The Cognizant Citizen: The Aadhar That Couldn’t

Multi-purpose National Identity Card. National Authority for Unique Identification. Unique Identification of Authority of India. Many names, one ID— Aadhar, the world’s largest biometric initiative.  The seemingly harmless card that an Indian citizen is expected to acquire holds vital information such as the name, date of birth, and address, but ties into biometric data and demographic information at the same time.

History

The birth of the Aadhar was a result of The Kargil War. Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government in the year 2000 inferred the urgency of accounting for people of the country, with those living near the border as a top-most priority. And so the government set out to bring all their citizens under one central umbrella, the 26/11 terrorist attacks only intensifying the need to record every person living in the country. A total of ₹87.84 billion was spent on setting up the scheme, and nine years since its implementation has resulted in 1.22 billion enrolled members, with 99% of legal adults possessing an Aadhar card. Targeted mainly towards the lower end of the socio-economic strata, this program was cited by the ruling party as a beginning towards development schemes for regulatory and security purposes and to assist in the financial sector.

The Initial Law

On December 3rd 2010, the UPA government introduced The National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 (NIAI Bill) in the Rajya Sabha. A week later, the NIAI Bill, 2010 was sent to a Standing Committee for a report following the examination of the said bill. Under Yashwant Sinha, the Standing Committee on Finance rejected the bill citing concerns about data collection by private agencies. The Committee then made several amendments and recommendations, pushing to enforce a data protection law before the implementation of the program.

Due to the petition put forward by Justice K.S Puttuswamy in 2012, The Supreme Court, a year later, stated that Aadhar is not mandatory for availing any benefits. Fast forwarding to 16th March 2016, The Lok Sabha passed the Aadhar Bill in its original form after completely disregarding the suggestions put forth by the Rajya Sabha. Since the Aadhar Act was passed as a money bill, Jairam Ramesh (member of Rajya Sabha) challenged the decision on April 25th, 2016.

The Controversy

What followed was a fierce exchange of accusations of privacy infringement and circumvention of various bills, which delayed the implementation of this digital move significantly. According to reports, 210 Aadhar related data leaks have been recorded as of November 2017, causing outrage on social media aside from vehement protests against the scheme. Strategic challenges were posed by eminent personalities of the government— such as retired judge of the Karnataka High Court, Justice KS Puttaswamy and, very recently, RS Sharma, who previously headed the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). #AadharChallenge soon became a trending topic on Twitter, with criticism of the project garnering an unignorably large amount of attention.
On the other hand, earlier this year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates had an enthusiastically positive approach to the idea, essentially appreciating its trail-blazing nature. One of the early architects of the program, Praveen Chakravarty, in conversation with the Bloomberg Quint, had released a fairly confused stance on the agenda with which Aadhar was initiated and the stage it has presently progressed to.

On the whole, the concept of Aadhar has sparked a wide and varied contrast of opinion towards its implementation, even as it is being implemented. The first lady to acquire her Aadhar card, on September 29. 2010, reportedly went through the process mainly to increase her chances of employment, according to India Today. In retrospection, she muses that it was of suitable use to gain a SIM card but now is indifferent to the recent happenings.

Along with infringement of privacy being the primary cause of concern, another fundamental issue that cannot be ignored is the number of errors reported in the Aadhar database. A recent study, State of Aadhaar, conducted by IDinsight, a global development analytics firm, revealed that 8.8% of Aadhaar holders reported errors in their name, age, address, or other information. The system has also made provisions for the protection of privacy, in relation to a biometric locking option, to secure biometric data. However, according to the aforementioned survey, a mere 3% of Aadhar cardholders are informed of this facility.

When it comes to education, Aadhar cards were widely propagated in schools, with drives being held to accept a school ID card as proof of identity to create an Aadhar card. To specifically target children below 5 years, the government was offering ‘Baal Aadhar’ cards, temporary versions of the very same identity. Students were advised to create an Aadhar card in the responsibility of their parents and renew their biometric information on attaining majority. The apex to the tie-up between education and Aadhar arrived when boards like the Central Board of Secondary Education and the University Grant Commission made the possession of an Aadhar Card compulsory to gain access to specific educational benefits. In the case of the UGC, Aadhar was compulsory to graduate with a degree, as an initiative to decrease fake degrees and frauds in the system.

The Amendment

On the 26th of September, 2018, the five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court declared the Aadhar to be constitutionally valid but modified a chunk of the previously implemented provisions. The majorly noticeable change was the ruling out of private entities from accessing Aadhar data. Now, linking bank accounts and mobile numbers to an Aadhar Card is no longer a requirement and according to the court, no individual can be denied these opportunities on the basis that he/she lacks this unique ID. Another notable point highlighted in this change is that the Aadhar is no longer compulsory for school admissions, thus hoping to provide equal opportunities to all sectors of the society. With major changes like these having to be implemented in a short duration of time, citizens are in a frenzy trying to de-link Aadhar data from wherever it isn’t a compulsion to provide it any longer.
Since data protection and privacy was the major source of controversy in the first place, the Supreme Court also urged the central government to introduce stronger data protection laws. “Data obtained is very very minimal, the benefits especially to marginalised is large,” said Justice AK Sikri during the hearing.

The Response

While the SC made amendments which are believed to be the best for the country, a gaping ‘plot hole’ of sorts was noticed by people in the modified scheme. While the Aadhar is not a compulsion to open a bank account, the SC stated that a PAN card is necessary to do so, with the Aadhar being mandatorily linked to it. Several users on Twitter then took to perfect millennial style of explaining the issue to the politically unaware folks—through memes.

Only time can tell if these changes on paper end up enforcing a more stringent data protection policy while uplifting the marginalised sectors of society.


– Mahia DeSylva and Nethraa Kannan, for MTTN.

Sources:  IndiaToday, The Quint, Economic Times, Indian Express, Times of India, Bloomberg, Al-Jazeera, sflc.in.

 

 

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