The Aadhaar project, meant to give Indian residents a distinct, indigenously wrought digital identity, heralds a revolution in financial inclusion and subsidy administration. The NDA government has introduced the Aadhaar Bill, 2016, in the Lok Sabha as a money Bill to obviate the need for Rajya Sabha approval. Even so, the Congress should cooperate in the passage of the legislation: after all, it was the brainchild of its administration. Aadhaar has been issued to nearly 100 crore people, and the benefits of Aadhaar-linked payments are evident in the direct cash transfer of cooking fuel subsidy. The government needs to accelerate enrolment and scale up Aadhaar-linked payments to disburse all subsidies. Therefore, legal backing to the UIDAI to implement Aadhaar is a must.
The revised Bill is robust, and in adherence to the directives of the Supreme Court. Aadhaar enrolment is not mandatory for a citizen. It is optional, like a passport, but needed for receipt of certain welfare payments and services. If the beneficiary does not choose to enrol, she will forgo the benefit. Rightly, the Bill places the onus on the government to ensure that no one eligible for a benefit delivered using Aadhaar is denied an Aadhaar. It says if the Aadhaar number is not assigned to a beneficiary, she must be offered an alternate means of identification to access welfare payments.
The proposed legislation addresses many concerns on privacy protection: by setting limits within which the identity database will operate and also preventing government’s overreach. Yet, some permitted exceptions are left to subordinate legislation, which is not good enough. Further, the national security exercise of breaching individual privacy needs rigorous oversight: judicial, ex ante, and parliamentary, ex-post. For this, the Aadhaar legislation must be complemented with a separate law on privacy. India’s national security establishment is under the control of the executive and its accountability to the people is tenuous. This must change, by making it accountable to a committee of Parliament.