The NDA government has maged to get the Aadhar bill, a brainchild of the earlier UPA government, passed in the Lok Sabha. As usual, the Congress–led Opposition in the Rajya Sabha was getting ready for another bout of posturing over the proposed law. But this time, the Modi government employed a stratagem that has got the Opposition up in arms, protesting that the Rajya Sabha is being sought to be ‘made redundant in the days to come’. On Friday, the treasury benches tabled the Aadhar (Targeted Delivery of Fincial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016 in the Lok Sabha as a money bill. The point of a money bill is that only the Lok Sabha has the right to amend it; the Rajya Sabha merely gets to debate over it, that too within 14 days of tabling, or else it is deemed passed. Since the NDA does not have the numbers in the Upper House, the Opposition is alleging that the government has opened a new route to avoid scrutiny of bills there and bypass it altogether. Questions are being raised about the parliamentary clause cited to place the bill in the money bill category, which is supposed to involve levying of tax or expenditure through the Consolidated Fund of India. In the Lok Sabha, Fince minister Arun Jaitley argued that like any money bill, the Aadhar bill aims to facilitate payment of money into or withdrawal from the Contingency Fund. In this context, Jaitley claimed that targeted subsidy through Aadhar cards of just LPG consumers has helped the Central government save over Rs 15,000 crore. Four States using Aadhar cards on a pilot basis for PDS delivery, have also maged to save more than Rs 2,340 crore.
The Aadhaar bill aims to transfer subsidies and other benefits through a single window to intended beneficiaries by assigning them unique 12–digit identity numbers. All residents in India can apply; already biometric data like fingerprints and iris patterns of about 99 crore Indians have been collected so far under the programme. About 5–7 lakh people are getting Aadhar cards every day. But is this data safe from exploitation and misuse by outside agencies? A section of cyber security experts have however pointed out that the proposed Aadhar law focuses only on protection of biometric information, while leaving out other persol data like mes, addresses, photographs and demographic information. The bill seeks imprisonment of up to three years and fine up to Rs 10,000 or, in the case of a company, a fine up to Rs 1 lakh rupees for unlawful disclosure or sharing of core biometric information. But the 3–year imprisonment pelty makes the offence bailable, and is therefore not deterrent enough — experts have warned. They have also called for sufficient compensation to affected persons whose privacies have been compromised. With parliamentarians raising privacy concerns, it was left for IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to assure that no foreign agency has been involved in the process, that the biometric data is encrypted immediately after collection. He pointed to the three–tier architecture of State government, public sector banks and the common service center — to be secure enough to carry out the exercise and maintain it.
As for concerns about sharing of Aadhar data, government assurance was given that no data will be shared ‘without consent’ of residents, while biometric data will not be shared ‘even with their consent’. Some Opposition members in the Lok Sabha voiced suspicion that a government can use Aadhar data for ‘mass surveillance’ of people, demanding that the ‘flawed’ bill be referred to a standing committee. Opposing this, the Fince minister pointed out that the UPA government had tabled the Aadhar bill in December 2010, and that the proposed legislation has been discussed for over seven years. Interestingly, the issue of Aadhar cards has been challenged in the Supreme Court where it is still pending. Through interim orders, the apex court has permitted some benefits to be distributed through the Aadhar platform. So what the government seems to be aiming for is an ‘ebling atmosphere’ for Aadhar, though a section of civil rights activists allege it to be an attempt to present a ‘fait accompli’ before the apex court. With the first part of the budget session slated to end on March 16, it remains to be seen whether the Rajya Sabha gets sufficient time to discuss the Aadhar bill, voice legitimate concerns and have its good suggestions incorporated without undue politics.