Placing conditions on access to food entitlements is not a marker of a welfare state. The recent notification by the government mandating the possession of an Aadhaar number for receiving benefits under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme has created a justifiable furore. Such a step is extraordinary given that the havoc caused by the introduction of mandatory Aadhaar authentication in some states for the public distribution system (PDS) has not yet died down. Reports from Gujarat, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and other states describe the exclusion of genuine beneficiaries because of problems with the Aadhaar records and authentication issues, besides technological and infrastructural failures. This experience ought to have taught the government that the mere adoption of “technology” is not a panacea for corruption and inefficiency in the delivery of services, but is a sure way of excluding those who are socio-economically the most vulnerable.

Yet, in the last few weeks, several ministries have issued notifications that will co-opt over 30 schemes on to the Aadhaar bandwagon, including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Employees’ Provident Fund, pension and scholarship schemes, and recently even the compensation provided to the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak. The aim is to make Aadhaar mandatory for all 84 schemes covered by the direct benefit transfer programme.

Though the government claims otherwise, these notifications are in contravention of the many Supreme Court orders over the years iterating and reiterating that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for people availing government benefits to which they are entitled. The matter is still sub judice. The government has just side-stepped the issue by stating again in a recent press release that “till Aadhaar number is assigned to any individual, the benefit will continue to be given based on alternate means of identification.” The recent notifications all state that an Aadhaar number is required to access these entitlements, and in the absence of which other specified identification documents would be accepted. However, beneficiaries will also have to provide proof of Aadhaar enrolment. Given this, and the tight deadlines set for providing this proof, it is clear that Aadhaar has effectively been made mandatory.

The government has been and continues to push Aadhaar as a miracle cure that would curb leakages and bring in transparency while excluding fake beneficiaries and saving “huge sums of public money.” What it does not project is that the Aadhaar scheme involves the collection and control of big data, enabling “dataveillance” (the practice of monitoring digital data relating to personal details or online activities). The Aadhaar idea was first conceptualised by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government after the Kargil war as a security and surveillance project. The features of the current-day Aadhaar are no different. Additionally, the state has circumvented constitutional procedures and safeguards by launching the scheme without putting in place a privacy law or a law regulating biometric data, by passing the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 as a money bill, and by continuing to flagrantly defy the Supreme Court’s orders disallowing making Aadhaar mandatory.

For the ordinary citizen, the most worrying aspect of Aadhaar is control, about who can access their biometric data. The Aadhaar enrolment form has a field that vaguely asks for “consent”: “I have no objection to the UIDAI [Unique Identification Authority of India] sharing information provided by me to the UIDAI with agencies engaged in delivery of public services including welfare services.” These terms have not been defined by the UIDAI while personnel at enrolment centres advise people to give their consent for the sake of future convenience. In the propagation of Aadhaar, the government has failed to highlight or explain this consent-taking, as also the fact that there exists a way to lock one’s biometric data (unlocked by default) on the resident portal of the UIDAI website through OTP (one time password) authentication via a registered mobile phone. The latter feature is not highlighted and is also out of reach for those without access to the internet or a mobile phone.

These issues are not even touched upon by the Aadhaar Act, which adds to the imbroglio by way of Clause 57: “Nothing contained in this Act shall prevent the use of Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual for any purpose, whether by the State or any body corporate or person, pursuant to any law, for the time being in force, or any contract to this effect.” Such a clause clearly allows non-state entities to use Aadhaar authentication and gain access to data, which has already happened. The UIDAI recently stopped 24 firms from using its data in an unauthorised manner following public complaints. Adding to the confusion is the definition of “biometric information” in the act that is being kept open to include “other biological attributes” (read DNA) in the future, as well as the Supreme Court’s puzzling order in February 2017—diametrically opposed to its orders about not making Aadhaar mandatory—to make the linking of all SIM (subscriber identity modules in mobile phones) cards with Aadhaar numbers compulsory. All this raises many troubling questions about control and access to such big data; not just demographic, but also biometric data.

Through the promotion of Aadhaar, the Indian state is behaving like a corporate entity that provides services on the condition that it gets access to our information and can potentially keep us under surveillance. Clearly, a state that wants transparency from its people is not trying very hard to be transparent itself.


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