Usha Ramanathan, The Statesman
Is UID mandatory? What does the government think? What is the government saying? That it is mandatory, or that it is not?
On 23 August 2013, Mr Rajiv Shukla, Minister of State for Planning, declared in Parliament: “Aadhaar is not mandatory for availing subsidies. If any public sector undertaking is making it mandatory, we will correct it.” This categorical statement set the cat among the pigeons. The Minister’s statement was a response to the CPI MP from Kerala, Mr Achuthan’s query during Zero hour about LPG subsidy being linked with the UIDAI, and asking who had given companies the authority to make UID compulsory for getting the subsidy.
The Minister’s assertion plainly did not impress other wings of his government. For on 27 August 2013, the PIB released a press note for the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas titled “Aadhaar mandatory to avail LPG subsidy in DBTL (direct benefit transfer for LPG) districts ~ 2.4 million LPG consumers already receiving subsidy in their bank accounts”. The note read: “In order to avail transfer of cash subsidy into the bank account, aadhaar number of LPG consumer has to be linked to the LPG consumer number and the bank account of the LPG consumer for which a grace period from the date of launch is provided.”
In case anyone was in doubt about what had been said: “All LPG consumers of these 34 districts (as well as 20 districts covered earlier) are advised to obtain aadhaar number and provide them to their LPG distributors and to their banks if they wish to avail of the LPG subsidy.” And to make trebly sure that the reader was not left in any doubt, it added: “It may be noted that aadhaar number is mandatory for availing LPG subsidy in DBTL districts after the initial grace period of 3 months. Aadhaar number is not required for availing LPG cylinders at non-subsidised rate.”
Flip the calendar back, just a little bit. On 26 July 2013, Finance Minister P Chidambaram reportedly said in an interview to DD News: “Today I have asked my office to issue an advisory to all the chairmen of the banks to say that banks must directly approach the beneficiary and get the aadhaar number and seed it into bank accounts.” He described DBT as a ‘game changer’, and voiced his expectation that 80 per cent (seeding of aadhaar with bank account) is doable, achievable…” Of the other 20 per cent, he thought half may be duplicate or false accounts, and the rest for whatever reason may not wish to claim the subsidy through the aadhaar platform.”
He thought the savings would be “quite a bit” and did a back-of-the-envelope calculation which gave him a monthly saving of Rs 500 crores, and Rs 4500 crores a year. (This is the only kind of arithmetic that there is in relation to the UID; so one must not blame the Finance Minister for being comforted by simple acts of assumption and multiplication.) Where there is no aadhaar, he clarified, it will still go through the National Electronic Funds Transfer payment system – which is to say, there is another way. “So, today,” he said, “the payment is going through two channels. The goal is that all the payments should move to aadhaar channel.” That is, there is another way, but soon choice is to be removed from the people.
Fast forward to 27 August 2013. Mr Jairam Ramesh is being interviewed for the Economic Times, and he says in the context of the Food Security Bill: “The reform of the PDS and the use of aadhaar are integral parts of the Bill.” And, to reassure us, he says: “We have already seen the savings that can accrue from PDS reform and aadhaar in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh.” So, eight months after launching DBT the Minister for Rural Development had still to invoke the spirit of East Godavari to give the UID project a sheen. But, East Godavari is, by now, known to have had an administrator who worked tirelessly over two years to clean up and update the lists, computerise records and do a door-to-door investigation to ensure that the records ran a straight course.
And, yet, a couple of weeks into the introduction of the DBT in East Godavari, reports emerged to speak of exclusion when a person did not have a UID number.
“The authorities ask for the aadhaar number for every social scheme… They are depriving us of food and pension because we do not have the number,” a reporter recorded a complaint. And Mr R Subrahmanyam, the well-intentioned and hard-working administrator, protested that this could not be a problem. “Those who are yet to be enrolled in the aadhaar system will be allowed to use the existing smart card for a period of 2 months.” After that, the statement implied, the UID would be mandatory.
Move to 8 May 2013. The Minister of Planning Mr Rajiv Shukla is answering an unstarred question (No 6678) raised by Mr Rudramadhab Ray, MP: “Aadhaar card is not mandatory to avail subsidised facilities being offered by the government like LPG cylinders, admission in private aided schools, opening a savings account etc.”
Hop and skip to 29 August 2013. The Minister for Planning, Mr Rajiv Shukla, has changed his mind. He had spoken on 27 August 2013, to declare that UID was not mandatory. But the Petroleum Ministry had had other plans. So, the Minister…w ell…he’s now changed his mind too. Aadhaar will indeed be mandatory for receiving LPG subsidies in districts where the pilot projects are underway. “But.” the Minister reportedly said, “this will be after the three-month grace period given to the LPG customers and after every LPG customer receives aadhaar.”
As the clock struck the midnight hour between 29 and 30 August 2013, if you had googled “aadhaar mandatory”, the headlines staring back at you from the page would have read: “Aadhaar mandatory to avail LPG subsidy in DBTL districts: Oil Ministry”, two days ago; “Aadhaar not mandatory for availing of subsidies: Government”, six days ago; “Aadhaar not mandatory?” nine days ago; and “Now, minister says aadhaar number must to get LPG subsidy”, 22 hours ago.
Earlier this year, a petition was filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court challenging the direction of the Deputy Commissioner in Chandigarh by which the UID was made compulsory for getting a driving licence or registering a vehicle.
The court asked the state to set out its position. Before you could say ‘public servant or our master?’, or any other phrase of like length, the state had withdrawn the direction and so reported to the court. On 2 March 2013, the court took this withdrawal on record; and one moment of reckoning on mandatoriness and compulsion was averted. There are still petitions in the Madras High Court, Bombay High Court, Bangalore courts, Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court, and mandatoriness is under challenge in each of these petitions. Will the government know what the answer is before they respond to the court?
This flip-flop show may have been a source of entertainment if it were not for the effect it has on people who feel bullied, threatened with exclusion, and are, only for those reasons, falling in line (pun intended). Parliament, and the courts, will have to step in. Well, Parliament did, when the Standing Committee rejected the Bill that was presented to it. Contrariwise, Cabinet Ministers admitted on 31 January 2013 that they did not know what the UID was – four years after the project started! It may be the courts that will have to work their way through this maze of obfuscation.
The author is an academic activist. She has researched the UID and its ramifications since 2009.