Aadhaar disquiet in the House

When the Narendra Modi government chose to introduce the Aadhaar Bill in the Lok Sabha a couple of weeks ago as a money bill, the move came under sharp criticism. The Rajya Sabha’s recommendations on a money bill are non-binding, and the Lok Sabha can reject them. The BJP-led NDA does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, and this was therefore seen as a way to avoid a defeat of the legislation.

On Wednesday, this controversial strategy allowed the Lok Sabha to pass the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, in its original form, ignoring a handful of amendments to the legislation in the Upper House. It is unfortunate that the government chose to so summarily toss aside the Rajya Sabha’s concerns.

Giving legal validity to a project that seeks to provide unique identification numbers to more than a billion people, that too after many futile attempts over six years, is no doubt an achievement. But the Bill’s un-amended passage is a missed opportunity, for those amendments would have only strengthened the stated idea behind it, which is to provide an efficient and transparent process to transfer benefits and subsidies.

The Opposition’s effort in the Rajya Sabha, spearheaded by Congress Member of Parliament Jairam Ramesh, was focussed around issues of privacy as well as preventing the use of Aadhaar being made mandatory. Very serious concerns have been raised from various quarters that the proposed Aadhaar database facilitates mass surveillance, and that there are not enough checks to secure citizens’ data from misuse.

The Aadhaar Bill has provisions to deal with data protection, but these are not sufficient because exceptions are built into confidentiality clauses. One of those exceptions can occur on the grounds of national security. One of the five changes successfully moved by Mr. Ramesh was to substitute the words “public emergency and public safety” for “national security”.

A related amendment aimed to include the Central Vigilance Commissioner or the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in the committee to decide on requests for biometric data. He had also sought to make Aadhaar optional, by permitting alternative means of identification and giving individuals the choice to opt out of the system.

According to the Bill, Aadhaar is necessary for receiving certain services and benefits. An amendment successfully moved by Mr. Ramesh sought to do away with a clause that deemed “nothing in this Act shall prevent the use of the Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual for any purpose, whether by the state or any body, company or person.”

Certainly, critics of the amendments would compare the Congress-led UPA’s version of the Aadhaar Bill and the NDA’s version to point out the Congress’s hypocrisy now that it is no longer in power. But that is a political point. What is important, and disquieting, is that the Opposition did seek to work in popularly voiced privacy concerns within the ambit of the legislation, and these interventions have been disregarded.