Is tagging everyone the ultimate aim of Aadhaar?

Rights activists apprehend that the NDA government seems to be in an unusual hurry to tag everyone with the faulty unique identification project and calls for its evaluation

Photo by Subhankar Chakraborty/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Subhankar Chakraborty/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

NH National Bureau

When it comes to collecting funds for political parties, the NDA Government may not bother to make Aadhaar mandatory and leaves plenty of scope for “anonymous donors”. But, for almost every government scheme relating to the poor, women or even children, there is an unusual hurry to make it mandatory. A February 28 notification, for instance, said that it was mandatory for children to have their Aadhaar numbers embedded into the database for them to be served their mid-day meal in Government schools—a move seen as bizarre by many.

After much public outcry, the Modi government slightly tweaked its stand to say on Tuesday assuring “no one will be deprived of the benefits for lack of Aadhaar.” But, that was only partially true because all those who enrol into a scheme would still be enrolled into Aadhaar soon after. The Centre, in fact, has been blatantly defying Supreme Court orders. On October 15, 2015, the apex court said that citizens couldn’t be forced to produce Aadhaar number to avail of government welfare schemes and benefits.

“Making Aadhaar mandatory for the delivery of public services is illegal and anti-poor. There is a need to carefully examine and evaluate the UID (unique identification) project before it is insidiously pushed into every aspect of our lives,” said a consortium of rights activists and campaigns on Tuesday in New Delhi. Some important issues were raised.

The objective and the reality

The UIDAI website says the aim is to identify fake and ghost identities which result in leakages. However, that’s not exactly the ground reality.

Making UID mandatory to access rights and entitlements is, in fact, leading to exclusion both at the time of applying for entitlements and at the time of delivery. “Aadhaar has created enormous barriers to access hard-won legal entitlements,” says Dipa Sinha of the Right to Food Campaign.

In a PDS pilot study by Delhi Government's Department of Food and Supplies, when ration cardholders had problems with biometric authentication, the machines—by default—would put them in the category of “household yet to take ration” instead of “transactions with ‘No’ response from Aadhar’. And, for no fault of theirs, they would be removed from the scheme after a certain time. Many helpless poor thus would end up in the category of ‘fake or ghost identities’.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 7 claimed in the Lok Sabha that 3.95 crore ‘fake’ ration cards had been detected and leakages of about ₹14,000 crore plugged. Anjali Bhardwaj of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan points out that as the field studies show, most of these were likely due to authentication issues of the handheld devices.

Besides, with Aadhaar being dependent on internet and electricity, there were issues of connectivity not just in rural areas but in the national capital as well.  “In South Delhi, there is a ration shop with no signal and no network. Finally, the POS (point-of-sale) machine was hung on a jamun tree so it could work,” says Amrita Johri of Satark Nagrik Sangathan. “When there are so many failures. Why is there no acknowledgment of this by the government?”

Privacy and identity issues

Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karamchari Andolan is peeved with the government tagging all, forever. “I want the choice to make my identity. In some places, I can say I am son of a scavenger. It’s not my choice to be scavenger, you made me a scavenger, as a citizen I must have the right to reveal/hide my identity whatever it is,” he says.

“Aadhaar is a stigma upon us and makes our identity forever. Sanitation work is reserved by caste and Aadhaar perpetuates inequality,” laments Wilson.

In fact, women rescued from trafficking or sex work would also be marked in databases for life if they avail of the scheme that is supposedly aimed at assisting these women.

Making people transparent and government opaque

Usha Ramanathan, independent legal researcher, says the UID (unique  identification) inverts the idea of transparency. “It makes people transparent but the state opaque,” she says. She says that the project began with the premise that the poor would be given an identity. However, now the narrative has changed to “you will not get your entitlement if you don't have this number.”

Not just that. With Aadhar rapidly becoming ubiquitous for almost everything—from banking to getting a cellphone connection to provident fund to government schemes—the various silos of an individual’s life would be available in the government’s hands, at any time.

“The state must have its limitations into entering my life. Why can't any person say stop this, why can't we discuss this? Why do we have Aadhaar? Nobody knows,” says Bezwada Wilson.

In the context of mid-day meal for children in government schools, issues of privacy and consent are even more important. “Why do children have to be numbered and marked to get meals?” asks Sinha. Biometrics in children, points out Ramanathan, aren’t even fully developed and Aadhaar doesn’t help in authentication in any way.

In the March 7 statement, though the Centre assures that a child without Aadhaar would not be denied benefits under mid-day meal or the Integrated Child Development Scheme, the school or ICDS functionary “should provide” Aadhaar enrolment facilities. Meaning, every child would be tagged.

“The emphasis on Aadhaar is not about delivery of services but it’s about tagging people—right from childhood,” concludes Ramanathan.

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Published: 09 Mar 2017, 10:05 AM