Of Voters, Citizens and Smart Cards
The Chief Election Commissioner has a mission. He wants clean voters lists everywhere in the country. The Election Commission has already begun to weed out duplicate, bogus, ineligible and shifted voters from the database of voters in selected constituencies. This is being done by linking unique identification (UID) Aadhaar numbers with the photo identity cards of voters. In places like Noida of Uttar Pradesh, the district administration is carrying out this task in full swing. Chief Election Commissioner HS Brahma recently said that once the process of linking UID Aadhaar numbers with photo IDs of every voter is complete, India will become the only country in the world to have biometric data with no duplication in the voters list. This is because Aadhaar cards assign a 12-digit unique number to every resident (not citizen) of the country, containing residential, demographic and biometric information like fingerprints and iris pattern of the card holder. With 85 crore Indians already receiving their Aadhar cards, the Chief Election Commissioner is upbeat about filly having clean voters lists linked to a vast IT-ebled database which can be accurately monitored. But he may have a problem with the Supreme Court which has already ruled that possessing the Aadhaar card is not a prerequisite for availing public services. The apex court has taken a stern view on this matter, with the suspicion growing that the Central government is playing a cat-and-mouse game by somehow getting the process completed first, and then presenting a fait accompli to the court.
In the Election Commission’s defence, the CEC has said that while Aadhaar cards are not compulsory, ‘every day lakhs of voters are seeding their mes with Aadhaar cards on their own’. Recently though, the Supreme Court sternly told the Solicitor General that if authorities in various states are still insisting on Aadhaar card for disbursing government benefits or subsidies, it will virtually amount to contempt of court. This is because the Supreme Court had passed an interim order in September 2013, ruling that no public services can be mandatorily linked to Aadhaar. This was followed by the Supreme Court, in an order on 24 March last year, restraining the Central government and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) from sharing Aadhaar data with any third party or agency. However, it has reportedly come to light that the UIDAI has already shared the data with foreign and Indian private companies, who can keep this data for at least seven years. In fact, PILs filed in the apex court have voiced worries that data mining companies will use the huge Aadhaar database for commercial purposes, with Central and state governments as willing accomplices. IT experts point out that this database will be stored in the Internet ‘cloud’ in faraway servers, which is beyond Indian tiol jurisdiction. Rather, the US administration, particularly its spy agencies with their supercomputers, can have access to the Aadhaar database. Within India too, the possibility of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies accessing this database is very real. The Supreme Court has thus considered the question whether the Aadhaar project at all has constitutiol validity, and whether collecting biometric data of residents by government and private agencies amounts to violation of individual privacy. On both counts, the apex court has ruled against the Aadhaar card being mandatory for all residents.
The Manmohan Singh government had defended the Aadhaar project as essential for good governce, transparent implementation of government schemes and ensuring that benefits reach only targeted beneficiaries. The rendra Modi government has made no secret of its enthusiasm for this UPA brainchild, informing the Supreme Court that it wants to retain the project. Though it has promised the apex court of not denying any public service or subsidy due to non-possession of Aadhaar card, the NDA government’s actions speak otherwise. Both the UPA and NDA governments have projected the Aadhaar card as the ultimate smart card — to which PAN card, driving license, voter’s ID card, bank passbooks and all other details can be linked. The Aadhaar card is already being linked to cooking gas subsidies, taking out passports, registering properties and even getting school admissions. During its latest hearing, the Supreme Court was informed that even the Bombay High Court Registrar got a circular from the government stating that all its staff and judges must furnish Aadhaar cards with their numbers for drawing their salaries! As for the Northeast, the Aadhaar project is racing ahead in Sikkim and Tripura, already covering more than 90 per cent of their populations. In galand and Manipur, more than 40 per cent of the population have been covered. However, not even one per cent of the population in Meghalaya and Assam have been covered so far. The Khasi Students’ Union blocked the Aadhaar enrolment drive in Shillong last year, demanding that the state government should first enlighten the people about the usefulness of the process. As for Assam, the state government’s preoccupation with upgrading the NRC from April this year, has put the Aadhaar project implementation on the backburner. By the time it begins the Aadhaar exercise, hopefully its loopholes will be plugged by the Centre.