After over six years and crores of public money spent without any scrutiny, Aadhaar is being brought into Parliament to be debated. Like many other things that the UPA left behind, this one too is being repaired from its original unusable form into one that can be used by the NDA government.
Rightly, this new Bill is called the Aadhaar Bill, rather than UPA’s grandiose and totally inappropriate National ID Bill. For all its claims Aadhaar can’t even differentiate between citizens and non-citizens. As Union finance minister Arun Jaitley said, Aadhaar cannot and will not be used for citizenship or domicile identification, but only as part of a broad benefits and subsidy delivery system, of which Aadhaar provides the limited biometric identity verification piece.
Why has crores of rupees only given us this limited use? For this, Aadhaar’s limitations need to be understood. It is a database that contains three pieces of information — Name, Age and Address. It is not possible for any government to use this data as a way to better deliver subsidies. This is strange because the idea of directing subsidies is that the government is able to identify those who are eligible and those who aren’t, and, at a fundamental level, only citizens would be eligible for these benefits. The Aadhaar can only be effective if used with another database or platform that performs the function of identification and targeting by having details of the person.
That’s why the Narendra Modi government has had to retrofit Aadhaar into the JAM trinity in its effort to better target subsidies, i.e., Aadhaar cannot do targeting or subsidy delivery without the BPL or Jan Dhan Yojana (JDY) databases — the JDY/BPL databases providing the targeting and identification, and the Aadhaar database doing only the identity verification.
So now that we have a way to use Aadhaar, let’s get to the introduced Bill.
The inserted Chapter 3 is an effort to make this a money Bill. I have no problem with Aadhaar being a money Bill, subject to changes in Clause 7, where words like “may” have to be replaced with “only” if it’s to be treated as a money Bill. “May” implies that it is not just for benefits and subsidies, as implied by it being a money Bill, but can be used in other ways. If the government wants this to be a money Bill, it will have to shut the loopholes.
It’s obvious that this Bill is a cut-and-paste job on the original UPA Bill. But the problem with cut-and-paste legislation is that contradictions will surface in places in the Bill. Take Clause 4(3), which says Aadhaar can be used as identity for any purpose. That contradicts Clause 7 and narrative around the Bill that Aadhaar will be used only for delivering benefits and subsidies — which is a justification to bypass Rajya Sabha as a money Bill.
The ‘Offences and Penalties’ in Chapter 7 are almost the same as the UPA Bill without addressing the institutional obligations to the enrolee in matters of data security, integrity and privacy. It can’t be the government’s case that enrolees start suing individual officers of Aadhaar. The Bill doesn’t address the issue of Citizens vs Residents. It would seem a contradiction if Aadhaar is to be used to deliver subsidies and benefits (which are only rights of citizens), but can’t figure out who a citizen is or not. Issues like privacy and security are significant even when it comes to underprivileged and those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. I can see this Bill passing only if there are significant amendments to address these fundamental issues, some of which, like privacy, are being agitated in the Supreme Court by various petitioners, including me.
The Bill is also weak on the definition of the subsidy delivery architecture. Since Aadhaar cannot deliver anything on its own, the need for more specific targeting databases, like BPL and JDY means that in future, these independent pieces of data will have to merge into one composite social sector registry or database. Whether these independent databases also need legal regulation on issues of privacy and security through this law, is another question.
This move by the Centre to debate and discuss Aadhaar, and the future of subsidy and benefits delivery, is much needed. Many had urged for a debate and discourse on Aadhaar for several years, and the response has been it’s the executive’s right.
This government is determined to reform public subsidy spending and make it more effective by directing more accurately. In its haste to do this, it should not pass flawed legislation. Recent developments on the IT Act and Section 66A are proof that flawed legislation causes more problems than it solves. With this legislation, Aadhaar must now move from the world of spin and hype to being a real, legally backed identity verification platform working as part of the subsidy delivery JAM platform while addressing enrolees/citizen issues of privacy, security and data integrity.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a technology entrepreneur and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed are personal.