Even as the Central government rapidly expands the scope of the biometric-backed unique identity Aadhaar project – making it mandatory for filing income tax returns, purchasing new mobile phone connections and accessing mid-day meals in schools, among other things – parliamentarians aired their concerns about Aadhaar during a discussion in Rajya Sabha on Monday.
Oppositions Members of Parliament (MPs) rallied together to criticise the government over Aadhaar’s expansion, claiming it violated orders of the Supreme Court and excluded beneficiaries from availing government subsidies. The issue of securing a citizen’s Aadhaar data was also raised, as was the potential misuse of collected data.
For its part, the government claimed Aadhaar is “robust”, “safe” and “secure” and defended its expansion by contending it helped plug leakages in various schemes. In fact, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, initiated the discussion by telling the House that the government has saved Rs 50,000 crore by linking Aadhaar with Jan Dhan bank accounts, facilitating Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) of subsidies. Calling the figure “mind-boggling”, Congress’ Jairam Ramesh, contested Prasad’s claim, saying the numbers are “highly questionable”. He likened Prasad’s claim to a similar one floated by the government last year when it said that DBT for LPG had helped save Rs 15,000 crore by stopping black marketing and diversions. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), however, had punctured the claim, saying that 92 per cent of the reported savings were due to fall in oil prices and that savings due to government initiatives stood at Rs 1,764 crore.
Ramesh further went on to allege that savings being touted by the government in various schemes through linkage of Aadhaar were due to exclusion of people from claiming benefits. Citing the example of Rajasthan, which has made biometric authentication mandatory for drawing rations under the Public Distribution System (PDS), Ramesh said that in the month of March “out of one crore ration card holders in Rajasthan, 74 lakhs drew their wheat ration”. “It means that 26 per cent of the households who could draw wheat are not drawing wheat. That is exclusion, Mr Minister,” Ramesh told the House. “Month after month after month, at least, twenty-five per cent of those, who are entitled to draw wheat based on their ration cards, are not drawing wheat because of some error or the other in the Aadhaar ecosystem,” he added.
Raising the issue of privacy and data security, KTS Tulsi said that even though the government has protected the data through encryption, it is made vulnerable when linkages are made to banks and other agencies. This, he said, has rendered the database “a heaven for the hackers”. Raising the issue of data misuse by “fly-by-night companies”, Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’Brien likened the database to a “honey pot” which could be breached. On the question of Aadhaar data, Communist Party of India’s (CPI) D Raja raised concerns about the company contracted to manage the database by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which he claimed had links to America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “The Government has to answer whether such critical data of all Indian citizens has been compromised and whether the data is safe and secure with this foreign company,” Raja said. Independent MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar also pointed out that the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery Of Financial And Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 “places no accountability on UIDAI as an institution to protect the database and the personal information that users and consumers provided”.
In response, Prasad stuck to the government’s line that it isn’t making Aadhaar mandatory to avail services. “You need to come on Aadhaar, but the benefits will not be denied to you. You can come with alternative identity proof, be it Ration Card, be it MGNREGA Card, be it Driving Licence or other,” Prasad clarified. As noted in the introduction and contrary to his pronouncement, the government has effectively made Aadhaar mandatory for a slew of schemes. Further, reports of block and district officials in charge of various schemes – under pressure from the top – coercing people to enrol for Aadhaar to meet targets have also emerged.
He assured the House that Aadhaar doesn’t invade the privacy of citizens as “the most minimum of data has been taken” and “authorities are under strict instructions to maintain that secrecy, and if they flout, they can also suffer three years of imprisonment and prosecution”. “In the last six years, we have cancelled and blacklisted 34,000 operators who tried to pollute the system or tried to make fake Aadhaar Cards,” Prasad added. The number is hardly an assurance, signifying the potential abuse of the Aadhaar ecosystem. Moreover, he didn’t share any information about steps the government is taking to prevent such abuse.
He also said “there is no data leak, there is no systematic problem”, even though a recent report indicated that the government has acknowledged Aadhaar data leaks in internal deliberations. Several news stories had also reported that it was possible to access Aadhaar numbers and sensitive personal details of a large number of Indians with a simple Google search.
The discussion in Rajya Sabha, brief as it was, was illuminating in that it showcased the government’s continued denial of potential flaws in the Aadhaar ecosystem. Instead of taking note of the objections raised by parliamentarians – which have been voiced by civil society for long – the government is doubling down on its stand, even portraying critics as irrational. During the discussion, Bharatiya Janata Party’s Vinay Sahasrabuddhe went as far as accusing Opposition MPs of indulging in “politics of paranoia”. Equating concern regarding the private data of Indian citizens to paranoia is indeed indicative of the government’s aversion to criticism.