To deliver on its promise of good governce, the rendra Modi government has been setting much in store by its Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile (JAM) platform — to ensure that subsidies reach the beneficiaries targeted. But the strategy the Treasury benches adopted to push the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Fincial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016 as a money bill has set off another round of confrontation with the Opposition. More than that, it resulted in a virtual face-off between the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, with Opposition members appealing to the government not to toss away its amendments ‘on ego’. But with the government suspecting the intentions of the Congress in trying to push five amendments to a proposed legislation it had itself initiated in 2010, it was but inevitable that the Lok Sabha would reject all the amendments and filly pass the bill in its origil form. The Congress argued that the Aadhar law must come with safeguards to prevent sensitive biometric or demographic information of residents being accessed ‘on the whim of the Executive’, that the provision for disclosing such information on the ground of ‘tiol security’ is likely to be misused and should be replaced by ‘public emergency and public safety’, that there should be altertive systems for those choosing to opt out of Aadhar or not to enroll for it, and that the Aadhar Oversight Committee must include the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) or the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG).
Since the Supreme Court is considering the question whether a mandatory Aadhar number encroaches upon individual privacy, it was contended by the Opposition that, as of now, Parliament is not competent to make such a law. Rejecting this argument, Fince minister Arun Jaitley asserted that under the Constitution, Parliament has the power to make laws while the Judiciary has the power to review the laws ected. Barring any Supreme Court ruling against Aadhar, the government can now therefore proceed under the new law to provide a range of Aadhar-linked services, beyond the five so far provisiolly allowed by the apex court. Any public or private entity can use the Aadhar number as identity proof of a person receiving a subsidy, benefit or service; banks can use Aadhar numbers to identify customers and weed out bogus Jan Dhan accounts. Those not having Aadhar numbers will be given altertive identification, but surely, they will be in a tiny minority. The Aadhar number will however not be a proof of citizenship or domicile. The government has assured that the Unique Identification Authority (UIDAI) will operate under constraints not to share information relating to individuals. However, the new law specifies two exceptions under which Aadhar information can be disclosed — firstly, in the interest of tiol security, and secondly, on the order of a court.
Several Opposition members in Parliament aired reservations about the first exception, which allows a even a Joint Secretary in the Central government to issue directions for revealing Aadhar information on the ground of ‘tiol security’. There will be an Oversight Committee (consisting of the Cabinet Secretary and Secretaries of Legal Affairs and Electronics and Information Technology) to review such decisions, but the fear is that these committee members being bureaucrats will be susceptible to Executive pressure. Jaitley countered the Congress argument against the ‘tiol security’ phrase by pointing out that it has been ‘borrowed’ from the legislation the UPA government tried to ect earlier. He also argued that ‘public safety and public emergency’ is a vaguer, undefined phrase that cannot replace ‘tiol security’. However, a section of social activists still claim that the government has not fully addressed concerns about ‘mass surveillance’ through the Aadhar database. Meanwhile, despite the Parliament going for a 40-day break in the budget session, the controversy over the government trying to bypass Rajya Sabha scrutiny (where the Opposition has the numbers) by employing the ‘money bill’ tactic is not likely to die down soon. It is a pity because during this session, the government and the Opposition have shown a welcome spirit of accommodation to pass some key bills, including the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill. In the second half of the budget session, other important bills like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) amendment bill and the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) bill will be coming up in the Rajya Sabha, so the government needs all the goodwill it can muster.