The last fig leaf of ‘voluntariness’ in Aadhaar dropped when the Lok Sabha passed the Finance Bill 2017 on March 22. The Finance Bill should never have been able to change Aadhaar, but we must remember that it was the same “money bill route” that gave birth to the Aadhaar Act a year ago.
Classifying Aadhaar as a money bill was a brazen, unconstitutional and undemocratic strategy used to take advantage of the brute force of a majority in the Lok Sabha, and make the Rajya Sabha irrelevant. It was used once again this time to amend legislation that included the Aadhaar Act and 39 other amendments in many other laws that should have been examined by standing committees and received the approval of both Houses of Parliament before becoming a law. Article 110 of the Constitution and Rule 80 of Rules of Procedure of the Lok Sabha were overridden in a manner that completely undermined the spirit and framework of the Constitution.
Amendments to the Aadhaar Act has made the Unique Identification (UID) mandatory for filing income tax returns and for holding a valid Permanent Account Number (PAN). So from July 1, those who don’t have an Aadhaar card while filing tax returns will have their PAN cancelled and will be deemed to be committing a penal offence. That is as mandatory as it can get.
The poor have already been reeling under the force of compulsory (though “not mandatory”) use of Aadhaar for receiving welfare benefits. This doublespeak is despite six Supreme Court orders that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for anything, including welfare benefits. The current set of amendments marks a significant expansion beyond the government’s own pledge that Aadhaar would only be used for welfare delivery. By making it mandatory for something as non-welfare as income tax returns, the government has made it clear that Aadhaar numbers will be seeded with various data bases to track and put together all kinds of information related to citizens. This is not only an invasion of privacy, it is potential mass surveillance of all people and at all times. None of the governments can plead benevolence. Whether the UPA or now the NDA, they have in partnership with the corporate-commercial establishment – Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) – put in place a structure that can enable the highest level of exploitation of our data, firstly for commercial use and more dangerously the deepest state surveillance ever known in history. This will be true for this government and all others to come.
To understand the changes in the government’s position on the use of Aadhaar, one has to understand the claim of “uniqueness”. The only reliable and “unique” tool, if any, of the UID is biometric data. That is why, the Aadhaar ‘card’ is not important, and can be printed from any computer. It is the storage and authentication of every person’s unique biometric that gives UID its unique validity. The rest of the information can be easily misreported and misrepresented by the person concerned or the enrolment agency. That explains several cases of wrong names, address, age etc., on the Aadhaar card. In fact, for fraudsters or even terrorists, Aadhaar card is the best fake ID to create. The so-called card has no smart features or a hologram.
That is why seeding and using Aadhaar without biometric authentication is mischievous to its original intent. For instance, biometric authentication will not be mandatory when people file their tax returns, when they use their PAN, pay mobile bills, operate provident fund accounts, show their driver’s licence, or travel by train or air or even when they vote. Imagine a scenario where a Travelling Ticket Examiner in a train stops looking at a photo ID card and asks to authenticate every passenger’s biometrics. Those whose biometric authentication fails will have to get off the train, probably elderly people, children and to top it all, there is the strong probability that the authentication machine has poor internet connectivity.
Why then is this being done? Information is power. With all this information the state can threaten, harass and coerce citizens to conform to its mandate. The Aadhaar number, once seeded with other IDs, has a powerful potential for misuse. It will be able to bring together all the nodes and silos of information to profile individuals, families and communities to satisfy its intent to control not only money but thought and ideology, caste, religion and other personal choices. The universe of meta data and specific information will have two potential uses for the authenticator and its masters. The first is to be able to “watch” all people at all times and the other is to “mine” the data for commercial use. Despite legal guarantees, data repositories will be misused, will leak and be hacked. No state, including the Indian state, has won the absolute confidence of its citizens. Can we “trust” all our information without checks and balances in our hands?
At the conceptual stage of Aadhaar, former governor of West Bengal Gopalkrishna Gandhi pointed out that the Right to Information was the right of the citizen to watch every move of the government. He cautioned that UID should not become a tool by which the state could watch every move of every citizen. There is no alternative but to speak up individually and collectively. With governments it is a social contract with accountability. We must understand that our silence is an endorsement.
(The writer is a social activist who works with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and is also the co-convenor of National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information)