Stuck in the works for over three years and held hostage by much politicking, the Aadhaar process in Assam is scheduled to roll out on December 1 this year. And if things go as planned, it would take at least a year for the 3.4 crore people in the State to get the 12-digit Aadhaar identification cards, containing their biometric and demographic details. So the uncertainties over Aadhaar for people in the State would likely continue through 2018. It should be remembered that Aadhaar has been positioned as an identification card for ‘residents’ of India. Assam has been getting by on various exemptions declared by the Centre, but for how long? In May last, the Centre exempted citizens residing in Assam, Meghalaya and Jammu & Kashmir from mandatory quoting of Aadhaar while applying for PAN cards or filing income tax returns. This came after the amended Fince Act 2017 made it mandatory to provide Aadhaar number for these purposes from July 1, 2017. Earlier, the CBSE had exempted students of Assam from mandatory entering of Aadhaar details while applying for entrance test to the IITs. The Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) too extended the deadline to September 30 in the Northeast for getting Aadhaar number linked with PF accounts to avail pension benefits. It is obvious now that this deadline will need to be extended much farther. These are but some of the uncertainties dogging people from various walks of life in the State over Aadhaar, so the sooner it ends, the better for all concerned.
Aadhaar rollout in Assam
In a major policy shift, the BJP-led ruling dispensation in Dispur had decided in May this year on taking the Aadhaar plunge, but there the matter stood. The Sarbanda Sonowal government had justified its decision by pointing to hassles faced by students going outside the State for higher studies, patients seeking treatment in other States — and in general, of being an exception in a country where Aadhaar has become the de facto rule. The worry in Assam has long been that illegal migrants will push their citizenship claims further after getting their hands on Aadhaar cards, like they have been hitherto doing with voter ID cards and other documents. With the exercise to update the tiol Register of Citizens (NRC) missing deadlines and the issue of safeguards for indigenous people gaining more urgency, the BJP when it was in opposition, AASU and various regiol entities had advocated for ‘first NRC, then Aadhaar’ policy. In early 2014, the then Congress government in the State did try to push its brainchild Aadhaar via pilot projects in Sonitpur, Golaghat and gaon districts, but began to backpedal as it accused the incoming NDA government at the Centre of ‘hijacking’ its scheme. After the BJP-led alliance came to power in Assam last year, it initially did nothing to push Aadhaar, perhaps mindful of upsetting its core electorate about giving yet another document to suspect tiols. But no doubt, it had to change tack after being prodded by the NDA government at the Centre. The writing was on the wall earlier too when BJP spokesperson lin Kohli had rebuked the Congress regime for going slow on Aadhaar, asserting that Aadhaar is not a citizen’s ID card and it has ‘nothing to do with citizenship rights’.
Signifying the Sonowal government’s new-found resolve to go ahead with Aadhaar, its Parliamentary Affairs Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary informed the Assembly that there was no need to wait for completion of NRC exercise as ‘Aadhaar is not a proof of citizenship’. He also assured that a person would not be considered a citizen if his me is not in the updated NRC. Even as the NRC verification phase continues in painstaking manner, the State administration will now have to gear up for determining modalities, conducting awareness drives and training up ‘local vendors’ to collect data for Aadhaar. Only time will tell how the government deals with the NRC and Aadhaar databases, which for all practical purposes will be separate, one for citizens and the other for residents. But the 22 cases on Aadhaar presently being heard in a bunch by the Supreme Court’s constitutiol bench will bear watching as the Aadhaar exercise gets underway in Assam. In a landmark judgment recently, the apex court has upheld the right to privacy as a fundamental right inherent in Article 21 of the Constitution. It is now up to the Centre to convince the SC constitutiol bench that as far as Aadhaar is concerned, the data will be collected in authorized manner, that there will be a robust data protection regime, and that there will be a proper balance between individual interests and legitimate concerns of the State.