Govt tables Aadhaar Amendment Bill in LS, glosses over SC’s warnings yet again

The government, in the guise of complying with the SC judgment, only seems to be concerned about allowing all commercial entities to be part of the Aadhaar data universe, with unrestricted access

 Union Law and Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad (L) with Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) Ajay Bhushan Pandey. A file picture
Union Law and Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad (L) with Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) Ajay Bhushan Pandey. A file picture

Ashlin Mathew

That Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad introduced the Aadhaar and Other Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in the Lok Sabha on Monday is known to all. Among those who protested the tabling of the Bill was NK Premachandran of the Revolutionary Socialist Party. But what has been overlooked has been the sheer dismissal by Prasad of the concerns raised by Premachandran.

Opposing the Aadhaar Amendments Bill, Premachandran said that it violated the Supreme Court judgement of April 26, 2018 (sic) in the Justice KS Puttuswamy vs Union of India case, and allows private entities to hold Aadhaar data whereas the Supreme Court has specifically directed all Aadhaar agencies to delete Aadhaar authentication data. Premachandran added that the Bill violates the fundamental rights, namely, the right to life, the right to livelihood and the right against discrimination.

Further, Premachandran reminded the House that the government intends to amend three laws – the Aadhaar Act, 2016; the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885; and the Prevention of Money-Laundering Act, 2002. Clause 5 of the Aadhaar Amendments Bill, which proposes to amend Section 4 of the Aadhaar Act, 2016, says that mandatory authentication of an Aadhaar number holder for the provision of any service shall take place if such authentication is required by a law made by Parliament – which goes against the Supreme Court ruling that possession of Aadhaar number or Aadhaar authentication cannot be made mandatory for available any service or welfare benefit.

Premachandran also pointed that Clause 24 of the Amendment Bill, which seeks to amend Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act, allows licensed telecom service providers to conduct Aadhaar-based authentication or offline verification and the Bill is very specific. “As rightly mentioned in Part II, the Bill allows the private entities to hold Aadhaar data, which the Supreme Court has opposed. The private entities have no authority to hold Aadhaar data for their own use. That is a specific direction which has been given by the Supreme Court. So, Clause 24 of the Bill is also against the spirit of the Constitution,” elaborated Premachandran.

Prasad dismissed all of Premachandran’s concerns. He said Aadhaar is in national interest; and Aadhaar does not violate privacy – glossing over the fact that the SC judgment did strike down sections of the 2016 Act for not meeting the stringent triple test laid down in the SC’s own Right to Privacy judgment of August 24, 2017. Prasad said the SC had mentioned that they cannot legislate the use of Aadhaar through a rule or a circular, but only by passing a law. “Hence, the law,” stated Prasad.

But, Prasad refuses to elaborate how the Aadhaar Bill is in national interests other than helping big businesses get access to personal data of citizens.

Reeling out statistics, Prasad said 68 crore people have taken SIM cards through Aadhaar and 65 crore bank accounts are linked through Aadhaar in a country of 140 crores. What he doesn’t mention is if the other forms of identification were rejected and further if Aadhaar authentication was forced while applying for the SIM Card or bank account. Then he added, “I cannot satisfy Premachandran.”

This impunity with which the government hopes to bulldoze the Bill and several other Bills is problematic. “The legislature is the last stand. If the Legislature doesn’t halt the Aadhaar project now, then there is no real recourse left for citizens. How much is Parliament acting as a conscience keeper of the government? We all forget the consequences of making Aadhaar mandatory in practice” points out Raghu Godavar, a member of Rethink Aadhaar which has been campaigning to widen awareness around the Aadhaar project.

Premachandran pointed out that since the Prime Minister was in the House, he indicated that the government had shown no indication of even introducing the Personal Data Protection Bill has not yet been introduced in Parliament. “Instead of bringing the Personal Data Protection Bill, the Government is introducing many legislations so as to have Aadhaar-based authentication. The personal rights of the people have to be protected by bringing a legislation - Personal Data Protection Bill,” he said. Other MPs wanted to raise objections to the introduction of the bill, but the Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla said they should have given notice for it earlier, even though some had.

The Aadhaar Amendments Bill needs to be seen in the backdrop of other legislation sweeping the country. “The government is keen on expanding the National Register for Citizens. Any person who has lived in the country for 180 days in the past year can apply for an Aadhaar number. But those deemed citizens by the NRC committees are being forced to enrol – and even ren-enrol for an Aadhaar. This is creating a new class of “Aadhaar-ed” citizens, which is discriminatory and also ignores the fact that by design Aadhaar is not proof of citizenship. Prasad refuses to see the problem with this” explains Raghu.

Moreover, what is in the law is not practised on the streets. Aadhaar is becoming mandatory for children in school, whatever the law might say. If you need to avail pensions, you need Aadhaar and even with Aadhaar being supposedly voluntary, exclusions from welfare benefits continue to result in starvation deaths in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and several other states.

The government has been pushing for Aadhaar-based digital payment solutions such as the NPCI’s BHIM. Unsurprisingly, Nandan Nilekani, the architect of the Aadhaar project, was part of the RBI’s High Level Committee on Deepening of Digital Payments. Ajay Bhushan Pandey, the CEO of UIDAI, is also Revenue Secretary, besides being Chairman of the GST Network. One of the proposed amendments in the Bill expands the UIDAI’s power to issue directions to any entity within the Aadhaar ecosystem, including banks, private entities and telecom companies - without any Parliamentary oversight whatsoever.

To sum, the government, in the guise of complying with the SC judgment, only seems to be concerned about allowing all commercial entities to be part of the Aadhaar data universe, with unrestricted access via amendments to existing legislation. What is being forgotten is the potential for abusing the citizen’s personal and informational privacy which the Supreme Court had warned against abundantly.

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