July 11, 2021 5:06:02 pm
Written by Vibhav Mariwala and Prakhar Misra
Last month, the Election Commission of India (ECI), reminded the Law Ministry to approve a slew of pending electoral reforms. Among these was hastening the linking of voter ID cards (EPIC database) with Aadhaar. In a discussion document for the Data Governance Network, we provided several reasons why the dangers outweigh the benefits. The absence of a law to protect personal data, lack of clarity on the mechanism of integration, danger of leaks and possibility of disenfranchisement of voters are key reasons why this move should not be rushed. In light of these and the current move, the entire idea should be revisited.
The ECI has justified this integration for a range of reasons, two key ones being improved accessibility to voting and reducing voter fraud. First, there have been calls to allow migrant workers to be given the right to vote regardless of their location, in order to let them participate in elections in their home states. Analysis by Sabrang India indicates that India lags in voter participation compared to other large democracies, a major reason being the staggering numbers of migrant workers — an estimated population of 300 million. Linking the two databases will allow the ECI to track migrant workers and improve election participation.
Second, this move is also expected to prevent voter fraud since Aadhaar information is authenticated using biometrics, which cannot be replicated, and in turn, the duplication of voter ID cards is prevented. The duplication of voter ID cards could be problematic since it allows people to vote in multiple areas given that they show different areas of residence.
In its current form, the proposed amendment to the Representation of the People Act (1950), will make this integration voluntary, not mandatory. This amendment does not remove other forms of identification to verify EPIC — such as driving license, passport, utility bills, etc. However, precedent warns us against the mandatory vs. voluntary stance, which kept changing throughout Aadhaar’s implementation. Apart from this, we caution against this move due to three specific dangers.
First, the proposed linking in the absence of a Personal Data Protection Law, can result in abuse and undermine the integrity of the voter roll. The use of demographic information, such as a caste certificate or driving license, when used to obtain an Aadhaar card could be harnessed by the EPIC database. This information could be used for targeted political advertising and, possibly, disenfranchisement. The institutional and technological mechanisms to prevent this need to be made clearer before this move is implemented.
Such fear has precedent. There have been examples of targeted surveillance using Aadhaar information and demographic data. In Andhra Pradesh, 5.167 million families’ locations could be tracked on a website run by the state government, using religion and caste as search criteria. Similarly, in an attempt to “purify” electoral rolls and remove duplicates, names of 2.2 million voters were deleted from the Telangana voter rolls. Many voters — including badminton player and 14-time national champion Jwala Gutta — were surprised to see their names deleted. The Telangana Election Commission used Aadhaar-based software for this purpose, according to an RTI query, which led to such disenfranchisement and violation of universal suffrage.
Second, the scope for fraud increases when these databases are interlinked. In 2020, UIDAI reported that it had cancelled 40,000 fake Aadhaar cards, the first time it admitted to fraud in its systems. Two specific concerns emerge for EPIC-Aadhaar integration. One, the authenticity of Aadhaar will determine the authenticity of the voter rolls and this could lead to fraudulent identities being legitimised. We saw this in the case of PAN-Aadhaar linkage where concerns of legitimising benami financial transactions were raised after UIDAI had accepted the scope of fraud in Aadhaar. Two, UIDAI, in multiple court cases, has admitted that it has no information about the enrolment operator, agency, or even their location while enrolling someone in Aadhaar. Redressing issues of dubious enrolment practices thus become difficult. In the case of EPIC integration, oversight mechanisms and other checks and balances to ensure the integrity of individual data is unclear. Given the reported scope for fraud with Aadhaar, this process could undermine the sanctity of the voter roll.
Third, multiple studies by multilateral organisations such as the World Bank have shown that having a single form of identification actually disenfranchises citizens and removes them from the welfare and electoral system. A study of voter ID requirements in Latin America revealed that countries with a single form of ID were likely to have fewer citizens participating in the electoral process since they were unable to prove their identity. This raises questions about the efficiency of the Aadhaar system. Considering many people have had trouble in establishing their identity for collecting food rations or mid-day meals using Aadhaar, it could be an issue for voting as well, thus undermining the institution of democracy itself.
Justice B N Srikrishna, Chairman of the committee that drafted the Personal Data Protection Bill, had earlier called the ECI’s proposal to link the two databases “most dangerous,” arguing that “if [the government] can collate the data, [it] can profile human beings.” The absence of robust data protection standards, and the fractured experience of previous integrations highlights the precariousness of this move. Instead, we would argue that until the PDPB is enacted, and the technical details of such an integration are made available to the public, this proposal should not move forward.
Mariwala is Senior Analyst at IDFC Institute and Misra is an independent researcher working on State Capacity and Indian Political Economy.
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