A legislation and the way it was passed by the Parliament recently grabbed headlines, and not for all the right reasons. This was the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016. It is related to that ‘enigma’ (for many) called the Aadhaar number, a unique 14-digit number that is allotted to the applicant. This was introduced by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) during the UPA regime and was then continued by the current NDA government. However, it has always been plagued with controversies.

The Aadhaar enrolment procedure requires one to submit biometrics (photograph, fingerprints, iris scan) as well as demographic information (name, date of birth, address). Once the UIDAI verifies the same, this unique number is issued to the applicant who may use it as proof of identity in several places, such as opening a bank account, booking a flight ticket etc. However, many people are not comfortable with the idea of all their details resting in a centralized database at the mercy of the government. And making ‘Aadhaar’ mandatory, thereby making collection of such information compulsory has been viewed by many as an infringement of the right to privacy of citizens.

The Honourable Supreme Court had earlier restricted the use of Aadhaar to the public distribution system and LPG subsidies. However, last year, the Apex Court extended its use to other security schemes like MNREGA, Jan Dhan Yojana, pension and provident fund schemes. Importantly though, the court clarified that the use of Aadhaar should remain voluntary and no person should be deprived of benefits under schemes merely for want of an Aadhaar number.

All this seems set to change if the Aadhaar Bill, 2016 receives the Presidential nod. The Bill was introduced as a money bill by the Ministry of Finance, claiming that since Aadhaar was an effective method to disburse benefits from the Consolidated Fund of India, and would ensure greater transparency and efficacy, it should be given legal backing now. The government claims that by linking disbursement of subsidies and benefits to Aadhaar, it will save enormously.

But all is not well. The other side of the debate is that Aadhaar will prove to be a deterrent to the efficiency of the very system it seeks to improve. There have already been cases where potential benefactors have had to wait in long lines due to network problems or their claims have been denied due to a mismatch of the biometrics. It is worth considering as to how efficient such a technology-driven system can be when we are still struggling to provide electricity round-the-clock. Further, the Bill stipulates broad provisions as to when the personal data of an individual can be revealed ‘in the interest of national security’ or on a Court order. This is too wide and general a definition to accord comfort to millions of citizens when we have something to learn from Snowden’s revelations on blanket surveillance by the US government. Moreover, a court cannot be approached directly in case of a complaint regarding the violation of this law. Only the UIDAI and those authorized by it are eligible to do so.

These may seem like a set of pros and cons, as is the case with any other policy decision. But after seeing the way the Bill was presented as a money bill, limiting the control of the Rajya Sabha on it, and then amendments to the Bill,mostly protecting citizens’ rights, suggested by the Rajya Sabha, being passed and then rejected in the Lok Sabha, which retained the original draft, one cannot help but feel a little discomfited.

The coming days will reveal whether ‘Aadhaar’ will become the ‘aadhaar’ (basis) of our identity or not…

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