‘Database for a totalitarian state’

Interview with Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary and Rajya Sabha Member.

Published : Apr 12, 2017 12:30 IST

Sitaram Yechury.

Sitaram Yechury.

THE introduction of more than four dozen amendments in the Finance Bill, including one linking the Aadhaar number to newer areas such as the filing of income tax returns, came as a surprise not only to the opposition but to the people of the country at large. The passage of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, as a Money Bill in the Lok Sabha is being contested in court. Sitaram Yechury spoke to Frontline on, among other things, the issue of the expansion of Aadhaar, the model of development under way and the bypassing of the Rajya Sabha. Excerpts.

What do you make of the expansion of the requirement of Aadhaar for a range of things, including the filing of income tax returns?

Aadhaar was initially conceived as a method by which there would be proper targeting of the subsidies given by the Central government to the marginalised and the needy. But as the process of the implementation of Aadhaar became tardy and inefficient, the apex court itself opined that Aadhaar need not be a conditionality to receive benefits and subsidies. The government nevertheless continued to promote it as an essential, in fact the only, requirement to receive such benefits. In the process of the implementation of this, numerous hurdles were noticed. The fingerprint identification was invariably defective in a majority of cases. A large number of people who were entitled to receive these benefits were denied [them]. Under these circumstances the other requirements like the designated coloured ration cards that were also simultaneously used to give benefits were virtually done away with. The infirmities in the system were already denying benefits to a large number of genuine people.

This BJP government has continuously expanded the requirement of Aadhaar for various services, and now in the recent Finance Bill, it has virtually made it mandatory for everything in the country. It has gone to the extent of saying that the non-linkage of the Aadhaar number with the PAN card would invalidate the PAN card itself. This is strange as the PAN card was the essential requirement for all financial transactions in the country. With the Aadhaar number virtually containing all information about an individual beyond the biometric identification and including one’s financial transactions and then slowly creeping into medical diagnosis when hospital bills are paid, individuals are made vulnerable in that information about what they suffer from will be made public. All this is a complete affront to the personal liberty of an individual and hence negates the right to liberty, a fundamental right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.

Further, such insistence on the Aadhaar being mandatory for all aspects of the individual’s life has the danger of converting our secular democratic republic into a totalitarian state. For instance, during the height of Nazi repression, individual houses of Jews were marked for future attacks. Today, such an exercise would be unnecessary in India to identify religious minorities as all this would be available with the Aadhaar number under the surveillance of the state.

Secondly, this data of every Indian citizen if accessed by any agency can pose serious problems to our country’s internal security. There is always an urge to acquire such data by firms in order to market their products catering to individual specificities, but the dangers go well beyond the mere urge for profit maximisation. The current disposition of the government with the Aadhaar card is to create the database for a totalitarian state. The Supreme Court’s latest directives are strange. It was the court that said that Aadhaar was not mandatory but now has interpreted it to mean that it can be mandatory for [matters involving] non-receipt of benefits and subsidies, like opening of bank accounts or filing of returns. So it is being interpreted as a validation for the Aadhaar conditionality to be mandatory for every other legal activity by all citizens.

The Aadhaar Bill was introduced as a Money Bill in the Lok Sabha. Changes in the Finance Bill were made to make Aadhaar compulsory for filing tax returns.

It is a travesty of all parliamentary democratic norms. Article 110 of the Constitution in Subsection 1 defines what should be considered a Money Bill; 110 (2) indicates what need not be considered a Money Bill. Article 113 gives the right to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to decide which Bill is a Money Bill. A rational reading of the Constitution should show that this discretionary right of the Speaker cannot be exercised by negating the provisions of 110 (1) and 110 (2). However, that is precisely what is happening when matters unrelated to what normally constitutes a Money Bill are brought under its ambit. This is being done by the BJP government to bypass the Rajya Sabha, where they do not have a majority.

A Money Bill requires the approval only of the Lok Sabha and does not need the concurrent approval of the Rajya Sabha. The Rajya Sabha by a vote moved five amendments to the Finance Bill. These were taken to the Lok Sabha and without a discussion were defeated through the tyranny of the majority that the BJP exercises in the Lok Sabha.

The rationale for pushing Aadhaar seems to be that it will help weed out corruption and improve the efficiency of targeted deliveries. What could be objectionable about that?

Targeted delivery is usually an argument made in the name of making subsidies more efficient. It is also argued as the solution to [the problem of] leakages and corruption in the system. But in the name of targeted delivery what is happening and what will continue to happen is that a large number of genuine people will be denied subsidies either through the malfunctioning of delivery systems or by simply getting left out. For instance, in the system of subsidised food delivery, the Central government today has its own estimate of the number of people below the poverty line in each State. Each State also has its own estimate, which is at variance with the Central government’s. Further, many a State government extends the state subsidy to cover a larger number of people, and the State bears the additional expenditures.

With insistence on Aadhaar, it is the Central government’s definition of who is entitled which will prevail, derailing the objectives of various State governments that are already implementing the provision of benefits to the marginalised and the needy in a more comprehensive way than the Central government schemes. Kerala, for instance, has a near 100 per cent coverage under its PDS [public distribution system]. If the quantum of grain released from the Central quota for the State is based on the Central government’s definitions and is to be drawn by people only on the basis of Aadhaar identification, then the number of people covered under the PDS will be sharply reduced. In this process they are denying the benefits to those who are already entitled. The larger picture is to reduce the subsidy bill for fiscal consolidation at the expense of increasing hunger of the people.

The issues of safety of biometric data and the potential of Aadhaar to violate individual privacy have been raised even though the government claims that the data are stored in the Central Identities Data Repository and will be safe from any misuse.

Normally, concerns of safety of data are related to issues of cybersecurity. Even the most formidable firewalls of NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] and the Pentagon have been breached. But with Aadhaar, there are more serious concerns. The agencies who are conducting this exercise are foreign in the first place. The universe for the leakages of this information is much larger than the mere breach of cybersecurity. The mere talk of creating impenetrable firewalls does not generate confidence, and the government has no answers on this counter protection of private confidential information of individuals. Many scientific studies have shown how systems based on biometrics are breached and misused. Further, in the Indian context, the reliance on fingerprints is fraught with another danger: the high incidence of manual labour. The fingerprint itself gets distorted over a period of time.

Aadhaar is being touted as a game changer, a symbol of efficiency, and the government is pushing the idea that various measures it has implemented, including demonetisation, have been received well by the people.

The general argument being given by the BJP is that demonetisation has been successful. But why did they lose Punjab and why did they not get absolute majorities in Manipur and Goa? Their victory in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand has been a lethal combination of intense communalisation and caste-specific social engineering. Behind this lies a big danger. The BJP is trying to project across the country that Hindutva and development are not different and are far from being contradictory. The subterranean message they convey is that the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat laid the foundations for Gujarat’s prosperity. It is like making communalism a necessity for development. This is reflected in the fact that the BJP does not have a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha today. This is the only case in the history of Parliament that the ruling party does not have a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha. The BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in the 403 Assembly seats in U.P. To this add the communal rhetoric of the BJP and the Prime Minister, the Kabristan-Shamshan and Kasab references, all targeted at isolating Muslims as a recipe for growth. This is aimed at the metamorphosis of the secular democratic republic of India into the RSS’ version of a Hindu Rashtra.

What are the implications behind the relentless push behind Aadhaar?

The pressures of international finance are clearly there. The individual biometric data of 1.2 billion people is a huge market for marketing companies and international capital. It is ready-made information available for their ideological objective of transforming the character of the Indian republic.

What do you think will happen to the discussions on Aadhaar now in Parliament?

They won’t have any discussion in the Lok Sabha. The operative part will be taken to the Lok Sabha and voted against. It is only for cosmetic purposes.

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