Aadhaar: Confusion, safety concerns and some major Government plans

The Supreme Court has come down heavily on the Government’s plans of making Aadhaar compulsory for availing a number of services. The Government had recently made it mandatory for individuals to furnish their Aadhaar number when filing their tax returns. While the BJP led Government has defended this move by saying that this is to avoid misuse of pan card, which was being used to divert funds to shell companies, the move has prompted the Supreme Court to question how this could be made mandatory when it had passed an order making Aadhaar optional.

Paul Romer, the Chief Economist of the World Bank, called it the “most sophisticated identity programme in the world.” With currently 1.133 billion people enrolled in it, and over 99 percent of Indians aged over 18, as of March 31, 2017, Aadhaar, the 12 digit unique identity number issued to all Indian residents, capturing their biometric data, has been a highly ambitious, plan, albeit controversial.  When it was first launched in 2009 under the UPA Government by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), helmed by Nandan Nilekani, the Aadhaar card was meant to be an optional identity proof card. It captured the holder’s photograph, and biometric data such as finger print and retina scan, and was meant to be unique to that person as a source of identification.

From being an optional identification card to mandatory for benefits

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) had specified that the Aadhaar card is not meant to replace other identity cards, nor does it prove citizenship. But its ambit has since moved on from being a voluntary form of identity to becoming mandatory for availing many government benefits. Hence, several petitions have been filed at the Supreme Court challenging the card’s validity. The petitions have also questioned the government’s right to collect such biometric data from citizens without providing for adequate safe guards, and the legality of making the card mandatory.

In September 2013, the Supreme Court had passed an interim order stating that the government could not deny a service to anyone who did not possess an Aadhaar card.  In October 2015, the Supreme Court had again ruled that Aadhaar can only be used as voluntary identification for five specific government programmes: Public distribution scheme, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, National Social Assistance Programme, Jan Dhan Yojana and for LPG subsidies. Again, in 2016, when it found that the Centre was making it mandatory for students to give their Aadhaar identity number for availing various scholarship schemes, the Supreme Court had recalled the 2015 order, when it had stated that the Aadhaar card Scheme is purely voluntary and “It cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other”.

Fast forward to March 2016, and the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, benefits and services) Act, 2016, which aimed to provide a legal backing to the UID project, was passed overruling the amendments moved by the Rajya Sabha. The Bill was presented as a Money Bill, since, according to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, it pertains to the delivery of subsidies to beneficiaries of welfare schemes from the Consolidated Fund of India. This had led to widespread criticism and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh had filed a petition challenging the move of presenting the Bill as a Money Bill. The petition had stated that the Aadhaar Act cannot be considered to be a law as it has not been approved by the Rajya Sabha. However, at a hearing of the petition in February this year, the Supreme Court had said that it was ‘tentatively not convinced’ with the grounds taken by Ramesh, and had asked the petitioner to convince the bench at a further date.

Schemes for which Aadhaar is mandatory

The Government has been mandating Aadhaar as a form of identification for a number of schemes and services on a regular basis. Below are some schemes and services for which the Government has made Aadhaar mandatory:

LPG subsidiary: Those wishing to avail of LPG subsidies need to proof of possession of Aadhaar or undergoing Aadhaar authentication. This order was issued in October 2016 by the Ministry of Petroleum.

Employee Provident Fund pension: The Centre has made it mandatory for all members of the Employees’ Pension Scheme of 1995 to furnish their Aadhaar card number to avail of the benefits under the scheme. The deadline for the submission of Aadhaar number has been extended to April 30, 2017 for its over four crore members.

Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) Main examination: The Central Board of Secondary Education, the body that conducts the Joint Entrance Examination (Mains), made it compulsory for all students appearing for the exams to submit their Aadhaar card. Those who do not possess the card need to submit their 28 digit Aadhaar Enrolment ID.

Cash benefits for disabled people: The Ministry of Social Justice and Employment had notified on March 3, 2017 that It is mandatory for all disabled people receiving cash benefits for transportation, boarding and lodging support under Central Sector Scheme for Implementation of Persons with Disability Act, 1995, to furnish their Aadhaar card as proof of identity, on or before May 30, 2017.

Midday Meal Scheme: In an order issued by the Human Resources Development Ministry on February 28, the Government had passed a notification stating that only those students with Aadhaar card would be eligible for the mid-day meal scheme. The administration later changed its order and stated in the absence of an Aadhaar card, any alternate identification would do, till the card is issued to the beneficiary.

National Rural Employment Guarantee Act: In January, 2017, the Ministry of Rural Development issued a notification making it mandatory for an individual registering under the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme to furnish possession of their Aadhaar card, or undergo Aadhaar authentication. While the Government has said that this has helped root out around 50 lakh fake cards, activists have complained that a number of cards were cancelled because the beneficiaries could not provide their Aadhaar details.

Mobile phones: The Department of Telecom has issued a circular asking telecom companies to verify user’s old and new phone numbers through Aadhaar eKYC by February 2018. This has raised questions and concerns about the safety and privacy of numbers and Aadhaar card details.    

Issuance of passport: The Ministry of External affairs has made it compulsory for those seeking to apply for passports to furnish their Aadhaar card details. This is to ensure that fake passports don’t get issued and to prevent anti national elements from applying for Indian passports.

Privacy and security concerns

According to the National identification Authority of India Bill, 2010, sharing of the data encrypted on the card is prohibited, without the explicit consent of the holder.  However, the storage of biometric and demographic information of nearly most of the population, without the presence of adequate safeguards has led to many questioning the safety of such an exercise. Also, the Government’s decision to hand over the process of collecting data to private agencies for a licence fee has led to concerns over the potential misuse of the information. Recently, former Captain MS Dhoni’s photograph and Aadhaar card details were made public by a Twitter handle of the Central Services Centre, adding to the security concerns. In February, this year, the UIDAI had also filed a case against Axis Bank, Suvidhaa Infoserve and eMudhra after it found that multiple transactions were being performed with the same fingerprint, hence pointing to a major biometric data breach. On its part, the Government and Minister Information Technology and Electronics, Ravi Shankar Prasad, has emphasised that Aadhaar is completely “safe, secure and robust,” and the UIDAI has been working towards implementing further safe guards.