On April 8, 2014, the Prime Minister candidate Narendra Modi tweeted that on Aadhar “there is no vision, only political gimmick”. Yet the actions of his government in the years since coming to power have proved to be a complete “U-turn” from this opposition. This government has worked towards making the Aadhar scheme pervasive and mandatory, wreaking havoc on welfare and social entitlements, while weakening the security of citizen’s data and harming privacy.
CHARGE 1: BULLDOZING AADHAR ON CITIZENS
- Not only did this government continue the Aadhar scheme, they gave it legislative backing through the overbroad and inadequate Aadhar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, benefits and services) Act, 2016. This Act was not vetted by any Parliamentary committees and was instead passed through the highly controversial Money Bill route also ignoring the Rajya Sabha’s concerns and proposed amendments. Some sections of this Act did not survive judicial scrutiny through the final hearing in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy vs Union of India, which notably struck down the part of Section 57 allowing for Aadhar use by private entities, besides also declaring unconstitutional the use of Aadhar for mobile services, bank accounts and for school admissions, scholarships, and pensions.
- When the Aadhar Act did not survive examination by the SC intact, the government sought to overrule the judgment. The Aadhar and Other Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2019, brought back mobile and banking service providers into the Aadhar ecosystem. This was justified by amending the Telegraph Act and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, while also empowering the government to make Aadhar mandatory for other purposes. The Ordinance is as controversial as the original Act, and a legal challenge is already pending.
- In a October 2015 order, the Supreme Court allowed voluntary use of Aadhar for six welfare schemes (P.D.S. Scheme, L.P.G. Distribution Scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), National Social Assistance Programme (Old Age Pensions, Widow Pensions, Disability Pensions), Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), and, Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO). The government was also directed to publicise this fact widely. This notwithstanding, the use of the Aadhar number became de facto mandatory for as many as 139 government schemes, including many scholarships and pensions.
CHARGE 2: INCREASING AADHAR RELATED EXCLUSIONS AND STARVATION DEATHS
- Since 2015, as many as 75 starvation deaths have been reported from various states, 42 of which are a direct result of Aadhar-related exclusions. The deaths of 11-year old Santoshi Kumari and 64-year old Premani Kunwar, both in Jharkhand, found their way into mainstream reportage but most deaths have gone unreported. Worse, the government has continued to deny that the deaths are a result of exclusion, even in response to questions in Parliament.
CHARGE 3: INGNORING AADHAR’S TECHNOLOGICAL FAILURES
- The shortcomings of biometric authentication have been well-documented, even by the UIDAI. Yet, there is no attempt to redress grievances of those whom the Aadhaar ecosystem has simply failed, in particular manual labourers and the elderly. Even a former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist had to write a public plea as his grievances went unaddressed. The only response to reports of enrolment/ authentication failures is a stubborn denial and harassment of those affected.
CHARGE 4: MAKING A MOCKERY OF HEALTH, NREGA, AND EVEN DEATH
- The government made Aadhar mandatory for disability pensions, for HIV retroviral treatment, for tuberculosis patients, for pregnant women, and even for death certificates. Not only did these grossly violate the dignity of those already facing severe health risks, there were real threats to their privacy through the leakage of Aadhar data. Aadhar effectively became a tool for depriving people not just of welfare benefits but their very independence and privacy.
- The implementation of Aadhar-based initiatives has effectively been a “coercive and premature imposition” for MNREGA workers, who are already struggling to find work, and get paid in time for work done. The use of the Aadhar Payment Bridge System (APBS) as a tool to facilitate Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) of MNREGA wages has resulted in payments being diverted to completely unrelated bank accounts. According to one study, such erroneous transfers comprised 38% of all the APBS payments of MGNREGA wages in Jharkhand alone.
CHARGE 5: EXTENDING USE OF AADHAR TO PRIVATE ENTITIES, FACILITATING FRAUDS AND SCAMS
- Even while the debate around mandating Aadhar for welfare schemes raged, the government began Aadhar’s “function creep” by mandating it for filing income tax returns, and then for mobile and banking services. Suddenly, the middle class found themselves grappling with denial of services which were hitherto unimaginable.
- Allowing use of Aadhar-based payment systems was a core objective both for the government’s flagship Jan Dhan – Aadhar – Mobile (JAM) trinity as well as for “Aadhar Pay” applications such as Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) designed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI). However, given the Aadhaar ecosystem’s security vulnerabilities, these systems became an avenue for various frauds and scams. Many of these scams involved “fake” Aadhar rackets, about which the UIDAI has refused to provide details citing national security concerns.