Top activists and academics have come out against a controversial draft law expanding the use of Aadhaar and written to Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari to rule that the government was wrong in bypassing the Upper House.
They also said they would challenge in court the classification of the finance bill – which made Aadhaar mandatory for PAN cards and income tax returns –as a money bill, which doesn’t need to pass in the Rajya Sabha where the government is in a minority.
“If it goes unchallenged then it sets a very wrong precedent that governments can get any legislation passed by making them money bills. This disrupts constitutional functioning,” said Gopal Krishna from the Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties, a co-signatory to the letter.
He said at least two organisations would approach the judiciary soon. Prominent activists who signed the letter include Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, and economist Jayati Ghosh and Prabhat Patnaik. They say that the finance bill contains provisions that have wide-reaching impact and need to be independently debated.
“As concerned citizens of India, we are appalled and dismayed at the government’s use of money bills to push through important legislation that affects all citizens, without requiring approval by both houses of Parliament,” the letter read.
The letter follows days of outrage over the 12-digit biometric ID that is increasingly needed to access benefits and entitlements. The government has indicated that Aadhaar could become the sole identity card in the future and PAN cards not linked to the unique number could become invalid by year-end.
The activists asked Ansari to allow extensive and uninterrupted discussions into every aspect of the bill in the Upper House and ensure the practice of “illegitimately classifying” bills as money bills is immediately stopped.
“We appeal to you to protect the rights and duties of the Upper House and the interests of all the people of India. These bills and the relevant provisions that cannot be described as routine in any sense, must be subject to proper democratic scrutiny in both houses of Parliament.”
The letter points out the government abused the provisions of a money bill even last year when the controversial Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, benefits and services) legislation was passed as a money bill.
As per the act, proof of Aadhaar number was necessary for receipt of certain subsidies, benefits and services, the expenditure for which is incurred from the Consolidated Fund of India.
“The Aadhaar bill faces robust challenge in the Supreme Court because the proceedings of Parliament reveal that it is not a money bill,” said Krishna.
The identification project was rolled out roughly a decade ago to plug leakages in government schemes but many flag privacy concerns with Aadhaar that is seen as vulnerable to data breaches and government spying.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that benefits cannot be denied for not having Aadhaar but has cleared the use of the ID for non-benefit schemes such as opening of bank accounts.
Krishna said the Supreme Court didn’t call the passage of the money bill contempt of court because the attorney general had contended that only a seven-judge Constitution bench was appropriate to hear Aadhaar-related pleas.
“Since no constitution bench was constituted between October 15, 2015 and March 4, 2017, there was no entity which could have taken cognisance of the violations of the court’s order.”
Nandan Nilekani – the first chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) – believes that as Parliament passed the bill and all Supreme Court judgments precede the law, it wasn’t unconstitutional. “There is a petition in the Supreme Court on the money bill aspect. Let the Court decide.”
But Reetika Khera, an economics professor at IIT Delhi, disagreed, saying the government created the false impression that as the Aadhaar act was passed, the court’s orders no longer applied. “This is wrong because on 14 September 2016, after the passage of the act in March 2016, the court reiterated its October 2015 order that said Aadhaar was voluntary.”
The letter to Ansari also raised red flags over invasion of privacy, data sharing practices and weak protections. It also objected to new political funding norms and increased powers given to tax authorities.