On Thursday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley introduced the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill in Lok Sabha to provide “statutory backing” to the scheme of issuing unique identification numbers to every resident and using this biometric information-based platform to make payments under welfare schemes. HARISH DAMODARAN explains what this entails
Many of us have Aadhaar or the 12-digit UID number based on the demographic (name, date of birth and address) and biometric (fingerprint and iris scanning) information that we have submitted to the enrollment agency concerned. So, what does this new bill really achieve?
The original purpose of the UID scheme was to establish the identity of individuals to ensure targeted delivery of subsidies and services under various welfare programmes of the government. The idea here was to ensure these benefits were going to the intended recipients. The Aadhaar platform was to serve as a means to authenticate the identity of the purported beneficiary, while weeding out fictitious, duplicate or non-targeted recipients.
But hold on, don’t we already have Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) in LPG cylinders that link customer connection and bank account numbers with Aadhaar? Besides, one hears even programmes like MGNREGA have Aadhaar-enabled payment systems today. And apparently, well over 98 crore individuals have been issued Aadhaar cards as of now.
All that is true: Indeed, since November 2014, some Rs 29,600 crore of subsidy payments have been transferred to over 15 crore beneficiaries under the DBT for LPG scheme. However, the Supreme Court ruled on September 23, 2013, that no person should suffer or be denied any service from the government for not possessing an Aadhaar card. In a subsequent ruling on August 11, 2015, the court said that the production of an Aadhaar card will not be a condition “for obtaining any benefits otherwise due to a citizen”, and directed the Centre to “give wide publicity in the electronic and print media… that it is not mandatory for a citizen to obtain an Aadhaar card”.
So, how has this government been implementing programmes like DBT for LPG?
Well, the Supreme Court’s August 11, 2015 order allowed the Aadhaar platform to be used for issue of foodgrains and kerosene under the PDS, and also for transfer of subsidy on LPG cylinders. On October 15, 2015, it also added payments under MGNREGA, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, old age/widow/disability pensions and the EPFO in the list of schemes for which the Aadhaar platform could be deployed. At the same time, the court reiterated that “the Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this court one way or the other”.
What was “the matter” being referred to?
There are a number of cases challenging the use of Aadhaar in government programmes and the alleged invasion of the right to privacy of citizens resulting from the scheme. These cases have been referred to a Constitution Bench that is to deliver its verdict. Till that happens, the use of the Aadhaar platform in government schemes would remain restricted.
What would the Bill that has been introduced now do?
The Bill seeks to give statutory backing to the processes of enrolment, authentication and use of Aadhaar-related information for delivery of various benefits, subsidies and services by the government. Further, it has provisions to guarantee the security and confidentiality of identity information and authentication records of every individual who has been issued an Aadhaar number. The fact that there is no law in place, based on which the Aadhaar enrolments and use in government programmes have been happening, always makes the UID scheme open to challenge. Nor is there any legal recourse now for a person in the event of any misuse of identity information collected in the course of enrolment or authentication. All this uncertainty would end once there is a law governing the Aadhaar project. And the fact that 95% of India’s adult population has already been issued UID cards, perhaps, also make‘ the ‘voluntary versus mandatory’ debate rather infructuous today.