Like all things great, the Aadhaar scheme is only as beneficial as the hand administering it. Aadhaar is one of the most transformational initiatives in independent India. The UPA government pioneered the idea and steadfastly supported it, notwithstanding the opposition of then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi or the 2011 standing committee led by Yashwant Sinha. It’s not my intention to question the merits of Aadhaar but the wisdom of obviating a discussion on the Aadhaar bill in the Rajya Sabha.
Most people in India do not drive, nor have they been issued passports. They are in precarious tenancy relationships not derived from written contracts. They don’t even have the basic amenities for which they can be billed. The intention behind Aadhaar was, first and foremost, to provide a sacrosanct proof of identity to Indian citizens, many of whom are at the mercy of state and Central bureaucrats to establish their identity. It was, and is, supposed to empower — eventually letting the Aadhaar identity be the point of convergence for social and economic benefits.
Indian citizens have embraced Aadhaar with a leap of faith in their government — the one that initiated it and the one to which its responsible stewardship has been passed. They have shared their identity information, including biometrics and address, with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) database. As far as they are concerned, the Aadhaar number is an enabler for opening a bank account, getting a mobile number, or an LPG connection, and so on.
However, let’s assume now that the government is interested in a citizen’s personal details. The person could be a criminal, or, more in keeping with the flavour of the times, politically inconvenient. So, should a joint-secretary-level officer in the home ministry be given the power to access and retrieve someone’s identity and transaction information from the UIDAI database with the excuse of “in the interest of national security”? As per the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill 2016 that has been passed by the Lok Sabha, this joint secretary can pull out identity and transaction information from the Aadhaar database. The officer will be empowered to impinge on a fellow citizen’s privacy based on powers derived from the Aadhaar bill. Should this clause have been passed as it is, or discussed widely?
There’s no denying that the state may have entirely legitimate reasons for enabling access to the identity information of certain citizens to select government officials under specific circumstances. But should it be as broadly defined as “interest of national security”? These are questions that need deliberation in detail by Parliament. In the absence of a privacy act for Indian citizens, the Aadhaar bill may likely be the de facto protector of citizens’ privacy. For a bill of such profound implications, tabling it as a “money bill” is an attempt to reduce the role of the Rajya Sabha — where the government doesn’t enjoy majority support. There are, then, two parts to the question — the role of the Rajya Sabha in legislation, and the trade-off between security and the sanctity of privacy.
During the Constituent Assembly debate on the role of the Rajya Sabha, the mover of the motion, N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar, remarked that “the role of the Upper House is merely to delay legislation which might be the outcome of passions of the moment until the passions have subsided”. It was obvious even to our founding fathers that the “House of the People” can fall prey to populist rhetoric and they, thus, felt the need for a “House of Elders” to instil calm. It’s ironic that a bill fundamentally aimed at preventing duplicate identities through biometric authentication is being duplicitously portrayed as a “subsidies and financial benefits” bill to enable it to bypass the Rajya Sabha. By renaming the National Identification Authority of India Bill as a “Targeted Delivery of Subsidies” bill to position it as legislation concerning finance and money, the government is being cheeky and dishonest. Aadhaar, at its core is about identity, privacy and efficiency, not money and subsidies.
The Opposition’s obstinacy, combined with the government’s paucity of collaborative skills, has rendered the legislature dysfunctional. It is thus entirely understandable that the government seeks to confine itself to its comfort zone (the Lok Sabha) for legislative action. However, the inability to get the Rajya Sabha on board is no excuse to bypass it, certainly not for important legislation that strike at the heart of individual freedom and privacy. The Aadhaar platform has the potential to fundamentally transform India’s welfare society. It proposes some weighty changes in terms of welfare delivery choices, transitioning to cash subsidies, citizen privacy rights and a digital society. It is then important that the bill elicit equally weighty discussion among legislators before becoming an act. Indian citizens cannot be short-changed through the hasty passage of such an important legislation that’s likely to transform most Indians’ lives radically. In avoiding the Rajya Sabha and given the prevailing majoritarian impulse in the Lok Sabha, there’s a real risk that the Aadhaar bill will not get the true attention it deserves before becoming law.
There’s also a larger question of popular consent before the Aadhaar scheme is fundamentally redefined. Crores of citizens have already enrolled in Aadhaar knowing that their privacy will be intact. The ambit of consent cannot now be enlarged in the name of national security.
As India jostles for a place among front-ranking nations, we must be mindful of happenings elsewhere. Apple has so far refused to cooperate with the FBI in unlocking the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooting suspect. To many, the FBI is using a case wherein few facts are disputed and public sentiment runs high. However, privacy advocates — and we all should be ones, for we all have private lives — fear rightly that once the door has been cracked open, a flood of such demands from the government would follow.
The government, with all the laws and technology at its command, can easily access the personal details of legitimate suspects through other means. The Aadhaar bill’s provisions for empowering bureaucrats are not tested against the principle of “insufficiency of other lawful means of gathering information”, possibly with good reason that the intrusions proposed by the bill are unnecessary. Increasingly, governments are under attack for presuming that citizens sacrifice privacy as part of the social contract. We, the people of India, with liberal traditions to defend, must draw a line beyond which our private lives cannot be shrunk by an intrusive government.