Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam
The continuous engagement between the Supreme Court, the Union government and civil society for quite a while has obfuscated issues relating to the Aadhaar card. Despite such engagement since 2010, people’s worries about justice, fair play, national security, protection of privacy and personal security of citizens, including personal data security, have not been addressed. Not that the government’s stance on these issues has been reassuring.
A particularly galling aspect of all this has been the Union government’s declaration in the Supreme Court that Indian citizens have no fundamental right to privacy. Matters are not helped by the fact that at some stage foreign agencies have been involved in the Unique Identification ID project and there is no firm and reliable assurance of protection of personal data, or national security.
In its directives the Supreme Court has been telling government not to make Aadhaar mandatory for essential services, benefits and entitlements. However, the Centre and the states have moved on regardless of the Supreme Court directives making Aadhaar mandatory for virtually everything, from school admission to mid-day meal, hospitalisation, other health benefits to jobs across myriad sectors. In case of individuals (particularly poor, weak and undefended individuals) it would have surely attracted contempt of court proceedings.
The Union government has also tried to take advantage of an apparent inconsistency between the stances of a 5-judge Supreme Court constitutional bench and another smaller bench headed by the chief justice of India, Justice Khehar Singh. Last week Solicitor General Mukul Rohtagi told a bench of SC judges that the court was making self-contradictory observations.
The present stance of the SC is that Aadhaar is not mandatory for benefits and entitlements, but the reality is that it has already been made mandatory across services and benefits. According to one count, the government has issued 91 notifications covering as many areas, making Aadhaar mandatory for them, including such basics as public distribution system, pension and MNREGA, all after Supreme Court’s orders. The judiciary is clueless about this devil-may-care attitude of government.
There are pressing issues of justice and fair play that have to be addressed by the judiciary, the Centre and states. People have been denied access to basic entitlements like hospitalisation, college admission and jobs on the alleged grounds that they did not have the mandatory Aadhaar card. In fact, many people denied such entitlements did not have Aadhaar, not because of their own fault but because the crude technology employed by the Unique Identification Project had failed to deliver.
Among those people who enrolled for Aadhaar, ten percent of them did not get it because their palms could not be read properly by the machines, or their irises could not be photographed with an acceptable degree of resolution. Children of less than five years (Aadhaar not required for them) do not have the palm lines developed to the required degree, manual workers’ palm lines get frequently distorted because of heavy use of hands for making a living. Old people’s palm lines shift over the years and can get indistinct. Because of the crude technology used in the Aadhaar project, the impression of such people is not properly taken, nor are the irises of people with cataract or cornea damage properly photographed. As a result, such people are not issued Aadhaar.
All such people (whose number runs in crores) who are denied Aadhaar because of inadequacy of equipment used in the project are also denied access to benefits, services and entitlements. This is a clear case of citizens being punished for the failures of the state. Citizens are not compensated for this loss, government does not apologise. A huge number of citizens are thus forced to suffer in silence.
There are other ways of the failure of this system. Shifts in palm lines are always noted as people age and eye diseases distort the iris in many people over a period of time. When such people go to claim benefits with such cards their biometric data of the present may not match with their Aadhaar and they may have to return empty handed. As many as 30 percent people are not getting grains at PDS outlets because of such failures. Eighty five lakh Aadhaar cards have been cancelled for these reasons.
Besides national security implications, Aadhaar, used for so many services can become the basis for generation of virtually endless data, which is then used for marketing of products and services by shrewd business interests, without the consent of the persons concerned. Such data (demographic and biometric) can be used for profiling by a ruthless state. Attempts at profiling of Muslims were seen in Gujarat during Narendra Modi’s chief ministership.
Advanced democracies, which once tried creating a national database, finally cancelled the project fearing its evil effects. The United States, Britain and Australia have cancelled the project and destroyed data. The British home secretary explained that they were cancelling the project because it amounted to “intrusive bullying” of the citizen by the state and that the government intended to be the “servant”, not “master” of the people. Likewise, the Supreme Court of the Philippines struck down the President’s Executive Order A.O. 308 instituting a biometric national ID. The Supreme Court said the order was an overreach of the executive over the legislative power of the Congress and was an invasion of privacy.
Aadhaar, along with computers, smart phones, NATGRID and a huge number of areas of its application is going to generate so much data about individual citizens that they will have not even a shred of privacy left. It will be like being forced to stand naked in the public square.
At this point it is important to remember that the US President Richard M. Nixon was impeached and unceremoniously kicked out of the White House because his men had stolen the medical record of his rival in the presidential election from the latter’s office at Watergate.
The Nixon campaign tried to tell people (on the basis of the medical record) that a man of uncertain health was unfit to be the US president. The Watergate scandal became a landmark in US history. Today, much greater data theft is possible without raising any doubt, with great harm to the person whose data is stolen. As the Centre has already declared in the Supreme Court, Indians have no basic right to privacy, we cannot even complain. Before its harm becomes obvious it is better to drop the UID Project forthwith.