Believe It Or Not, The Aadhaar Bill Might Become A Threat To Our Privacy

Posted on March 3, 2016 in Politics

By Abhishek Jha

The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016 is likely to be introduced in Lok Sabha as it has been listed in the revised list of business of the Lok Sabha for March 3. The Finance Minister had indicated in his Budget speech that the Bill would be introduced in the current session of the Parliament. A description of the Bill says that it is to provide for “efficient, transparent, and targeted delivery of subsidies, benefits and services, the expenditure for which is incurred from the Consolidated Fund of India, to individuals residing in India through assigning of unique identity numbers to such individuals.”

Ghewar Ram (R), 55, and his wife Champa Devi, 54, display their Unique Identification (UID) cards outside their hut at Merta district in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan February 21, 2013. In a more ambitious version of programmes that have slashed poverty in Brazil and Mexico, the Indian government has begun to use the UID database, known as Aadhaar, to make direct cash transfers to the poor, in an attempt to cut out frauds who siphon billions of dollars from welfare schemes. Picture taken February 21, 2013. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal (INDIA - Tags: SOCIETY POVERTY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3EDRN
Image source: REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal

This summary indicates that the Bill could be introduced as a Money Bill, meaning that the Bill need not be passed by the Rajya Sabha where the NDA government lacks support. Since concerns regarding infringement on privacy of individuals due to linking of the Aadhaar card to government schemes had been raised in the Supreme Court, which had then ruled that the use of the card not be mandatory, the introduction of the Bill as a Money Bill is worrying.

Special procedures to be followed in respect of Money Bills require that the Rajya Sabha return it to the Lok Sabha with recommendations within 14 days, after which the lower house can either accept or reject those recommendations. The Rajya Sabha then cannot block this bill in any manner. Article 111 of the Indian Constitution also prevents the President from returning a Money Bill back to the Parliament for reconsideration.

However, the Finance Ministry has been tight-lipped so far on whether the Bill will be introduced as a Money Bill. Shaktikanta Das, secretary, department of economic affairs, had declined to comment on the same at the CNBC-TV18 Mint Budget Verdict event. “Let Parliament have the pleasure of knowing the character of the bill first,” he had said. Jayant Sinha, the minister of state for finance, too had asked to wait until the bill is tabled in the parliament at the same event.

Moreover, a Business Standard report, based on information from undisclosed sources, says that the Bill might have safeguards “to ensure the confidentiality of identity information by protecting it against access of disclosure or accidental and intentional damage”. In the case of national security, the same report says, such information is likely to be disclosed only by the orders of an officer not below the rank of a joint secretary and that an “oversight committee” would review each such decision. The Committee, the report says, is to consist of the Cabinet Secretary and the secretaries in the Department of Legal Affairs and Department of Electronics and Information Technology.

Privacy concerns arise in the use of the Aadhaar Card for availing government schemes because the Unique Identity is based on storing biometric and personal information that critics fear is likely to be misused or stolen for profiling or spying on citizens and, on an even fundamental level, is a forcible submission of the privacy of those who avail these schemes. “Unlike the census or other such government exercises, Aadhaar data collection was privatised. The government claims the data is secure with it. But the key is collection and management of the data,” Ravi Sundaran, Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies is reported to have said. The government and votaries of the proposed linking of the Aadhaar Card to social benefit schemes argue, on the other hand, that the right to privacy will have to be forsaken for availing such benefits. The government, through Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi, has been consistently arguing the same in the Supreme Court.

The Aadhaar Bill has, therefore, become a cause of worry for those who wish to fight for the right to privacy. Chinmayi Arun, executive director at the Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi, told Livemint for instance, that a “lip-service commitment to privacy from the government will not be enough” and that it is “unconscionable to pass such a legislation without several thorough public consultations on what a water-tight privacy framework for it would look like.”

Such public consultation is also necessary because whether citizens of this country definitely have a right to privacy or not is still unclear. The Bill might legally settle the issue of linking the Card to the schemes, which had been dragged to the court precisely because this identity collection did not have legislative backing, but it makes our concerns for the right to privacy even graver.

After the bill is passed, this particular issue might be considered settled for the courts. And when the government has been arguing against a fundamental right to privacy, whether proper checks are part of the legislation and whether these checks will be followed in spirit is doubtful. Reports of non-delivery of services in case a consumer does not have an Aadhaar Card make the signs rather clear. While it is a smart move to have a good infrastructural framework for delivering benefits to the poor, making it mandatory for them to forego their freedom to avail these benefits is perhaps only cruel design. The manner in which this marriage of personal identity and social benefit is now being pushed only makes one more suspicious.