On Tuesday, Rajya Sabha passed The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 to enable the linking of electoral rolls with the Aadhaar ecosystem. The rationale for doing so seems clear — linking the two will help identify duplicate voters, purge the electoral rolls of multiple enrolments, and help put an end to the practice of fraudulent voting. Moreover, in a country marked by a high degree of internal migration, where migrants at times find themselves disenfranchised, linking the two could help them in exercising their right to vote. While an earlier exercise to link the two was paused, with the Supreme Court ruling 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”, in principle, there can be no disputing the need to verify and “purify” the electoral rolls.
However, while attempts to address long-pending electoral reforms are welcome, there exists considerable ambiguity in the present instance. If the linking is indeed voluntary — Law Minister Kiren Rijiju has unequivocally stated in Parliament that “it is voluntary… not compulsory or mandatory” — then it is debatable to what extent this will be effective in weeding out the duplicate enrolment. Also, how will it be implemented for millions of voters across the country? Moreover, doing so will place the burden of proof on the voter, not the state. There is a legitimate concern that, in practice, the line between voluntary and mandatory may be breached. This is because the government will presumably define the “sufficient cause” on which basis a person chooses not to opt for the linkage. Lack of clarity over the definition could spark apprehensions that tighter restrictions will be imposed to link the two, making it either difficult or unfeasible to opt out of the process.
Aadhaar, or the unique identification architecture, when it was first laid out, was meant to provide an identity to every resident of India. Over the years, its scope has been steadily expanded — from the filing of income tax returns to Covid vaccines now. It has also been used effectively in plugging leaks in an array of social welfare schemes. But the benefits that stem from this linkage will depend on the seamless integration and effective working of systems. This may not be as straightforward, as has been brought home by the instances of exclusion errors in accessing entitlements under various social security schemes. As experts have also pointed out, there is an inherent tension between maintaining privacy and shoring up the integrity of electoral rolls. Firewalls will need to be put in place, and strengthened. The risks and dangers of “profiling” the voters will need to be examined. These issues need to be thoroughly debated. It is troubling that the amendments were passed without a detailed discussion in the House. The consequences of ramming through laws without adequate consultation and debate in Parliament were underlined by the agitation against the farm laws. The government would do well to initiate a larger discussion on the bill it has pushed through with undue haste.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 23, 2021 under the title ‘Needed: Firewalls’.