at a maternity home due to the lack of an Aadhaar card. Aadhaar is now being made mandatory for death certificates in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Meghalaya and Assam.
In November, following the denial of an abortion to a woman in Chandigarh due to her not having an Aadhaar, prompted a group of 62 public health organisations and individuals to issue a statement on “gross violation of human rights due to the mandatory linking of Aadhaar to health and allied social security schemes”.
Meanwhile, the government has been pushing the citizens to link their Aadhaar to services such as mobile phones and credit cards and other portfolios, documents and IDs like PAN card, mutual fund folio, insurance policies etc. even though deadlines have been extended till 31 March, 2018.
The Supreme Court will also hear petitions seeking to limit the scope of Aadhaar first and foremost about deadlines, with more in depth discussion around privacy and data leaks perhaps later.
India is already struggling with high hunger and malnutrition, poverty, poor health services, and low literacy. Legislations like National Food Security Act, Right to Education, MNREGA, and government schemes targeting the vulnerable and marginalised, if properly implemented, can be transformative. In such a scenario, Aadhaar should act as a facilitator rather than a tool for excluding the beneficiaries. It will be a travesty if a virtual ID service is able to deprive poor of right to decent life and well-being.