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COVER STORY

28-04-2017

Aadhaar invasion

Aadhaar and fingerprints

Briefing

Observation, not binding decision

cover-story

“MENTIONING” by lawyers before a court is a recognised use of judicial time to draw the attention of judges to urgent matters that may fail to get listed for detailed hearing in the normal course of events. Thus, matters relating to personal liberty, which cannot brook any delay, are “mentioned” before judges, either before they begin the regular hearing of their cases or after their normal work is over, to seek directions to the court’s registry for the early listing of the matters.

The judges on the bench, in turn, put probing questions to the counsel who request early listing to satisfy themselves of the “urgency” involved in the matter. While the judges’ questions and observations are aimed at seeking clarifications from the counsel, the judges do not express any opinion on the matter that is pending for hearing.

One such mentioning on March 27 before the court of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court earned disproportionate space in the media, as if the court had given a binding decision. Senior Counsel Shyam Divan, appearing for Major General (retd) S.G. Vombatkere, made a mention before the bench of the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice J.S. Khehar, and Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the batch of cases challenging the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar identification project, the National Population Register schemes, and the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act passed in 2016.

Divan mentioned the cases, grouped under the lead petition, Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (retd) vs Union of India, before another bench, comprising Chief Justice Khehar and Justices N.V. Ramana and Chandrachud, on January 5, when the court’s order read: “Declined for immediate hearing for the time being.” On January 5, there were as many as eight vacancies in the Supreme Court, which has a sanctioned strength of 31 judges. As the Aadhaar case was referred to a five-judge Constitution Bench in August 2015, it was believed that Chief Justice Khehar, as the administrative head of the court, perhaps felt unable to relieve five judges to hear this matter in view of the vacancies. The Supreme Court normally sits in benches of two or three judges. The CJI specifically sets up benches of five or more judges to hear matters raising substantial constitutional issues that are referred for resolution by benches of smaller strength.

Interlocutory application No.5

On February 17, five new judges joined the Supreme Court, taking its working strength to 28. Perhaps, Diwan believed that the CJI-led bench might have a rethink in March now that the Supreme Court had more judges than it had in January. Thus, on March 27, the petitioners sought from the CJI an assurance that the Constitution Bench of five judges would be formed soon to hear the matter. Among the petitioners was Vombatkere, whose civil writ petition was tagged with that of Justice Puttaswamy (retd), which has been pending since 2012. Vombatkere, through his senior counsel Divan, sought an assurance that the interlocutory application he filed (IA No.5) seeking the court’s intervention to stay the recent spate of notifications making the requirement of Aadhaar mandatory in many schemes would be heard on April 3, as shown under the Advance List of matters slated for hearing on that day.

The CJI-led bench, after a brief exchange of views with Divan, declined to give such an assurance. As a result, Vombatkere’s IA got deleted from the Final List for April 3 and was shown in the Elimination List for that day. The Supreme Court, as if to ensure transparency, explains why a particular matter is eliminated from the Final List and included in the Elimination List. Thus, every matter in the Elimination List includes a brief explanation giving the reason for the elimination. The one reason most commonly cited is “excess matters”. A subsequent date when the matter will be listed is given along with this explanation. The second most commonly cited reason for elimination is the non-availability of the judge before whom it was listed to be heard. The third frequently cited reason is “due to compelling reason”. The Supreme Court, however, does not disclose what that compelling reason is. Vombatkere’s IA No.5 was eliminated “due to compelling reason”, and as a litigant, he can only speculate about what could have been the reason in his case.

V. Venkatesan

Statement of concern on unique identity number

cover-story

(This statement was signed and released on September 28, 2010.)

THE project that proposes to give every resident a ‘unique identity number’ is a matter of great concern for those working on issues of food security, NREGA, migration, technology, decentralisation, constitutionalism, civil liberties and human rights. The process of setting up the Authority has resulted in very little, if any, discussion about this project and its effects and fallout. The documents on the UIDAI website, and a recent draft law (the National Identification Authority Bill, which is also on the website) do not provide answers to the many questions that are being raised in the public domain. This project is intended to collect demographic data about all residents in the country. It is said that it will impact on the PDS and NREGA programmes, and plug leakages and save the government large sums of money. It would, however, seem that even basic procedures have not been followed before launching on such a massive project.

Before it goes any further, we consider it imperative that the following be done:

Do a feasibility study: There are claims made in relation to the project, about what it can do for PDS and NREGA, for instance, which does not reflect any understanding of the situation on the ground. The project documents do not say what other effects the project may have, including its potential to be intrusive and violative of privacy, who may handle the data (there will be multiple persons involved in entering, maintaining and using the data), who may be able to have access to the data and similar other questions.

Do a cost-benefit analysis: It is reported that the UIDAI estimates the project will costs Rs.45,000 crore to the exchequer in the next four years. This does not seem to include the costs that will be incurred by Registrars, Enrollers, internal systems costs that the PDS system will have to budget if it is to be able to use the UID, the estimated cost to the end user and to the number holder.

In a system such as this, a mere statement that the UIDAI will deal with the security of the data is obviously insufficient. How does the UIDAI propose to deal with data theft? If this security cannot be reasonably guaranteed, the wisdom of holding such data in a central registry may need to be reviewed.

The involvement of firms such as Ernst & Young and Accenture raises further questions about who will have access to the data, and what that means to the people of India.

Constitutionality of this project, including in the matter of privacy, the relationship between the state and the people, security and other fundamental rights.

Questions have been raised which have not been addressed so far, including those about:

Undemocratic process: UIDAI was set up via a GoI notification as an attached office of the Planning Commission without any discussion or debate in Parliament or civil society. In the year and a half of its inception, the Authority has signed MoUs with virtually all States and UTs, LIC, Petroleum Ministry and many banks. In July, the Authority circulated the draft NIA Bill (to achieve statutory status); the window for public feedback was two weeks. Despite widespread feedback and calls for making all feedback public, the Authority has not made feedback available. Further, in direct contravention to the process of public feedback, the NIA Bill was listed for introduction in the Lok Sabha 2010 monsoon session.

Privacy (It is only now that the DoPT is said to be working on a draft of a privacy law, but nothing is out for discussion even yet.)

Surveillance: where this technology, and the existence of the UID number, and its working, could result in increasing the potential for surveillance.

Profiling

Tracking

Convergence, by which those with access to state power, as well as companies, could collate information about each individual with the help of the UID number.

National IDs have been abandoned in the U.S., Australia and [by] the newly elected British government. The reasons have predominantly been: costs and privacy. If it is too expensive for the U.S. with a population of 308 million, and the U.K. with 61 million, and Australia with 21 million, it is being asked why India thinks it can prioritise its spending in this direction. In the U.K., the Home Secretary explained that they were abandoning the project because it would otherwise be ‘intrusive bullying’ by the state, and that the government intended to be the ‘servant’ of the people, and not their ‘master’. Is there a lesson in it for us? In the late 1990s, the Supreme Court of the Philippines struck down the President’s Executive Order A.O 308 which instituted a biometric-based national ID system calling it unconstitutional on two grounds – the overreach of the executive over the legislative powers of the congress and invasion of privacy. The same is applicable in India—UIDAI has been constituted on the basis of a GoI notification and there is a fundamental risk to civil liberties with the convergence of UID, NATGRID, etc.

The UIDAI is still at the stage of conducting pilot studies. The biometric pilot study has reportedly already thrown up problems especially among the poor whose fingerprints are not stable, and whose iris scans suffer from malnourishment-related cataract and among whom the incidence of corneal scars is often found. The project is clearly still in its inception. The project should be halted before it goes any further and the prelude to the project be attended to, the public informed and consulted, and the wisdom of the project determined. The Draft Bill too needs to be publicly debated. This is a project that could change the status of the people in this country, with effects on our security and constitutional rights, and a consideration of all aspects of the project should be undertaken with this in mind.

We, therefore, ask that:

The project be halted

A feasibility study be done covering all aspects of this issue

Experts be tasked with studying its constitutionality

The law on privacy be urgently worked on (this will affect matters way beyond the UID project)

A cost-benefit analysis be done

A public, informed debate be conducted before any such major change be brought in.



Signatories

Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Retired Judge, Supreme Court of India

Prof Romila Thapar, Historian

K.G. Kannabiran, Senior Civil Liberties Lawyer

Kavita Srivastava, PUCL and Right to Food Campaign

Aruna Roy, MKKS, Rajasthan

Nikhil Dey, MKKS, Rajasthan

S.R. Sankaran, Retired Secretary, Government of India

Deep Joshi, Independent Consultant

Upendra Baxi, Jurist and ex-Vice Chancellor of Universities of Surat and Delhi

Uma Chakravarthi, Historian

Shohini Ghosh, Teacher and Film-maker

Amar Kanwar, Film-maker

Bezwada Wilson, Safai Karamchari Andolan

Trilochan Sastry, IIMB, and Association for Democratic Reforms

Prof Jagdish Chhokar, ex-IIMA, and Association for Democratic Rights

Shabnam Hashmi, ANHAD

Justice A.P. Shah, Retired Chief Justice of High Court of Delhi

(http://mediavigil.blogspot.com/2010/09/eminent-personalities-against-unique.html)

Aadhaar and welfare schemes

Data nightmare

DIVYA TRIVEDI cover-story

THE right to food campaigner Dipa Sinha feels India is staring at a data nightmare. With the Central government making all efforts to bring all the citizens on to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) platform, two issues threaten the project: exclusions and a lack of clarity on how to plug leakages. The idea is being sold to people as a tool to reduce corruption but according to Dipa Sinha, the only thing it is doing right now is keeping people away from what they are entitled to. Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:

There is a lot of confusion around notifications being issued with deadlines for Aadhaar enrolment.

The government has issued a large number of notifications, for 91 schemes at last count, including the public distribution system [PDS], pension and MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act], even after the Supreme Court’s orders and clarifications. Several of them have June 30 as the deadline for either enrolment or getting an acknowledgment that one has applied for Aadhaar. In case someone still does not have it then the organisation where Aadhaar is required has to make arrangements to see that one is enrolled. Until June 30, other identity cards can be used. The only thing about which they did respond was the midday meal scheme as it became a big issue with people who generally do not talk about Aadhaar being a problem also taking a stand. There was a seeming “retraction” of the midday meal notification but it only said that it must be ensured that children are enrolled for Aadhaar and not that Aadhaar will be fully voluntary. The government issued a press release saying “Yes, it is wrong to mandate Aadhaar for midday meal”, but went on to repeat what the notification said, that children desirous of getting the welfare benefit under the scheme needed to undergo Aadhaar authentication. So, in essence, the notification was not withdrawn. They are simply giving you time and making it easier for you to get Aadhaar. For now, schools are closing for summer. We will know the full impact of this only when they reopen.

Are people falling outside the welfare net owing to discrepancies in Aadhaar?

There are two kinds of exclusions happening because of Aadhaar. Firstly, in Delhi we saw during the initial days of Aadhaar enrolment for the PDS that only those members who had an Aadhaar card were included. This affects the entitlement as the quantity of foodgrains received under the National Food Security Act is on a per capita basis. In 2013-14, when the new ration cards were distributed, a number of people, mainly children, the disabled and the elderly, were not included on the ration card as they did not have Aadhaar. Later, as people got enrolled under Aadhaar, they demanded that their names be included in the ration cards. But now, for the PDS the Delhi government has said that the quota of 42 per cent is full and new names can be enrolled only when older names are cancelled. So now we have a situation where families identified as poor by the Delhi government have to lose 5 kg or more of grain because the names of some of their family members are not there on the ration card.

Secondly, the government is making Aadhaar mandatory supposedly to reduce leakages by de-duplication. While some leakages might have been happening by registering fake, or ghost, beneficiaries, we do not know how many fakes existed. The numerous verification exercises have shown fewer than 10 per cent fakes. Besides, authentication failures are happening on a large scale because of technical glitches and the government has no way of solving these. For instance, when (say) Raju goes to get ration and puts his finger on the machine, the machine tries to recognise his fingerprint with the one existing in the system. In many cases, the system refuses to authenticate owing to faulty image or because the biometrics have not been captured properly. Fingerprints change for manual labourers, children and the elderly. Almost 30 per cent of the people are not getting grains because of authentication failure. The government has no way of recording this. In response to a Right to Information query, the government said it did not have records of this. On the basis of this, tall claims are being made about how thousands of crores of rupees have been saved by the Finance Minister, Nandan Nilekani and Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] leaders. In Rajasthan, we had a situation where they said if for three months your biometrics did not match, then you would be declared a “ghost”. So it is a big scam. In the case of children whose biometrics change, chances of failure are higher. Now until the age of five there is no fingerprint, so fingerprinting cannot be done. Between ages five and 15, the government says biometrics should be updated regularly. For instance, if at the age of six a child got his Aadhaar and at age nine his biometrics do not match, then are they going to stop his scholarship or midday meal? Why should parents take their children for updating biometrics often when the government has admitted children’s biometrics are not formed?

How does making Aadhaar compulsory for filing income tax returns or for pension fund affect citizens?

Mandating Aadhaar for non-welfare benefits, which the Supreme Court has not allowed but the government is forcing, makes it even more clear that it is being done to bring people on to the system. If my PAN, bank account and telephone are linked to Aadhaar, then everything I do, the state knows. I don’t know what they are doing with the data or who they are sharing them with, as the provisions for this in the Aadhaar Act are weak. There is nothing in the Act that provides me safeguards against misuse and I cannot even approach a court directly in case of misuse as only the UIDAI is authorised to approach courts in case of misuse of Aadhaar data, which is a conflict of interest. It all boils down to civil rights and liberties. By linking all my information to one number and generating authentication records, which will be stored for five years with the government, the State is generating a lot of metadata, which may reveal my personal details. Even if I do not do anything illegal, disparate pieces of metadata can be misused to show patterns which may not be true. The state will know where I am eating, what I am having for dinner, where I am travelling, what I am buying, and so on.

Reliance has taken unique identification for all Jio connections. What is it doing with the data? Online data of Aadhaar have been leaking through illegally stored biometrics as well as simple Google searches for bank details and Aadhaar numbers. There is a company, trustID, which advertised that it will do background checks for hiring based on Aadhaar. Now, one may not want to reveal something for employment with a firm, which may not necessarily be illegal, but how much choice does a job applicant have? But this firm will put together all the data and create a profile of you, as a parallel database. As it is, it is unfortunate that a lot of our data are on Google through smartphones and the global positioning system. But there is a difference between powers of a corporation and the powers of a government, which may coerce you, imprison you, and deprive you of your rights. Also I can opt out of Google and Facebook, can I opt out of dealing with my government? These are ways of forcing citizens to enrol without putting in place a foolproof system of data protection. There is no proper law on how data can be shared, especially with private players. The [Narendra Modi] government has argued in the Aadhaar case in the Supreme Court that citizens have no fundamental right to privacy. So, making it compulsory for filing income tax returns or for pension fund leaves citizens with no choice.

What, according to you, is the intent behind making Aadhaar the only identification number?

It is clear that it is not to plug leakages but 100 per cent coverage, so it seems like this is being done for surveillance purposes. The government is mandating Aadhaar for Bhopal gas tragedy victims, for women rescued from trafficking and sexual assault, for HIV/AIDS patients to get medicines. If this is being done to reduce leakages, then where, for instance, is there a problem of duplication in the case of medicines for HIV/AIDS patients? Should that not be established first before making Aadhaar mandatory? Even if there is a problem, what percentage of people are being inconvenienced to fix that?

What has been the experience of similar schemes in other places?

There is no country in the world where a biometric based identification system is used for so many purposes in this manner. The Social Security Number in the United States has important differences with the way Aadhaar is laid out, the most important being that it is not an identity number. It does not collect biometrics and it is protected by strict laws around who can share the data. The scale at which Aadhaar is done has not happened anywhere else. Even in the United Kingdom, where it was proposed, and implemented in 2006-07, the government destroyed the database seeing the potential risks involved, an aspect the Parliamentary Committee on Finance in India recognised in 2011.

What is the status of the High Court case filed by the Right to Food Campaign?

Our case is about how the government is violating the Supreme Court orders by making Aadhaar mandatory for welfare schemes. The High Court has asked the government to file its response to the petition. It is supposed to do this by mid April and then a hearing will be held. A Karnataka High Court judgment in the context of PDS says how Aadhaar cannot be mandatory.

A recent Right to Information query revealed that more than 85 lakh Aadhaar numbers have been cancelled.

Aadhaar can be suspended when biometrics or other data have not been updated. An SMS is usually sent by way of informing. Most of the cancelled numbers are those of children, possibly for non-updation of fingerprint data. The government does not have enough manpower, resources or technical know-how to check or correct the flaws that occur in the system. There is no official data on how many people fall out of the welfare net because they do not have Aadhaar. In the public distribution system and pension schemes, whatever micro data are available, 25-30 per cent seems to be Aadhaar-related exclusion.

Letters to the Editor

fl28 letters

letters

FL14 HEALTH COVERjpg

Health care

THE Cover Story (April 14) stated that “National Health Policy 2017 leaves the poor in the lurch…”. This proves that the government does not at all care about the health of poor people. Government hospitals are so overcrowded and ill-equipped that many people, especially the middle class and the rich, opt to go to private hospitals. And most private hospitals earn huge profits at the expense of people whose desperation leaves them with few choices. Does NHP 2017 have provisions to deal with such exploitation?

Mahesh Kapasi, New Delhi

RSS

THE article “Nationalism in peril” (April 14) was yet another piece of RSS/BJP/Narendra Modi bashing in which the author levelled stereotyped allegations against them while deliberately overlooking the RSS’ contributions to nation building. It is a sad reality that no other contemporary organisation has been as misunderstood and as maligned as the RSS. It is an organisation that focusses on character building and has matured under the leadership of Dr K.B. Hedgewar, M.S. Golwalkar and others, as is reflected by the increasing number of its volunteers over the years.

B. Suresh Kumar, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

Assembly elections

THE article “March of Hindutva” (April14) decoded the hidden agenda of the BJP in usurping power without the requisite mandate in the Assembly elections in Goa and Manipur. The manipulations were an assault on democracy. It was shocking that the States’ Governors lent themselves to the machinations of the Modi-Amit Shah duo, consigning their constitutional responsibilities to the flames. The Congress, as usual, suffers because it is in a dynastic grip of poor leadership.

The removal of Manohar Parrikar from the important Defence portfolio shows that the BJP is not taking national interests seriously. The Finance Minister cannot do justice to the Defence portfolio because he has urgent responsibilities relating to boosting GDP growth, GST implementation, and so on. The BJP’s manoeuvres in Manipur will unfortunately add fuel to the fire of Naga insurgency.

The BJP’s argument is that it is only doing what the Congress has done in the past. It has unleashed a political juggernaut that is crushing democratic principles, the country’s pluralistic ethos and political decorum. The country is unfortunately devoid of a worthy ruling party or a responsible opposition party.

B. Rajasekaran, Bengaluru

THE Supreme Court was right in refusing to entertain the Congress party’s plea against the Governor of Goa (“Numbers game”, April 14). When there is a hung Assembly, the party that musters support and stakes a claim to form the government is the one that will be called to do so. In this case, the BJP acted swiftly, enlisted the support of smaller parties and approached the Governor. The Congress party is at fault for moving at a leisurely pace. Therefore, the Governor’s decision to invite the BJP to form a government was just. The Congress party has, on several occasions in the past, set a wrong precedent by treating Governors as its cronies and misusing the constitutional office to serve its own needs.

K.R. Srinivasan, Secunderabad, Telangana

THE anti-incumbency factor contributed to the BJP’s massive victory. The demonetisation drive did not have much of a negative impact on voters. The decimation of the Congress party in all States except Punjab raises serious questions about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. However saddened one might be by the BJP’s success in the recent Assembly elections, one has to give the Modi-Amit Shah combine credit for it. A grand alliance of secular and democratic forces is the need of the hour to ensure that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance does not form the government after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The opposition should make common cause with the sole goal of dislodging the right-wing combine.

S. Murali, Vellore, Tamil Nadu

THE BJP has every reason to feel elated after its victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, which surpassed the expectations of even the most inveterate optimists in the party (“Right on top”, March 31). There are, however, unmistakable signs that the aura that Modi’s acolytes have created around him is overshadowing the party. The image of a leader getting bigger than his party may lead to that party's inevitable decline, as exemplified by the fate of the Congress party.

Ayyasseri Raveendranath, Aranmula, Kerala

IN Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won because Mayawati’s record is not clean and Akhilesh and Mulayam were at loggerheads. The less said about Rahul Gandhi and the Congress the better. Modi’s tall promises seemed to have swayed the voters in his favour. Demonetisation did not affect the election outcome; in India, the poor seem to be happy with the impression that the rich were targeted, not realising that the rich were the least affected by demonetisation. And the number of people with black money is too low to affect the voting pattern.

M. Kumar, New Delhi

Aurangzeb

POSITIVE views on the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb come like a breath of fresh air (“New perspectives on Aurangzeb”, March 17). William Dalrymple called him a “pragmatic ruler”. But the fact remains that he was a brutal ruler who imprisoned his father and killed three of his siblings, including Murad, who had been on his side in the fight for the throne. That Aurangzeb could cross all limits of cruelty is proved by the method he used to kill Shambhaji, the eldest son of Shivaji. Aurangzeb’s negative image is unlikely to fade away.

Gadadhar Narayan Sinha, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Essay

Ayodhya: deceit and force

A.G. NOORANI the-nation

“IS it not perfectly clear that, if antiquated claims are to be set up against recent treaties and long possession, the world can never be at peace for a day? The laws of all nations have wisely established a time of limitation, after which titles, however illegitimate in their origin, cannot be questioned. It is felt by everybody, that to eject a person from his estate on the ground of some injustice committed in the time of the Tudors would produce all the evils which result from arbitrary confiscation, and would make all property insecure. It concerns the Commonwealth—so runs the legal maxim—that there be an end of litigation.” (From Lord Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Longmans, Green & Co., 1877, page 666).”

Chief Justice of India Justice J.S. Kehar’s proposal on March 21, 2017 for mediation in the Babri Masjid case, as well as his remarks amplifying it are in glaring contrast to the Supreme Court’s sound reaction to the judgment of the Allahabad High Court’s majority judgments, on September 30, 2010, ordering a tripartition of the Babri Masjid between the idol of Ram Lalla in the central dome, the Nirmohi Akhara, and “one-third of the total area of the premises” to Muslims. It was made by Justices Sudhir Agarwal and Sibghatullah Khan. Justice Dharam Veer Sharma rejected the Muslim case in toto. All three, however, were agreed on one crucial point—the idol was planted in the mosque on the night of December 22-23, 1949, refuting the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) lie that it appeared by a “miracle”.

Appeals against the High Court judgments came up for admission in the Supreme Court on May 9, 2011, before a Bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam and R.M. Lodha, who did not conceal their displeasure. At the start of the proceeding, the judges pointedly asked if anyone was in favour of the High Court’s verdict. No one was—a fact which the court appreciated. It asked if any of the parties supported the judgments. No one did ( DNA, May 10, 2011). All sought a stay of the judgments’ execution, which the court duly ordered.

Justice Alam said: “At least on one issue, all of you are unanimous. The High Court has granted a new relief, which nobody asked for it [ sic]. The High Court has done something on its own. It has to be stayed.” Justice Lodha said: “The High Court’s judgment is something strange. A new dimension has been given by the High Court as the decree of partition was not sought by the parties. It was not prayed for by anyone. It has to be stayed. It’s a strange order. How can a decree for partition be passed when none of the parties had prayed for it? It’s strange. Such kind of decrees cannot be allowed to be in operation. It is a difficult situation now. The position is that the High Court’s verdict has created a litany of litigation.”

The two-judge Bench said that the status quo at the disputed site would remain as directed in 1994 by the Constitution Bench and the order passed on March 13-14, 2002. Taking note of the order of 2001, it directed that on the 67.703 acres located in various plots detailed in the Schedule to the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993, “which is vested in the Central government, no religious activity of any kind by anyone be permitted or allowed to take place”. However, while directing the status quo to continue, the bench made it clear that the existing “pujas” in the makeshift Ram Lalla temple at the disputed site would go on as usual.

Sanctifying a crime

The Allahabad High Court had, in effect, sanctified the criminal conversion of the historic Babri Masjid, built in 1528, into a Hindu temple in 1949. On December 6, 1992, it was demolished. Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are on trial for complicity in the crime on charges made by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) which a Sessions Judge upheld on a prima facie view formed by the committing Magistrate.

Justice J.S. Khehar’s proposal on March 21, 2017, carries this very process further. He could not have been unaware of the sordid deeds of 1949 and the crime of 1992. He nonetheless proposed what he did. Nor could he have been unaware of the BJP’s long-standing agenda to build a Ram temple on the ruins of a demolished mosque and the Modi’s regime’s declared intention to use the clout of its massive majority to push the projected thought.

It is in this context that CJI Khehar’s offer was made: “Give a bit, take a bit. Make an effort to sort it out. There are issues best decided jointly. … these are issues of sentiments and religion. The court should come in the picture only if you cannot settle it … if the parties want me to sit with mediators chosen by both the sides for negotiations, I am ready to take up the task” ( The Indian Express, March 22; emphasis added throughout).

The proposal “give a bit, take a bit” is appropriate for a civil suit for partition of property. The court was faced here with civil suits that ensued after the foul deeds of December 1949 pertaining to the forcible conversion of the house of worship of one community by members of another. It was, next, demolished in 1992. The issue is whether the mosque is to be restored to the Muslims or the victims of the crimes are to be fobbed off with leftovers, leaving the perpetrators of the deeds to enjoy the fruits of their crimes. If CJI Khehar’s suggestion “give a bit, take a bit” is intrinsically wrong, his approach underlying it is disturbing in the extreme. “These are issues of sentiment and religion.” This is precisely the stand of the BJP from day one. Small wonder that within hours of this judicial move “a senior government functionary welcomed it and said it would move the court to speed up hearings” if the parties did not talk or settle. What he added is in direct quotes: “The matter has been hanging fire since 1999 [ sic; 1949?] when Hindus started praying. The Allahabad High Court judgment endorsing the stand of the majority community came in 2010. The matter cannot be allowed to hang fire any more.”

Evidently, the government hopes to get the Supreme Court to endorse the High Court verdict and then proceed with its plans. The Indian Express hit the nail on the head when it pointed out, in a brave and brilliant editorial on March 22, that “the sheer inequality of power, the political weight and dominance acquired by one side of the argument in the dispute … For the Chief Justice now to throw the ball back to the litigants in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute is to lend the imprimatur of his high office to a proposal that is vulnerable to political misuse and, in effect, send an ominous message: That the case will be given over to the decision of the majority at a time when there seem to be very few checks on its will to have its say.”

Ayodhya in reverse

This, surely, is not the first case of its kind. There have been instances where courts of law had to grapple with cases that had aroused religious fury, such as the Shahid Ganj Masjid case, when a mosque in present-day Pakistan was admittedly converted into a gurdwara. But courts upheld it applying the law of limitation and the rule of adverse possession. It was Ayodhya in reverse with two vital differences. There was incontestable proof of the construction of a mosque by a deed of dedication in 1722. Equally incontestable was the fact that from 1762 it was occupied by Sikhs. On May 2, 1940, the Privy Council rejected the Muslims’ claim, and rightly so. It held: “It cannot be doubted that the Indian Limitation Act of 1908 applies to immovables made waqf, notwithstanding that the ownership in such property is said, in accordance with the doctrine of the two disciples, to be in God. … The property now in question having been possessed by Sikhs adversely to the waqf and to all interests thereunder for more than twelve years, the right of the muttawali to possession for the purpose of the waqf came to an end under Art. 144 of the Limitation Act, and the title derived under the dedication from the settler or waqf became extinct under S.28.”

The distinguished educationist Dr. Amrik Singh noted: “The interesting thing is that even after 1947, when there is hardly anyone to visit the gurdwara, the character of that building has not been changed and it has not been converted into a mosque. If this can happen in Pakistan, which according to its Constitution is described as an Islamic state, can India, which described itself as a secular state, act differently? How does one deal with an issue when faith is put forward as the governing principle in place of reason? If that contention were to be accepted, it would be the end of civilisation.” (The Mosque known as Masjid Shahid Ganj & Ors. vs. Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee; 67 Indian Appeals 251).

The Premier of Punjab, Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, rejected pleas for legislation. In a statement in the Punjab Assembly on March 16, 1938, he asked how the Muslims could reject similar moves in “the Provinces where the non-Muslims are in a majority”. Five days later, the Muslim League’s Council, led by M.A. Jinnah, endorsed that stand.

The Babri Masjid has existed since 1528. But right at the inception, proceedings in the civil suits were derailed by false claims that a Ram temple had existed on the site of the mosque. Here come the vital differences. Proof of such a temple varies from the questionable to the spurious. But even if that were not so, what of the law on adverse possession, from 1528 to 1949?

Realising this, the BJP declared from the very outset that the courts cannot rule on the issue; the site of Ram’s birth cannot be ascertained and it was, above all, a matter of faith; the faith of the majority community which it can impose by legislation. Coercive negotiations or the subversion of the rule of law. It insists that in this one case the law of limitation cannot and should not apply; adverse possession is irrelevant.

The BJP nailed its colours to the mast with a definitive statement at Palampur on June 11, 1989. This was on the eve of general elections, which made it clear that the motivation was power. It said: “The BJP holds that the nature of this controversy is such that it just cannot be sorted out by a court of law. A court of law can settle issues of title, trespass, possession, etc. But it cannot adjudicate as to whether Babar did actually invade Ayodhya, destroy a temple and build a mosque in its place. … The sentiments of the people must be respected, and Rama Janamasthan handed over to the Hindus—if possible through a negotiated settlement, or else, by legislation. Litigation certainly is no answer.” On April 6, 1989, A.B. Vajpayee asserted in Bombay (now Mumbai) that the issue could not be solved by the courts. The Muslims should be persuaded to give up their claim to the mosque. It should be handed over to Hindus unconditionally. He rejected the proposal to declare the mosque a national monument, saying it belonged to Hindus as part of their cultural heritage ( Indian Post, April 7, 1989).

Contempt for evidence

The judicial process was rejected in terms that reflect a contempt for evidence and a dangerous recourse to demagogy. If BJP president L.K. Advani said that “the controversy is about accepting rashtra purush Ram against a foreign invader Babar” ( The Telegraph, May 17, 1990), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Ashok Singhal asserted that “the Constitution does not vest powers in the court to question the divine factor of the people” ( The Telegraph, October 6, 1989). The RSS leader Rajendra Singh wrote to the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, on April 12, 1987: “All Hindus are convinced it is the Ram Janmabhoomi and they do not need the proofs from Baburnamas and your white-washing historians.” The RSS chief, Balasaheb Deoras, said, “This is not a case on which the judiciary can pass a judgment. What type of evidence are the Hindus expected to produce? That Rama was born and that his birthplace is Ayodhya?” ( Organiser, March 12, 1989).

Advani pursued the Palampur line relentlessly. So did A.B. Vajpayee. “Even where a court does pronounce on such facts, it cannot suggest remedies to undo the vandalism of history. A problem of this kind can be sorted out either by negotiation between contending parties or by government decision or legislation and not by litigations,” Advani said ( The Indian Express, August 14, 1990).

It was a matter of faith, and the faith of the majority was decisive, regardless of the law and evidence. On May 17, 1989, Vajpayee said: “It was not possible to pinpoint the exact place where Rama was born thousands of years ago. The temple was built and rebuilt over the age and had existed since Emperor Vikramaditya’s time” ( The Hindustan Times, May 18, 1989). Yet, on September 23, 1990, he had no hesitation in asserting that there was only one birthplace of Shri Rama ( The Hindustan Times, September 24, 1990).

On September 30, 1990, Advani conceded that “no one can prove that it was the birthplace of Shri Rama”. But he contended that it was a matter of belief which the government could not afford to ignore ( The Independent, October 1, 1990). The belief of a group is law.

This explains the refusal to submit the matter to a judicial verdict, quite apart from the enormity of the outrage in the use of force to make one community submit to another’s belief. Even in the realm of belief, the site of the birth was not the Babri Masjid but the chabutra (a platform) outside it but within its compound.

The Mahant of Ramjanmasthan should have known. The suit that Mahant Raghubar Das filed on January 19, 1885, sought permission to build a temple on the chabutra. The District Judge, in his judgment dated March 26, 1886, said: ‘This chabutra is said to indicate the birthplace of Ramchander.” In 1987, Muslims themselves proposed the construction of a Rama temple on the chabutra. The BJP rejected it brusquely. Mumbai prides itself on a traffic island which houses a temple, a mosque and a church.

Drive to recast polity

In his reply to Professor Hiren Mukherji’s letter of June 5, 1989, Vajpayee wrote: “It is not possible to pinpoint the exact spot where Ram was bon. But it is known that Ram, the King of Ayodhya, whom vast masses of Hindus regard as the incarnation of God, was born in that historical city and a temple dedicated to him had been in existence since long. This temple was built and rebuilt over the ages.” ( Organiser, September 24, 1989). It was a drive to recast India’s polity and usher in Hindu Raj.

The record explains how the ground was laid for the policies of today. On April 6, 1989, Vajpayee demanded: “Hand over the site to Hindus for that is the only solution for [ sic] the Ramjanmabhumi-Babri Masjid dispute in Ayodhya.” He rejected the proposal to have the mosque declared “a national” monument. “Rama and Krishna were Hindu gods and therefore Hindus were the rightful claimants of the site.” Vajpayee said he spoke as a swayamsewak of the RSS and as a Hindu ( The Indian Express, April 7, 1989). Both statements were made well before the BJP’s Palampur resolution of June 14, 1989.

On August 13, 1990, Advani said: “If Hindu sentiment is not going to be respected in India where else in the world can it command respect?” ( The Indian Express, August 14, 1990). On September 12, 1990, Advani said that the temple belonged to the Hindus. The campaign would “affect the basis of nationalism in India”. He said the mantle of reviving the culture and tradition of Hinduism, which had been suppressed by centuries of exploitation by foreign forces as well as the ruling parties after Independence, had now fallen on the BJP. “By undertaking this yatra I am only reviving the spirit of nationalism that had lain dormant all these years” ( The Hindu, September 24, 1990).

On September 24, 1990, Advani said that the aim of his rath yatra was to launch a “crusade in defence of Hindutva and crusade against pseudo-secularism” ( The Telegraph, September 25, 1990). On September 25, 1990, beginning his rath yatra from the Somnath temple, he said: “We want to restore the pride of the country by building the Ayodhya temple, which is the second phase of nationalist renaissance after Independence” ( The Times of India, September 26, 1990).

On September 27, 1990, Advani said: “What is the important is the restoration of the dignity of the Hindus” ( The Indian Express, September 28, 1990). On October 2, 1990: “Dharma in India is being ridiculed and secular policy is putting unreasonable restrictions on Hindu aspirations” ( The Times of India, October 3, 1990). On May 12, 1991, at Faizabad, Vajpayee stressed the need for constructing the temple “to save the honour of the Hindu community and to protect the cultural heritage of the country” ( The Times of India, May 13, 1991).

On November 29, 1992, came the BJP’s statement: “The Ayodhya movement is not just a plea for a temple for Shri Rama—it implies a far deeper quest for recapturing our national identity. It represents the soul of the nationalist thrust of pre-independence days.”

Belief and power

Now read the Allahabad High Court’s order. “It is declared that the area covered by the central dome of the three-domed structure, i.e. the disputed structure, being the deity of Bhagwan Ram Janmasthan and place of birth of Lord Rama as per faith and belief of the Hindus, belong to the Plaintiffs (Suit 5) and shall not be obstructed or interfered in any manner by the Defendants.”

It was a cynical exploitation of the devotion of masses of Hindus to Ram for electoral gains and capture of power. Advani never concealed his objectives or his ambition to become Prime Minister. Immediately on the passing of the Palampur resolution on Ayodhya on June 11, 1989, Advani said: “I am sure it will translate into votes.” On December 3, 1989, after the general elections, he expressed satisfaction that the issue had contributed to the BJP’s success. On June 18, 1991, he made this pathetic confession: “Had I not played the Ram factor effectively, I would have definitely lost from the New Delhi constituency.” Shortly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and another wave of carnage that came in its wake, Advani wrote that if the Muslims were to identify themselves with the concept of Hindutva there would not be any reason for riots to take place ( The Times of India, January 30, 1993). In July 1992, he argued in the Lok Sabha Speaker’s chamber: “You must recognise the fact that from two seats in Parliament in 1985 we have come to 117 seats in 1991. This has happened primarily because we took up this issue [Ayodhya].” Behind the BJP’s religio-cultural rhetoric, however, there has always been cold political calculation. The BJP leader Sushma Swaraj ripped apart this pretence in Bhopal on April 14, 2000, when she admitted that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was “purely political in nature and had nothing to do with religion” ( The Telegraph, April 16, 2000).

To Robert Blake, Charge d’ Affairs in the U.S. Embassy, Arun Jaitley admitted, when they met at the U.S. Embassy on May 6, 2005, that “Hindu nationalism was an opportunistic issue for the party” ( The Hindu, March 26, 2011).

Such a stand cannot be sustained in any court of law without derailing the conduct of the suits on title. Even before the hearings had begun, an astute law correspondent, Manoj Mitter, noted the insidious character of some of the issues framed by the court. “Several of the 43 issues framed by the court on May 25 pertain neither to law nor any verifiable fact. Rather, those issues fall in the grey areas of history, mythology and religion. Here is a sample: ‘Is the property in suit the site of Janam Bhumi of Sri Ram Chandraji?’ ‘Whether the building and the graveyard stand dedicated to almighty God’, as alleged by the Plaintiffs [Sunni Wakf board]? ‘Have the Muslims been in possession of the property in suit from 1528 AD continuously, openly and to the knowledge of the Defendants and Hindus in general? If so, its effect? Whether the building has been constructed on the site of an alleged Hindu temple after demolishing the same? If so, its effect?” ( The Times of India, June 25, 1990).

One would have thought that the civil courts would correct the course after the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that adverse possession was a relevant defence. The President’s Reference to the court for an advisory opinion posed a Question for the Court’s Advisory Opinion, which it unanimously refused to answer as it would have entailed wiping out the Muslims’ case on adverse possession. The Question read: “Whether a Hindu temple or any Hindu religious structure existed prior to the construction of the Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid [including the premises in the inner and outer courtyards of such structure] in the area on which the structure stood?” ( Ismail Faruqui & Ors. vs Union of India & Ors. [1994] 6 SCC 360, page 385). Compare this with the question that the Allahabad High Court ordered the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to answer on March 5, 2003: “Whether there was any temple/structure which was demolished and mosque was constructed on the disputed site?” On that single ground alone, the High Court’s judgments invite a clear rejection by the Supreme Court.

Excavation order flouted Supreme Court ruling

The High Court order of excavation of the ground on which the mosque had stood was made on March 5, 2003, despite the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling on October 25, 1994. The order said: “One of the important issues in the suit is whether there was any temple/ structure which was demolished and mosque was constructed on the disputed site. We took the view that archaeological evidence will be of importance to decide such an issue. We had made a suggestion in regard to excavation of the site in question by an order dated 1.8.2002 and invited the suggestions from the parties in this regard. It was further observed that till excavation order is passed the Archaeological Survey of India will get surveyed the disputed site by Ground Penetrating Radar and Geo-Radiology and will submit its report in this regard. Certain objections were filed challenging our power to suo motu exercising such power. We rejected the objections on 23.10.2002.”

If the defence of adverse possession is relevant, neither the prior existence of a temple nor the un-Islamic character of the mosque has any relevance—aspects on which the High Court lavished great attention. It suffices in law that the Babri Masjid existed since 1528.

What Chief Justice Khehar ought to remember in sheer justice is that the judges of the High Court took this view in brazen violation of a unanimous view of the otherwise divided Bench of the Supreme Court in the Babri Masjid case—namely, that the rule of adverse possession applies in this case as well ( Ismail Faruqui & Ors. vs Union of India & Ors. [1994] 6 SCC 360, decided on October 24, 1994).

Nani Palkhivala’s trenchant critique of the excavation, the idea of which is implicit in the President’s Reference, is still relevant. I quote it in extenso: “The courts can decide only questions of fact or of law. They cannot decide, and should never be called upon to decide, question of opinion or belief or political wisdom. It is not the court’s role to be an extended arm of the executive. Public opinion of public beliefs may weigh with the executive in shaping governmental policies.

But it is not for the court to decide whether there are cogent grounds for opinions or beliefs which the people may choose to entertain. … It is to my mind absurd to suggest that the highest court in the country should be asked to decide question of history or archaeology. …

“Historians have expressed widely divergent views on the issue whether there was a pre-existing temple on the site on which the mosque was built by Babar. Much less are they agreed that Rama was born at that place. There is even a greater difference of opinion on the question whether Rama actually lived as a human being or whether he was the supramental ideal created by mythology to represent the perfect man. To ask the Supreme Court or the Allahabad High Court to decide such questions of mythology or history, or mixed questions of mythology and history, is to bear witness to the bankruptcy of our political institutions.

“It is a measure of the degradation to which we have reduced our third-rate democracy that we have lost all sense of propriety, and are not only willing but eager to call upon the courts to decide questions of opinion or belief, history, mythology, or political expediency. Never in the history of any country have courts been approached to deal with the type of questions which are now suggested as fit to be referred to the courts in connection with the incidents at Ayodhya.

“The consequences of asking the Supreme Court or the Allahabad High Court to deal with the type of questions which are suggested for reference would be disastrous in the long run. It would thrust upon the court a task for which it is not qualified by training or experience. Courts can deal with questions of law or of fact. They are not qualified to deal with questions in other fields like archaeology or history. A judge can decide only upon documentary evidence or evidence given by a witness as to what he himself saw or heard. It is well established that hearsay evidence is inadmissible in a court of law under the Indian Evidence Act. … If the court is pushed into the political arena, it would impair the image and undermine the status of the court. … Should any religious place of worship be razed to the ground because a structure pertaining to another religion stood in its place before?”

The Supreme Court can yet retrieve the situation by asking the Allahabad High Court to decide according to the law it had laid down in 1994 or decide the case itself.

Madhav Godbole visited the site, after the demolition, as Union Home Secretary. He wrote: “I visited Ayodhya on 29 December 1992 in connection with the proposed acquisition of land and to review the law and order arrangements in the light of the earlier decision to permit darshan. Unlike other visitors from Delhi in the past who took darshan at the Ram Lalla temple and offered pooja there, I did not do so, nor did I accept any prasad. Though a devoted person myself, I believe that one’s religion is a personal matter. In any case, I had enough of Ayodhya and sincerely believed that God could not reside in that temple, the construction of which was associated with so much deceit and wanton violence” ( Unfinished Innings,; page 406).

India’s grand temple architecture is the envy of the world. How will it react to the sight of a temple built on the site of a demolished mosque? When the communal pitch and opportunism are gone, Indians themselves will look back in shame on a structure built with force and deceit.

Observation, not binding decision

cover-story

“MENTIONING” by lawyers before a court is a recognised use of judicial time to draw the attention of judges to urgent matters that may fail to get listed for detailed hearing in the normal course of events. Thus, matters relating to personal liberty, which cannot brook any delay, are “mentioned” before judges, either before they begin the regular hearing of their cases or after their normal work is over, to seek directions to the court’s registry for the early listing of the matters.

The judges on the bench, in turn, put probing questions to the counsel who request early listing to satisfy themselves of the “urgency” involved in the matter. While the judges’ questions and observations are aimed at seeking clarifications from the counsel, the judges do not express any opinion on the matter that is pending for hearing.

One such mentioning on March 27 before the court of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court earned disproportionate space in the media, as if the court had given a binding decision. Senior Counsel Shyam Divan, appearing for Major General (retd) S.G. Vombatkere, made a mention before the bench of the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice J.S. Khehar, and Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the batch of cases challenging the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar identification project, the National Population Register schemes, and the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act passed in 2016.

Divan mentioned the cases, grouped under the lead petition, Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (retd) vs Union of India, before another bench, comprising Chief Justice Khehar and Justices N.V. Ramana and Chandrachud, on January 5, when the court’s order read: “Declined for immediate hearing for the time being.” On January 5, there were as many as eight vacancies in the Supreme Court, which has a sanctioned strength of 31 judges. As the Aadhaar case was referred to a five-judge Constitution Bench in August 2015, it was believed that Chief Justice Khehar, as the administrative head of the court, perhaps felt unable to relieve five judges to hear this matter in view of the vacancies. The Supreme Court normally sits in benches of two or three judges. The CJI specifically sets up benches of five or more judges to hear matters raising substantial constitutional issues that are referred for resolution by benches of smaller strength.

Interlocutory application No.5

On February 17, five new judges joined the Supreme Court, taking its working strength to 28. Perhaps, Diwan believed that the CJI-led bench might have a rethink in March now that the Supreme Court had more judges than it had in January. Thus, on March 27, the petitioners sought from the CJI an assurance that the Constitution Bench of five judges would be formed soon to hear the matter. Among the petitioners was Vombatkere, whose civil writ petition was tagged with that of Justice Puttaswamy (retd), which has been pending since 2012. Vombatkere, through his senior counsel Divan, sought an assurance that the interlocutory application he filed (IA No.5) seeking the court’s intervention to stay the recent spate of notifications making the requirement of Aadhaar mandatory in many schemes would be heard on April 3, as shown under the Advance List of matters slated for hearing on that day.

The CJI-led bench, after a brief exchange of views with Divan, declined to give such an assurance. As a result, Vombatkere’s IA got deleted from the Final List for April 3 and was shown in the Elimination List for that day. The Supreme Court, as if to ensure transparency, explains why a particular matter is eliminated from the Final List and included in the Elimination List. Thus, every matter in the Elimination List includes a brief explanation giving the reason for the elimination. The one reason most commonly cited is “excess matters”. A subsequent date when the matter will be listed is given along with this explanation. The second most commonly cited reason for elimination is the non-availability of the judge before whom it was listed to be heard. The third frequently cited reason is “due to compelling reason”. The Supreme Court, however, does not disclose what that compelling reason is. Vombatkere’s IA No.5 was eliminated “due to compelling reason”, and as a litigant, he can only speculate about what could have been the reason in his case.

V. Venkatesan

Anganwadi workers

Caregivers’ plight

FOR four days from March 20 to March 23, thousands of anganwadi workers from across Karnataka staged a protest in Bengaluru demanding an increase in their monthly honorarium from Rs.7,000 (including a Rs.1,000 hike announced in the recent State Budget) to Rs.10,000. They also wanted the helpers’ pay to be increased from Rs.3,500 (including a Rs.500 hike announced in the State Budget) to Rs.7,000. According to members of the Karnataka Rajya Anganwadi Noukara Sangha (Karnataka State Anganwadi Workers’ Association, or KSAWA), more than 10,000 women participated in the protest.

The venue was Freedom Park in central Bengaluru, and most of the participants spent the nights there in inhospitable conditions with limited access to toilets. The protest drew the attention of the news media, and the plight of the workers evoked public sympathy. The protest coincided with the ongoing Budget session of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, where there were heated debates on the issue. The Leader of the Opposition, Jagadish Shettar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who raised the issue, reportedly stated: “The demands of anganwadi workers are genuine and need immediate attention of the State government. They have been protesting on the road. They are also compelled to sleep on the road in support of their demands.” H.D. Kumaraswamy, State president of the Janata Dal (Secular), visited the protesters and endorsed their demands. Pro-Kannada organisations also extended their support to them.

The issue was raised in the Lok Sabha on March 23 by the Congress’ M. Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of Opposition, and this drew a response from the BJP’s Ananth Kumar, Union Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Chemicals and Fertilizers. Both Kharge and Kumar are Members of Parliament from Karnataka. The cost of the honorarium given to anganwadi workers and helpers is split evenly between the Union and State governments. This has led to a situation where the State and Central governments blame each other for the lack of funds.

The protests were called off on March 23 after Chief Minister Siddaramaiah assured the protesters that the State government would consider the demands in a meeting on April 10.

Anganwadis were established all over the country in 1975 as part of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) under the aegis of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development. Karnataka at present has 61,187 full-fledged anganwadis and 3,331 mini anganwadis. Each full-fledged anganwadi employs a worker and a helper, while a mini-anganwadi has one person who combines both the roles. There are currently around 1,25,000 anganwadi workers and helpers in Karnataka. Anganwadis provide preschool education and function as creches. Established mainly to combat malnutrition among children under six, they also serve a nutritious lunch apart from a mid-morning snack.

On March 30, L.R. Nalinakshi, 46, an anganwadi worker, was back in her workplace in Linganahalli, a neatly laid-out village of 266 households located an hour away from Bengaluru, close to the town of Doddaballapura. The room has several colourful charts and cheap toys, and children in the three-to-six age group were busy with their colouring books. Linganahalli is a mixed-caste village, with backward classes making up the bulk of the residents. They include a large population of Vokkaligas and a smaller population of Lingayats, the two dominant castes in Karnataka. There are also people from the Kuruba, Bhajantri and Agasa castes, and Dalits and Nayakas (a Scheduled Tribe). There are no Brahmins, Muslims or Christians. While agriculture is the mainstay of the community, the presence of an industrial town nearby and the closeness to Bengaluru mean that many of the residents also work in factories.

The children who benefit from anganwadis are usually from backward class, Dalit and Muslim communities. In Linganahalli, for instance, of the 23 children on the rolls, 10 are Dalits, six are Nayakas, and seven are from the backward classes. This ratio is not commensurate with the demographic composition of the village. The parents are either agricultural labourers or factory workers.

Nalinakshi, who is from this village and has worked in this anganwadi for 20 years, said: “Anganwadi workers like me put in six and a half hours every day. We start work at 9:30 a.m. and continue until 4 p.m. We work for six days a week, and what do we get for this? A mere Rs.6,000. What is the value of this amount nowadays?” About her helper, Lakshmamma, 58, who is two years away from her retirement, she said: “She has worked in this anganwadi for 14 years. She cooks the midday meal for the children, cleans after them, and drops them back home; and how much does she make? Rs.3,000! And what savings does she have after all these years for her old age? Nothing!”

Combining multiple roles

Nalinakshi listed the various responsibilities that the anganwadi worker shouldered. Apart from providing a preschool environment and creche for young children, the anganwadi worker takes responsibility for the health of women and infants in the village, particularly teenage girls, pregnant women and new mothers. She keeps track of the infants’ nourishment and makes sure that the child receives all the mandatory immunisations. Anganwadi workers work closely with accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers in their village, and their services are used in mass vaccination campaigns such as the Pulse Polio drive. They are also responsible for the identification of eligible girls under the Bhagyalakshmi scheme (a scheme for up to two girls from Below Poverty Line families in Karnataka) and liaise with adult women for forming self-help groups (SHGs) under the Stree Shakti Scheme in the State. They keep a record of births and deaths in the village. Occasionally, during elections at various levels, anganwadi workers are expected to fulfil the role of booth level officers. “As you can see, we fulfil many roles. Our work rarely gets finished by 4:30 p.m. and continues late into the evening. Considering all this, we are paid a pittance,” Nalinakshi said.

S. Varalakshmi, president of the KSAWA and also of the Karnataka State Committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), has been organising anganwadi workers in Karnataka from 1994. “Anganwadi workers are not paid a minimum wage as stipulated by various guidelines,” she said. While the primary demand of the agitation was to increase the honorarium, the safety of anganwadi workers is also a serious concern. “Anganwadi workers are usually single women because of the nature of their work, because of which they fall easy prey to sexual exploitation,” Varalakshmi added.

Anganwadi workers do not have the service benefits that government employees are entitled to and do not get a pension or gratuity on retirement. The regularisation of their services, therefore, has also been a constant demand. In Karnataka, they do not have a grade pay and are paid a flat rate as honorarium. This means that a newly recruited anganwadi worker and a senior worker who have put in years of service are both paid Rs.7,000. The same goes for the helper.

Unlike government employees, whose benefits are systematically provided and are periodically revised, anganwadi workers have to wait for the Budget every year to find out if they have been provided any extra benefits. The 2017-18 Karnataka State Budget included anganwadi workers in the Accident Insurance Scheme. Anganwadi workers of Karnataka also complain that their counterparts in Kerala, Goa, Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu are better paid: Varalakshmi said the pay of workers in those States ranges between Rs.10,000 and Rs.14,000 a month.

Back in Linganahalli, Nalinakshi and Lakshmamma had just finished serving lunch to the children when this correspondent visited their anganwadi. The children dipped into their hot rice and sambar with obvious relish. “When I first joined as an anganwadi worker 20 years ago, my honorarium was Rs.350 a month. Now, we get paid Rs.7,000, and all we are agitating for is Rs.10,000,” Nalinakshi said. “In spite of all this, our work gives us great joy. I feel very happy when some of the children who were toddlers when they first came here are all grown up now and remember the time that they spent at the anganwadi fondly.”

Maharashtra

Bhujbal case: E.D. submits charges to court

the-nation

AFTER spending one year in jail, the term punctuated by hospital visits, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Chhagan Bhujbal continues to have his luck slide downhill. The 69-year-old leader, who was once the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) on March 14, 2016, under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) on the charge that he and his associates, including his son Pankaj and nephew Sameer Bhujbal, had channelled illegal money through Bhujbal’s vast empire that largely consisted of real estate investments amounting to around Rs.2,500 crore.

The investigation had been fuelled by the evidence that the Aam Admi Party (AAP) dug out against Bhujbal. The AAP alleged that as Public Works Minister Bhujbal had received kickbacks on many occasions for award of contracts. The party presented the evidence to state agencies and later, when nothing was done about it, filed a public interest petition in the Bombay High Court. The court appointed a special investigation team of officials from the Anti-Corruption Bureau and the E.D.

At that time, Bhujbal was being investigated for alleged corruption in awarding contracts for the construction of the Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi. The investigation had been initiated on the basis of a complaint filed by Bharatiya Janata Party MP Kirit Somaiya. Bhujbal was also fighting other cases, including one by the co-founder trustee of Bhujbal’s Maharashtra Education Trust.

Sources in the investigating agencies believed that the money that Bhujbal allegedly received was sent abroad through hawala operators and brought back to India through shell companies located across the country. Since 2016 the E.D. has been tracking some of the Kolkata-based companies that had shares in these concerns.

The E.D.’s money-laundering investigations, named Operation Shell Companies, culminated in a huge nationwide raid on April 1, involving 110 locations across 16 States. It yielded a wealth of information, including specific information against Bhujbal and that relating to a scam in the National Rural Health Mission in Uttar Pradesh.

One of the raided locations in Mumbai belonged to Jagdish Prasad Purohit, who claimed to be a financial adviser. He apparently told the investigators that he had created about 700 shell companies headed by 20 dummy directors. Of these, at least 130 are believed to be still operational, while the rest had been disbanded after their purpose was served. In a statement, the E.D. said Purohit had “provided accommodation entry to the tune of Rs. 46.7 crore to Chhagan Bhujbal”.

According to investopedia.com, accommodation entry is “a type of trading in which a trader accommodates another by entering into a non-competitive purchase or sale order. An accommodation trade is often executed when two traders are participating in illegal trading.” Taxguru.in further explains: “The method of providing accommodation entry entails breaking up large amounts of money into smaller, less-suspicious amounts. In India, this smaller amount has to be below Rs.50,000 as deposit of cash below this amount does not require providing PAN of the depositors. The money is then deposited into one or more bank accounts either by multiple people or by a single person over an extended period of time. Also, even larger amounts are deposited in the banks with PAN numbers of individuals who are mostly illiterate and work for these entry operators for a small salary or commission. The money is then routed through paper companies controlled by these operators.” Taxguru.in also says, “Kolkata is undoubtedly the Mecca of such operations liberally providing entries to business concerns all over the country….” Purohit is alleged to have converted the Rs.46.7 crore via two shell firms, Kumaon Engineering Co. Ltd. and Sea Green Realtors Pvt. Ltd. Purohit is the director of both companies.

The E.D. has submitted draft charges to the court, in which Bhujbal and his associates have been charged with laundering Rs. 4,264.25 crore since 2006.

Lyla Bavadam

Syria

New Syrian reality

VIJAY PRASHAD world-affairs

THE Donald Trump administration has now formally said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure is not imperative. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said on March 31: “There is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.” Russia’s presence inside Syria makes the overthrow of Assad impossible. This is the “political reality” that Spicer referred to.

The previous day, Trump’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said: “You pick and choose your battles. And when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” The immediate reaction to these comments from Nikki Haley, Spicer and the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was that there has now been a major shift in U.S. policy on Syria. In fact, the policy articulated by the Trump administration is no different from what had been stated by the Barack Obama administration after the Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015. To understand the shift from “Assad must go” (Obama’s slogan that began to be uttered in 2011) to “Assad can stay” (the Trump slogan), one has to consider the reaction in the U.S. to the Russian intervention of 2015.

New reality after Russia’s entry

In September 2015, the Russian military entered Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government. What this did was to make it impossible for the U.S. to attempt a “full spectrum domination” attack on the Syrian Arab Army and on the government of Bashar al-Assad. A few days later, CNN’s Erin Burnett invited Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump onto her television programme to discuss, among other things, the question of Syria. By then, the U.N. had stopped counting the number of the dead. The war was grotesque, with half of Syria’s population displaced and desolation the mood amongst the people.

“I really understand what’s going on in Syria,” Trump said. “We’re helping to make it a mess.” This was a position far outside the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy discourse. One of Trump’s signature themes in his campaign had been against the regime change policies of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. “Why are we knocking ISIS, and yet at the same time, we’re against Assad?” he asked Erin Burnett. Let the U.S. fight the ISIS in Iraq, he said, while the Syrian Arab Army with Russian support fights the ISIS in Syria.

Was the U.S. under Obama really trying to get rid of Assad? “We’re knocking the hell out of them,” Trump said in reference to the Assad government, “though it’s not a very full-blown thing.” The U.S. had been giving arms, logistical support and training to various groups that it hoped would morph into a “moderate” rebel army. “We have no idea who these people are,” Trump said. “We give them weapons. We give them ammunition. We give them everything.”

Ten days before this interview, General Lloyd Austin, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told the U.S. Congress that the $500 million spent on a rebel army had created “a small number. The ones that are in the fight, we’re talking four or five.” He meant not four or five hundred but four or five fighters who were reliably moderate. The rest, he suggested, had been trained by the U.S. but then drifted off into extremist organisations.

Trump’s comments in 2015, after the Russian intervention, were not substantially different from those of the Obama administration. Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped that Russia and Iran would use their influence to open the door for a serious political negotiation. “For the last year and a half, we have said Assad has to go,” Kerry said in London on September 20, 2015. During that period, the U.S. was quite unequivocal that Assad’s departure from the presidency was a precondition to any political dialogue. After the Russian entry, Kerry said that the U.S. was not fixated on a timetable or modality for Assad’s departure. “The modality and timing has to be part of a political solution that allows us to move forward,” Kerry said, indicating that no longer was Assad’s departure the opening gambit of a discussion.

In other words, Trump, in September 2015, spoke with more bluntness but along the grain of the direction of official U.S. policy. Reality had struck. The intervention of Russia would make it impossible to remove Assad short of an all-out war between the U.S. and Russia. Russia and Iran would now dictate the terms for the political process, which meant that Assad’s departure could no longer be the first point on the agenda. This is precisely what happened both at the U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva and at the Turkish-Russian-Iranian brokered talks at Astana (Kazakhstan).

‘Bomb the Shit Out of ISIS’

In December 2015, at a campaign rally, Trump outlined his policy for the war in Syria and Iraq. Obama, he alleged, was weak on the ISIS. Trump would “bomb the shit out of ISIS”. Trump shared a great deal with his Republican colleague Ted Cruz, who wanted to bomb the ISIS to “see if the desert glows”. The implication here was that the Republicans would use weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, to strike the ISIS. Trump and his confederates were not interested in building up a rebel army against Assad. What they wanted was to give the U.S. armed forces free rein to bomb the ISIS—regardless of civilian casualties—without any consideration of the political aftermath of this harsh military campaign. Complications with Turkey’s own anxiety in the region, particularly around Syrian Kurdish ambitions, did not matter to Trump or to Cruz. Their foreign policy is framed around testosterone rather than reason.

Since Trump has come into office, the U.S. armed forces have ruthlessly bombed along the geography of the War on Terror—from Yemen to Iraq and Syria. Trump is not the sole author of this brutality. Last year, the U.S. dropped at least 26,171 bombs in the region, according to the Council of Foreign Relations. Harsh bombing in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Yemen, has resulted in a large number of civilian casualties, including a major incident in Mosul (Iraq), which the U.S. has acknowledged.

Trump’s rhetoric about using U.S. resources to rebuild the U.S. rather than indulge in foreign wars is empty. He has deployed troops in Syria and Iraq, with air strikes being sanctioned with as much licence as under Obama. Trump has sought an increase in the U.S. military budget—already the largest in the world—by $54 billion (this increase is itself 80 per cent of the total Russian military budget). There is every indication that Trump will increase the number of U.S. troops in West Asia and that he will not draw down the use of lethal U.S. air power in the region. Trump might indicate that the U.S. should isolate itself from conflicts it does not understand, but his policies show the opposite. Belligerence will continue to be the tone set by Washington.

Pushing Iran out

Nikki Haley had not said that Assad would be a partner against the ISIS, which is the Russian position. She noted that Assad “is a big hindrance in trying to move forward”. But even more than Assad, Nikki Haley noted that “Iran is a big hindrance in trying to move forward”. The U.S. priority, Haley said, is to “get Iran and their proxies out” of Syria.

The Trump administration, with its close ties to Israel, is committed to pushing Iran to the margins of any deal in Syria. This is a curious position, given that the U.S. relies on Iran in the battle against the ISIS in Iraq and that Iran is perhaps Assad’s closest ally. But the Trump administration hopes that pressure from the U.S. and from Israel will drive the Russians to edge Iran to the margins of any Syrian deal. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani went to Moscow for a two-day visit in late March to ascertain the temperature. There has been no clear message from Moscow as to the fate of Iran in these developments.

One of the divides between Iran and Russia is that the former believes that the Assad government can actually win in Syria, whereas Russia would like Assad to make an agreement with the political opposition. Assad has been trying to bridge this rift, which could be utilised by the U.S. on behalf of Israel to isolate Iran from the next phase of the Syrian war.

A senior Iranian diplomat told this writer that he believed that Russia would not abandon Iran, which has proven to be an important regional partner. He worries that the Trump administration will attempt to insinuate itself into the new Syrian reality in order to push Iran out of the picture. The comments by the Trump administration that Assad need not go immediately do not clarify the political difficulties posed inside and around Syria. What is clear is that regime change in Damascus is off the table. What is not clear is the status of the U.S. and Israeli policy to isolate Iran.

Statement of concern on unique identity number

cover-story

(This statement was signed and released on September 28, 2010.)

THE project that proposes to give every resident a ‘unique identity number’ is a matter of great concern for those working on issues of food security, NREGA, migration, technology, decentralisation, constitutionalism, civil liberties and human rights. The process of setting up the Authority has resulted in very little, if any, discussion about this project and its effects and fallout. The documents on the UIDAI website, and a recent draft law (the National Identification Authority Bill, which is also on the website) do not provide answers to the many questions that are being raised in the public domain. This project is intended to collect demographic data about all residents in the country. It is said that it will impact on the PDS and NREGA programmes, and plug leakages and save the government large sums of money. It would, however, seem that even basic procedures have not been followed before launching on such a massive project.

Before it goes any further, we consider it imperative that the following be done:

Do a feasibility study: There are claims made in relation to the project, about what it can do for PDS and NREGA, for instance, which does not reflect any understanding of the situation on the ground. The project documents do not say what other effects the project may have, including its potential to be intrusive and violative of privacy, who may handle the data (there will be multiple persons involved in entering, maintaining and using the data), who may be able to have access to the data and similar other questions.

Do a cost-benefit analysis: It is reported that the UIDAI estimates the project will costs Rs.45,000 crore to the exchequer in the next four years. This does not seem to include the costs that will be incurred by Registrars, Enrollers, internal systems costs that the PDS system will have to budget if it is to be able to use the UID, the estimated cost to the end user and to the number holder.

In a system such as this, a mere statement that the UIDAI will deal with the security of the data is obviously insufficient. How does the UIDAI propose to deal with data theft? If this security cannot be reasonably guaranteed, the wisdom of holding such data in a central registry may need to be reviewed.

The involvement of firms such as Ernst & Young and Accenture raises further questions about who will have access to the data, and what that means to the people of India.

Constitutionality of this project, including in the matter of privacy, the relationship between the state and the people, security and other fundamental rights.

Questions have been raised which have not been addressed so far, including those about:

Undemocratic process: UIDAI was set up via a GoI notification as an attached office of the Planning Commission without any discussion or debate in Parliament or civil society. In the year and a half of its inception, the Authority has signed MoUs with virtually all States and UTs, LIC, Petroleum Ministry and many banks. In July, the Authority circulated the draft NIA Bill (to achieve statutory status); the window for public feedback was two weeks. Despite widespread feedback and calls for making all feedback public, the Authority has not made feedback available. Further, in direct contravention to the process of public feedback, the NIA Bill was listed for introduction in the Lok Sabha 2010 monsoon session.

Privacy (It is only now that the DoPT is said to be working on a draft of a privacy law, but nothing is out for discussion even yet.)

Surveillance: where this technology, and the existence of the UID number, and its working, could result in increasing the potential for surveillance.

Profiling

Tracking

Convergence, by which those with access to state power, as well as companies, could collate information about each individual with the help of the UID number.

National IDs have been abandoned in the U.S., Australia and [by] the newly elected British government. The reasons have predominantly been: costs and privacy. If it is too expensive for the U.S. with a population of 308 million, and the U.K. with 61 million, and Australia with 21 million, it is being asked why India thinks it can prioritise its spending in this direction. In the U.K., the Home Secretary explained that they were abandoning the project because it would otherwise be ‘intrusive bullying’ by the state, and that the government intended to be the ‘servant’ of the people, and not their ‘master’. Is there a lesson in it for us? In the late 1990s, the Supreme Court of the Philippines struck down the President’s Executive Order A.O 308 which instituted a biometric-based national ID system calling it unconstitutional on two grounds – the overreach of the executive over the legislative powers of the congress and invasion of privacy. The same is applicable in India—UIDAI has been constituted on the basis of a GoI notification and there is a fundamental risk to civil liberties with the convergence of UID, NATGRID, etc.

The UIDAI is still at the stage of conducting pilot studies. The biometric pilot study has reportedly already thrown up problems especially among the poor whose fingerprints are not stable, and whose iris scans suffer from malnourishment-related cataract and among whom the incidence of corneal scars is often found. The project is clearly still in its inception. The project should be halted before it goes any further and the prelude to the project be attended to, the public informed and consulted, and the wisdom of the project determined. The Draft Bill too needs to be publicly debated. This is a project that could change the status of the people in this country, with effects on our security and constitutional rights, and a consideration of all aspects of the project should be undertaken with this in mind.

We, therefore, ask that:

The project be halted

A feasibility study be done covering all aspects of this issue

Experts be tasked with studying its constitutionality

The law on privacy be urgently worked on (this will affect matters way beyond the UID project)

A cost-benefit analysis be done

A public, informed debate be conducted before any such major change be brought in.



Signatories

Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Retired Judge, Supreme Court of India

Prof Romila Thapar, Historian

K.G. Kannabiran, Senior Civil Liberties Lawyer

Kavita Srivastava, PUCL and Right to Food Campaign

Aruna Roy, MKKS, Rajasthan

Nikhil Dey, MKKS, Rajasthan

S.R. Sankaran, Retired Secretary, Government of India

Deep Joshi, Independent Consultant

Upendra Baxi, Jurist and ex-Vice Chancellor of Universities of Surat and Delhi

Uma Chakravarthi, Historian

Shohini Ghosh, Teacher and Film-maker

Amar Kanwar, Film-maker

Bezwada Wilson, Safai Karamchari Andolan

Trilochan Sastry, IIMB, and Association for Democratic Reforms

Prof Jagdish Chhokar, ex-IIMA, and Association for Democratic Rights

Shabnam Hashmi, ANHAD

Justice A.P. Shah, Retired Chief Justice of High Court of Delhi

(http://mediavigil.blogspot.com/2010/09/eminent-personalities-against-unique.html)

Envoys slam attacks

social-issues

INDIA’S dogged refusal to term the attacks on African students in Greater Noida as racist did not amuse African envoys. In an unprecedented move, the heads of missions of 43 African countries condemned the attacks as “xenophobic and racial in nature” and pointed out that India had not taken any “known, sufficient and visible” deterrent action. The Eritrean Ambassador, who is the Dean of African Heads of Missions, issued a strongly worded statement on behalf of all of them, which said:

“The Heads of African Missions accredited to India convened a special meeting to look into the recent attacks against African students in Greater Noida [on March 31]. They reviewed the previous incidents that have taken place in the past and concluded that no known, sufficient and visible deterring measures were taken by the Government of India.

“As regards the recent unfortunate incident in Greater Noida, the African Heads of Missions strongly condemn the incident and express their deep concern and also take note that these reprehensible events, both outstanding and unresolved cases against Africans, were not sufficiently condemned by the Indian authorities. The meeting unanimously agreed that those accumulated attacks against Africans are xenophobic and racial in nature.

“They equally expressed their expectations for strong condemnation from the highest political level (both nationally and locally) of the Government of India, as well as expediting legal actions against the perpetrators. They agreed to take further actions, including the call for an independent investigation by the Human Rights Council as well as other human rights bodies, and also to comprehensively report the matter to the African Union Commission.”

The Ministry of External Affairs continued to be in denial and said: “It is unfortunate that a criminal act triggered following the untimely death of a young Indian student under suspicious circumstances has been termed as xenophobic and racial. Investigations on the death of Indian teenager and the subsequent incident by local authorities are ongoing. The government had condemned and described as unacceptable the incident of attack on a few Nigerian nationals in Greater Noida. The significance attached to addressing the matter is reflected in the detailed statement by the External Affairs Minister and the discussion in the Parliament.... As stated earlier, the government is committed to ensuring safety and security of all foreign nationals in India, including African nationals, who remain our valued partners.

“Strong Indian institutions are adequate to deal with aberrations that represent act of a few criminals.”

Divya Trivedi

Cow politics

social-issues

PUSHING the Hindutva agenda further, the Gujarat government makes cow slaughter punishable with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The BJP government amended a law, providing complete protection for the cow. In March, the Gujarat Assembly passed the Gujarat Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, 2017, making its anti-cow slaughter law the toughest in the country with the offence becoming non-bailable and punishable with a life sentence.

Cow slaughter was never permitted in Gujarat. Before the amendment was incorporated, the law stated that cow slaughter was punishable with five to seven years in jail. Obviously this acted as a deterrent. Therefore, it came as a surprise that the law had to be made so stringent. Political observers say it is election year in Gujarat and blatant right-wing moves are to be expected in the run–up to the elections.

It is part of the BJP’s effort to gain political mileage and in the process suppress certain minority communities that are dependent on cattle slaughter for a living.

Liberal voices are questioning the move, saying amendments made on the basis of religious sentiments are dangerous and anti-constitutional. However, the government cited the Constitution, claiming it has opposed cow slaughter for economic reasons.

Under the new law, the maximum punishment for cow slaughter will be life imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs.5 lakh. Slaughter of cows, calves, bulls and bullocks have been included in the law. Additionally, it bans transportation of animals at night.

Transportation, sale and storage of beef is punishable with up to 10 years of imprisonment. Vehicles transporting cattle can also be confiscated.

Introducing the Bill in the Assembly, Minister of State for Home Pradeepsinh Jadeja explained: “Cows not just have religious significance; they also have an economic significance in our society. It is necessary to increase the punishment to deter those involved in slaughtering cows.”

Jadeja said the law, in its earlier avatar, made the offence bailable and that its provisions were relatively mild. “It did not act as an efficient deterrent for those committing the heinous crime.”

In 2011, under Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the State imposed a blanket ban on cow slaughter and the transportation of beef and prescribed a penalty of Rs.50,000 and imprisonment of up to seven years. Explaining the need to amend the Act, Jadeja said several Hindu religious leaders and prominent Gujaratis had been petitioning Chief Minister Vijay Rupani to amend the Act. It is reported that on the day the Bill was passed, the Assembly’s gallery was filled with saffron-robed Hindu religious leaders.

In fact, a few months before the Bill was passed, Rupani declared that his government’s mission was to make Gujarat a vegetarian State. After the Assembly cleared the amendment, Rupani apparently described Gujarat as a “unique State” which followed the principles of non-violence and truth advocated by Mahatma Gandhi. “This is Gandhi’s Gujarat, Sardar’s [Vallabhbhai Patel] Gujarat and [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi’s Gujarat.”

Rupani, who belongs to the Jain community and is a strict vegetarian, “was determined to change the law in order to not only appease his community but gain political mileage”, a Dalit leader, unwilling to be named, said.

Dalits and Muslims have been affected by the law for many years. Many people’s livelihoods are dependent on cattle slaughter. There was still some hope for tanners and those who skinned dead cattle. However, following the incident in Una town in July 2016, when four Dalit tanners were beaten by vigilantes for killing and skinning a cow, “Dalits are too scared because anything we do with the cow, people come to attack us”, a Dalit activist said.

A tanner said they earned approximately Rs.200 for every cow they skinned. Typically, it takes four men to work on one cow, which means each gets Rs.50. They are lucky if they get a single cow in a week, which means they earn just a few hundred rupees a month. “We are the poorest in the village. We cannot use the public well or enter the temple. How much worse will it become?” he asked.

“They are operating like we are in the medieval times. The state instead of debunking holy cow theories is perpetuating it,” Jignesh Mewani, a social activist and lawyer working on Dalit rights in Gujarat, said. Mewani, who led the movement for Dalits after the Una incident, said: “These laws are absolutely obnoxious and clearly send out a message to Dalits and Muslims that this is the way the State is going to be run: majoritarian rule.”

“Una created fear, this has caused a complete shutdown. The law gives the authorities a free rein to enter anyone’s home or workspace, declare the dead animal a cow, and then it is life imprisonment for the poor man. His life is destroyed. It will lead to many more Akhlaqs [the man who was lynched to death in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, accused of consuming cow meat],” he said.

Achyut Yagnik, a social scientist who heads the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action in Ahmedabad, said: “This is part of the agenda that Gujarat stands for development and Hindutva. Of course, their development does not include the marginalised.”

Yagnik said it was a misconception that Gujarat is a vegetarian State. More than half the population are meat eaters, may be not beef but certainly not vegetarian. Breaking down the myth with demographics, he said tribal people constituted 15 per cent of the population, Dalits 7 per cent, Muslims 10 per cent and the Other Backward Classes 17-18 per cent. “This is more than 50 per cent. It is a facade created by the upper-class Gujaratis that the State is vegetarian.”

Anupama Katakam

Forest Rights

Tribal struggle

IT may have all begun rather simply and without fanfare. But it was a powder keg waiting to explode. The Diddalli reserve forests are a moist, deciduous and thickly wooded area which, according to government notifications dating back to 1891, is part of the 36.96 sq km Devmachi Reserve Forest of the Thithimathi Range in Kodagu’s Virajpet Forest Division. No one raised an eyebrow when, in June last year, 38 Jenu Kuruba tribal people protesting against what they saw as apathy by the Karnataka government in allotting them house sites made a representation to the local forest officer requesting that they be allowed to erect eight makeshift sheds using plastic sheets, thatch and sticks in the Diddalli forests. The Forest Department was perhaps the least concerned. An attempt by tribal people to erect four sheds in the Diddalli reserve forests had been swiftly dealt with in April 2016.

The representation from the 38 signatories, who claimed to be workers of coffee plantations in and around Virajpet (most continued to live in the accommodation provided to them on the coffee estates—the labour lines) stated that they had “placed sheds in the Diddalli reserve forest as a mark of protest since their repeated requests and applications [to the Revenue and Social Welfare Departments] to allot them houses and other benefits under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, had not been favourably accepted”. They said they would move out of the reserve forest once the officers concerned visited them and alternative residential sites were provided. The signatories reportedly told forest officers that they wanted a “medium” to highlight their struggle for sites.

A forest officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Frontline that “the illegality [encroachment] was immediately brought to the notice of the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police, and an FIR [first information report] filed”. But the police only cited their preoccupation with other matters including, in later months, the Cauvery agitation and the movement against Tipu Jayanthi celebrations. They failed to provide forces that would have allowed the Forest Department to remove the shelters. By late November, the number of encroachments swelled beyond 100, and the tribal people had cleared the undergrowth on some 60 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of the forest. The local media were highlighting the issue. The Deputy Commissioner announced that a survey would be conducted to ascertain which of the tribal families were genuinely from the Diddalli forests.

Witnesses say that the announcement of a survey by the Revenue Department prompted a large number of tribal families to make a beeline for the forests and erect shelters. Most of them continued to stay elsewhere, but they hoped to get themselves included in the survey and thereby benefit from any government packages provided under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

In early December, the Forest Department eventually cleared the rudimentary shelters, which had by then swelled to over 200, with 577 families claiming to being indigenous to the Diddalli forests. The move opened a Pandora’s box. The sorry plight of the tribal people in Kodagu district got publicity and brought in its wake a fair share of politics. The tribal people now demanded three acres of land for each family in the Diddalli forests. There was a nude protest by two tribal people and much obfuscation of facts as vested interests hijacked the issue. There was support for the tribal people, as well as criticism from environmental groups. The number of families claiming to be from Diddalli rose to 611. But most importantly, as M.B. Prabhu, social activist and Director of the Indian Institute of Tribal Education, Nagarhole, says, the eviction issue exposed the absence of any concrete and time-bound plans by successive Karnataka governments for the resettlement of tribal people. Explained Prabhu: “While schemes like the Integrated Tribal Development Projects and the Tribal Sub Plan are there on paper, implementation, especially by the lower levels of officialdom, is found wanting.”

The issue also tossed the Congress government in Karnataka into a predicament. It has abruptly drawn attention to the hardships that tribal people face even as the government tries to hammer out a solution within the ambit of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, taking into account the humanitarian and sensitive nature of tribal rights. The government must walk a political tightrope between accommodating tribal demands and not antagonising the local non-tribal population. Any rehabilitation measures announced by the government for these tribal people will also be watched keenly by the almost 3,000 tribal families in Kodagu district.

In February, the government announced that sites would be provided to those who could prove that they were bona fide tribal people from the district, not just the Diddalli region. The Kodagu district administration went about earmarking 6.7 acres of land for 181 sites in the Basavanahalli area of Kushalanagar Hobli, 10 acres of land in Rampura (171 sites) and 7.50 acres in Kedumullur gram panchayat limits, near Virajpet (176 sites). It submitted a Rs.6-crore proposal for the rehabilitation of the 528 tribal families that were proven to be bona fide residents from the district. Speaking to Frontline, Deputy Commissioner of Kodagu Richard Vincent D’Souza said that while borewells and water storage tanks were ready, roads and electricity were just a few days away. “The occupation certificates for the sites are ready. These tribal people have to come forward and accept them. The government will also construct houses for them.”

So far, the government has categorically ruled out resettling tribal people in the Diddalli forests. Civil rights and tribal rights activists such as Sirimane Nagaraj, Noor Sridhar, H.S. Doreswamy and C.S. Dwarakanath averred that the government, which ignored and even regularised encroachments (of around 190 acres) by owners of coffee estates, was evicting hapless tribal people. They also pointed out that the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, provided for the resettlement of tribal people in the Diddalli forests. Some tribal leaders, politicians and activists are also questioning the Forest Department’s stand that the area is a part of the reserved forest, claiming instead that it is government paisari (revenue land). They point out that Diddalli has an ashram school, a primary health centre, an anganwadi centre, facilities for water, and a connecting concrete road. They further point out that a few mud huts already exist and some forest dwellers have already been sanctioned up to five acres of land in the same area under the Forest Rights Act.

The district administration’s stand is that not only are the protesting tribal people not traditional forest dwellers, but they also have no documents to show that they are from the Diddalli reserved forests and hence are not eligible to be allotted land on the fringes of the reserve forest under the Forests Rights Act. Rather, they are from Kodagu district and have been working on coffee estates, staying in the line houses on the plantations. A senior bureaucrat said: “These tribal people have been lured with the promise of land by some vested interests who have already collected money. Before they encroached on forest land at Diddalli, the tribal people were residing in the line houses in the estates at Virajpet, Balele, Kutta, Gonikoppa and Siddapura. Almost all of them have gone back to the line houses and places of work. It is also pointless to talk about the school, which was built in 1964 before the implementation of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The initial demand was for a site. Now they are asking for three acres of land. There are around 10,000 homeless tribal families in Kodagu. It is neither practical nor legally possible for the government to hand out three acres to each family.”

But, according to the maverick politician A.K. Subbaiah, who has taken up the cudgels on behalf of the tribal people, the land where the sheds were constructed at Diddalli is revenue land earmarked for the landless. Subbaiah said: “Owing to the conspiracy of some influential persons the land has been declared as forest paisari. Though the said land was handed over for tree plantation, it can be taken back by the government whenever it is needed for a public purpose. Anyway the ownership of the land is yet to be handed over to the Forest Department. It is a conspiracy against the poor. The right to live has been denied to these tribal people. We are asking the government to establish eight or nine tribal colonies in this survey number itself and to give each family three acres of land. Just giving them a house is of no use. What about livelihood?”

But many foresters and environmentalists such as Chukkapalli Venkatasubbaiah, a retired Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Vigilance), contend that there is nothing in the 22 types of land tenures—forest or revenue—of The Karnataka Revenue Survey Manual (rules under which all government lands are dealt with) that is termed as “forest paisari”. The word paisari itself is unique to Kodagu district and was coined in 1901 by the Chief Commissioner of Coorg and is a generic term covering all sorts of government land, be it forest, tank beds, waste land or even rivers and streams. The Karnataka Revenue Survey Manual defines paisari land thus: “All waste and forest land which are declared to be the property of the government and which have not been notified as protected forest or as forest reserved”. Venkatasubbaiah is of the view that the State will be hard pressed legally to denotify or hand out land in the Diddalli forest. According to him, considering an area as forest or the area to come under the purview of the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963, it need not be a part of a “reserved forest”. “The Forest Act covers all categories of forests. The word ‘forest’ is not defined in either the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963, or the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. And the difference between a ‘reserved forest’ and any other category of ‘forest’ is only in the degree of restrictions that the area is subjected to but not in the nature,” he said.

He also cited an April 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court that said: “The provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, must apply to all forests irrespective of the nature of ownership or classification of the forest; two, the word ‘forest’ must be understood according to its dictionary meaning, and three, the term ‘forest land’, occurring in section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, will not only include ‘forest’ as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in the Government records irrespective of the ownership.” Environmentalists and conservationists also argue that if the government hands over land in the forests it will be opening the floodgates for more such demands. That might lead to serious degrading of forests in Kodagu, the predominant catchment area for the Cauvery river.

Karnataka’s Kodagu district has always been home to Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), and they have been roughly classified as tribal people dwelling in coffee estates, tribal people living in colonies established by the government and tribal people living in forests. Politically and socially neglected, the 58,000-strong S.T. population of the district are mainly from the Jenu Kuruba, Beta Kuruba, Errava and Soliga tribes.

Coffee plantations of the region have been employing them for over 150 years. They are hired for an assortment of jobs including plucking, pruning, harvesting and sorting the bean. But in recent years, many of them have begun to look elsewhere for more lucrative and challenging employment opportunities. According to J.K. Saami, a tribal person who has been in the forefront of the Diddalli agitation, the working conditions in many of the plantations are dismal. He said that tribal people were often employed as bonded labourers, paid meagre wages and their children were denied educational opportunities. “That is why many tribal people have left their line houses. We want the government to give us land and opportunities for a decent livelihood. In many instances the monetary value of loans taken by tribal people from plantation owners is surreptitiously increased. When a tribal person is unable to pay back, he and his family are unable to leave the plantation. Most tribal people are looking for alternative sources of employment.”

The coffee planters deny Saami’s allegations, but they admit that conditions may be bad in a few estates. Wages vary from Rs.200 a day, when water and housing are provided, to Rs.300 a day for “outsiders”. But some tribal people told this correspondent that they were paid less than Rs.100 a day.

Planters, faced with a shortage of labour in recent years, have started looking at labour from outside the region, sometimes from as far as Odisha, Assam and even Bangladesh. This has meant that tribal people who have been living in line houses for decades must now vacate them if they do not want to work on the plantations.

Disadvantaged sections

Identity crisis

cover-story

Oppressed sections



PERPETUATING STEREOTYPES



By Akshay Deshmane

IN the first instance, it may seem odd if a suggestion is made about there being a link between caste and Aadhaar. After all, neither caste nor occupation are directly mentioned on Aadhaar cards or expressly sought in Aadhaar enrolment forms. The unique identity that the card creates in official records is also projected by governments as an innocuous, even helpful, tool to access public services and entitlements to those in need of them.

This limited understanding of the controversial identity project is partly the reason why the links between Aadhaar and the potential for perpetuating caste identities are rarely discussed, if at all. In March, when controversy arose on account of government decisions which made Aadhaar mandatory in many official transactions, caste was not part of the discourse. This, despite some of the decisions being about making Aadhaar mandatory for nearly a dozen government scholarships and fellowships meant for students from the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes communities. Even those from these communities seeking to become entrepreneurs had to show their Aadhaar for getting any benefits from institutions such as the National Scheduled Caste Finance and Development Corporation, among others.

This may be seen as part of overall government decision and not necessarily linked with caste. But a closer look at the manner in which Aadhaar data are stored reveals that the system has the potential to perpetuate caste identities which those from the oppressed castes seek to escape from.

Bezwada Wilson, the national president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, offers one possibility of how Aadhaar helps perpetuate existing identities for those involved in manual scavenging. “As manual scavengers we want to come out of the identity and destroy it forever. But in Aadhaar, my occupation, where I come from, everything will be there. Once you get the data, you can segregate in any way by means of technology,” he said. What his community does is seen as an “unclean profession” and thus, those involved in it are also derided as “filthy”. However, any technology or official arrangement that helps record this identity and wittingly or unwittingly perpetuate it is problematic. As Wilson explains, “The right to have any occupation is there in this country. But recording of the profession in the Aadhaar database is a problem as the identity will also remain in records.”

There are several ways in which the Aadhaar system could store caste identities of citizens. In the case of safai karmacharis it could be the beneficiary lists. Since Aadhaar linkage has been made mandatory for delivering many social welfare schemes, a person’s name and other details on the list of beneficiaries renders him or her potentially vulnerable to be identified. A case in point is an initiative called “Mission Convergence”, launched by the previous Delhi government concerning integration of social welfare schemes, in which data were shared among government departments and non-governmental organisations helping implement the schemes so as to weed out duplicates. While much of the data could initially circulate within governments, questions continue to be raised about possibilities of data leaks. The recent instance of a leak of personal details of cricketer M.S. Dhoni is the best-known example of how leakage of Aadhaar data is very easy.

There is at least one more way in which caste information is directly collected by the authorities. Among a list of 35 documents acceptable as proof of address is the caste and domicile certificate with photograph, issued by the respective State governments. Such broad collection of data by Aadhaar and the manner of its imposition have raised the hackles of many prominent Dalit politicians and intellectuals. Prakash Ambedkar, former Member of Parliament and grandson of B.R. Ambedkar, said: “I am personally not getting an Aadhaar made because there is no clarity about the safety of citizens’ personal data, where they are stored and how they will be protected.” He also feels that Aadhaar does nothing to resolve the problem of many deserving poor being left out of the below-poverty-line (BPL) lists and cards. “That injustice continues and this card does nothing to resolve that problem,” he said.

A few Dalit intellectuals who support the Aadhaar concept are concerned about the manner of its implementation. For instance, one of the best known promoters of the Dalit capitalism concept and founder of www.dalitfoods.com, Chandrabhan Prasad, feels the recent notifications reveal the government’s “ruthless” side. “I feel being ruthless is not good. There should be some flexibility. The government seems to be in too much of a hurry,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the consequences of this hurry are too grave to be undone or something beyond what can be anticipated at this time.



People with disabilities and students



LIMITING OPPURTUNITIES



By Divya Trivedi

EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Nitin Kohli of Lal Gumbad area in South Delhi was denied a disability certificate as he did not have an Aadhaar card. The son of a daily wager, he suffers from both mental and physical illness. “I showed the officer at Madan Mohan Malviya Hospital the slip of paper that I had applied for Aadhaar but he did not consider it valid,” said his mother Anita. The application slip for Aadhaar shows the date of application as March 11, but more than a month later there is no sign of a card. Without a disability certificate, the family is deprived of the disability pension from the Social Welfare Department of the Delhi government.

The names of Nitin and his brother are not listed on the ration card either for want of Aadhaar card. As a result, the family stands to lose 10 kg of grain they are entitled to every month under the National Food Security Act. In essence, the family has dropped off the radar of two welfare schemes for not having an Aadhaar card. This, despite the Supreme Court saying that nobody should be denied any benefits for the lack of an Aadhaar card and that the proof of having applied for one was good enough. Officials on the ground are seen to be routinely flouting the apex court’s orders with impunity.

Suffering multiple layers of marginality, disabled people in India are badly hit by the Central government’s insistence on Aadhaar for welfare benefits under government schemes. “Despite the apex court’s repeated reminders, the government is hell-bent on imposing Aadhaar on all. The disabled people are the worst hit,” said Avinash Shahi, a visually challenged PhD scholar at the Centre for Law and Governance in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

“Certainly, Aadhaar being made compulsory for availing oneself of fellowships is troubling many disabled people. Be it iris scan or taking fingerprints, many disabled people are left out. Not only is Aadhaar made compulsory for fellowship but more importantly for pensions also, which is the sole economic aid available to thousands of poor disabled people. They are denied pension because they find it difficult to produce an Aadhaar number. Those who don’t have hands are denied Aadhaar by the UIDAI officials and private agents,” he said.

He pointed to the case of 23-year-old Sujitha in Kasaragod, Kerala, who is paralysed waist down and does not have mobility in her hands apart from having psycho-social disability. Her father, a contractual labourer on a cashew plantation in Periya, died of kidney failure nine years ago, arguably as a result of endosulfan spraying. Sujitha’s mother suffers from partial blindness. Sujitha’s sister, who had similar disabilities, was killed by a bull 13 years ago. After the disability pension was linked to Aadhaar, Sujitha and her mother were repeatedly turned away from the Akshaya Centre (the State government’s network of e-kendra centres aiding service delivery) because her fingerprints were unreadable.

When officials at the ground level are faced with any case that does not fit into the instructions given in the manual provided to them, they simply reject the application rather than help the person through the process.

Reports also suggest that the majority of Aadhaar enrolment centres are situated on the upper floors of a building, and people with locomotor disabilities find it humiliating to be lifted to the centres where scanners are kept, said Avinash.

Aadhaar for admission

Meanwhile, the Delhi government issued a circular mandating Aadhaar cards for admission to its schools this year. “This is a very regressive step to say the least,” said Rajiv Kumar of Pardarshika, an organisation that has been working to ensure Right to Education compliance in Delhi. “What is shocking is that Aadhaar is being mandated not only for admissions but also for continuation of admission,” he added.

For children studying in Class 5 of NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation) and MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) schools, there used to be plan education or what is understood as direct admission to Class 6 of a Delhi government school. But in the circular issued by the State government this year, residential proof and Aadhaar have been made compulsory if a child wants to go on to the next class. People like Rajiv Kumar, who work in the education sector, are bracing for a spate of dropouts because of this. “Most of the children who are enrolled in these schools are child labourers, street children or those who stay on rent. Is the Delhi government saying that if they are unable to get Aadhaar, they should stop studying?”

A month’s deadline has been given to comply with the order. According to Rajiv Kumar, it would have been welcome if the government had set up camps at schools and enlisted the assistance of teachers to help children obtain Aadhaar cards. While the full impact of this move will only be visible once the schools reopen after the summer vacation, Rajiv Kumar thinks about 30 per cent of the children may be affected by this.

As far as scholarships in higher education are concerned, students are still waiting and watching as the new rules have just kicked in. “Generally it takes very long for the scholarship money to come in. I have just applied for mine after linking it to my bank account. I am waiting to see if it helps quicken the process,” said Samira of Delhi University.

Ranjan, also of the same university, does not have an Aadhaar card yet, but got his last scholarship stipend in January. “I haven’t applied for it after that. I will do so now, hope they don’t block it,” he said.



Victims of trafficking and bonded labour



BOON OR BANE?



By Divya Trivedi

Consider a situation where Bhamati (name changed) of Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, who was rescued from a brick kiln near Jaipur, is forced back into bonded labour for want of an Aadhaar card. Well, it may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Last year the government increased the compensation paid to people rescued from bonded labour. This year it has made Aadhaar necessary to get it.

The requirement of Aadhaar works only if the District Magistrate ensures that the rescued person is provided with the identification card then and there. This will assist the person in further rehabilitation too. Otherwise, it appears to be simply another barrier to keep people out of rehabilitation schemes.

Most victims of sex trafficking, child labour or bonded labour lose all proof of identity as they are moved from place to place. When rescued, the District Magistrate certifies each case as related to bonded labour and issues a release certificate. This certificate becomes the basis on which the survivors can apply for other identity cards or for obtaining a public distribution system (PDS) card, or for becoming a beneficiary under schemes such as the Indira Awas Yojana or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

For such rescued persons who do not have even a birth certificate, the Aadhaar holds out a promise of easy access to rehabilitation. Amritha Punnoose and Shamira Manwar of the International Justice Mission, which works with survivors of trafficking, hope Aadhaar will live up to its expectations. Even as the government and the judiciary issue conflicting statements about Aadhaar and the unending stream of notifications makes the rules unclear, they, like their compatriots in partner agencies, prefer to wait and watch.

The compensation amounts fixed by the Bonded Labour Rehabilitation Scheme, launched by the Labour Ministry last year, are in the range of Rs.20,000, Rs.1 lakh, Rs.2 lakh and Rs.3 lakh depending on whether the rescued person is a bonded or child labourer or a victim of sex trafficking. The rehabilitation is linked to the legal proceedings and conviction of the accused person. The conviction rates were very low, according to Shamira Manwar. After social workers took up the issue, in January the government announced that the immediate assistance of Rs.20,000 would not be linked to convictions and that the District Magistrate would immediately release that money as soon as it was established that it was a case of bonded labour.

Amritha Punnoose wants to know whether the District Magistrate can enable a rescued person to get an Aadhaar card at the time of rescue itself, if at all Aadhaar becomes mandatory. “It is very difficult for survivors to get ID cards. In case of victims of sex trafficking, the first thing that is done is to put them in institutional homes, and then it is determined whether it is safe for them to return or not. Will they become vulnerable to trafficking again if they go back? Our colleagues across India are exploring if something like Aadhaar can help them at that time. It does not require much documentation to secure an Aadhaar and it makes it easy for them to apply for schemes they are eligible for. For instance, in Chennai, they were able to apply for ration cards and community resources,” said Amritha Punnoose.

When the District Magistrate issues a release certificate, it also frees that person from any debt. “From there, rescued persons have to go to various access points for other schemes. Our social workers, along with community social workers, help them in the process. It is very laborious. If Aadhaar shows the potential for being a one-stop shop for all rehabilitation schemes, it will be a big boon. Especially if the District Magistrate has a process in place to issue that piece of identity at the day of rescue so that one doesn’t have to struggle so much,” said Shamira Manwar.

Whether linking Aadhaar to a scheme for rehabilitation, for instance in the case of sex workers, would be a stigma for life is not certain. Amritha Punnoose and Shamira Manwar say the survivors are at the moment more focussed on getting an identity card than thinking about stigma, surveillance or misuse.

United Kingdom

Brexit battles

world-affairs

ON March 29, just before she was about to make the historic announcement that Britain had formally commenced talks to extract itself from the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May took part in a heated session of Prime Minister’s Questions. It should have been a triumphal moment for the Prime Minister, who had scored an apparent success. The Supreme Court defeat, which required her government to place a Bill before Parliament in order to be able to trigger Brexit talks, did not prove calamitous as opposition in both the House of Commons and, eventually (after a battle). the House of Lords melted away. Theresa May would not have to guarantee the rights of E.U. nationals already in the United Kingdom, a requirement, she argued, that would have weakened Britain’s negotiating hand, despite many decrying the use of people as bargaining chips. She did not even have to make a commitment to give Parliament a meaningful vote at the end of the negotiation process (the government had compromised though, giving an ambiguous promise of a vote at the end of the process in both Houses). And there is even evidence that, despite some vocal opposition from staunch “Remain” campaigners, the majority of the British public is behind her decision to trigger Article 50, the six-paragraph section of the Lisbon Treaty that deals with exiting the E.U. A recent poll by YouGov found that just 21 per cent of the people surveyed thought she was wrong to do so.

Yet, Theresa May at points was categorically angry as she faced down a range of issues, particularly those related to the role of the devolved assemblies. A question from a Scottish National Party MP about a promise that had been made to the devolved assemblies last year that they would be consulted through the process was shot down vigorously by Theresa May.

“I have been very clear throughout, since the first visit I made as Prime Minister to Edinburgh last July, that we were going to work with the devolved Administrations, and that we would develop a U.K.-wide approach, but that it would be a U.K. approach that was taken into the negotiations and that it would be the United Kingdom government who took forward that position—and I would simply remind the right hon. gentleman that Scotland is part of the United Kingdom,” she insisted forcefully.

Theresa May was, in all likelihood, aware that the battles, and subsequent victories, that had put Britain on the path of ending its decades-old association with Europe were just the start, and challenges of entirely different proportions awaited her government.

Scottish vote

Among the biggest challenges will be the questions that Brexit raises over the future of the countries that make up the U.K. On March 28, the Scottish parliament voted in favour of a call by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for the authority to push for a second referendum on independence, three years after Scottish voters decisively rejected independence. Sturgeon has argued that the Scottish government had been prepared to compromise: accepting single market access, rather than full E.U. membership, despite the majority (62 per cent) of Scottish voters opting to remain in Europe. They had faced a “brick wall of intransigence” in Westminster, which had failed to consider the needs and concerns of the Scottish people, despite promises to do so, and as a result Scotland faced a hard Brexit, which could cost it as much as £11 billion a year by 2030, she estimated. Theresa May, who has on more than one occasion obliquely attempted to make it clear that she, like Margaret Thatcher decades before her, was not one for “turning”, has stood firm, insisting that now is not the time for a referendum, which would very much complicate and weaken Britain’s hand as it entered Brexit talks. Nicola Sturgeon has taken an equally hard line, pushing for a referendum in 18 months’ time, when the shape of the final Brexit deal would be clear, according to Theresa May’s estimates. “For a Prime Minister who on Wednesday proclaimed Brexit as an exercise in self-determination to now seek to block Scotland’s own right to self-determination would be democratically indefensible,” she wrote in a piece for The Guardian on the day that Brexit was triggered. Her logic is hard to argue with, as Theresa May undoubtedly recognises, and while she may be able to delay the timing of a referendum, most observers agree that one is eventually inevitable, and while polls currently present a mixed picture of public sentiment in Scotland, it may well be a different picture once the terms of Brexit become apparent.

Irish question

Northern Ireland remains another major issue of uncertainty, with warnings that the hard border between the Republic of Ireland (the European nation) and Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) that could follow from Brexit could greatly jeopardise the peace that had been achieved in the past years. It is a testament to the seriousness of the situation that trying to find creative ways of avoiding a hard Brexit was identified by the E.U.’s remaining 27 member states as one of their top four negotiating guidelines.

There are also questions about the future of the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar after the E.U.’s draft guidelines on negotiations insisted that no agreement could apply to Gibraltar without an agreement between Spain and Britain.

May under pressure

The pressure on the Prime Minister to deliver are exceedingly high: while few may have believed the grand promises she made in her speech to Parliament to “get the right deal for every single person in this country”, many of her supporters aspire to the ideals of British greatness that she and her colleagues have continually invoked. Earlier this year, the bombastic plans of Ministers to forge strong links with former colonies in Africa as part of efforts to revive Britain’s fortunes as a “great trading nation” were ironically dubbed Empire 2.0 by civil servants. Ahead of the triggering of Article 50, the right-wing newspaper The Sun, without any irony, projected its own message “Dover and Out” over the white cliffs of Dover, posting a video of the event as triumphalist music played in the background, while social media were littered with images celebrating Britain’s “Independence Day”.

Early warnings

But the first days since the triggering of Brexit signal that the road will be far from easy for Theresa May and her team. Even on the day of triggering, the government became caught up in controversy as the official letter to European Council head Donald Tusk made every effort to appear conciliatory (recognising, for example, that Britain would not be able to “cherry-pick” what it wanted out of Europe, as a senior Cabinet Minister had previously suggested) even as European politicians condemned a section of it which warned that “in security terms, a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead negotiator on Brexit, warned that Europe would not tolerate any move to make security cooperation contingent on a favourable trade deal. “The security of our citizens is far too important to start a trade-off on one for another,” he said on the day. While that particular controversy is likely to die down, as top Cabinet members insisted vociferously that it was not intended as a threat, the developments may amplify concerns about Britain’s capabilities—and expertise—to conduct such sensitive negotiations with a wide range of partners. To date, the concerns voiced by European leaders over what they were and were not willing to accept have been brushed aside as bluster by optimistic Brexiteers, but that will be less easy going forward. “What Prime Minister May has outlined so far is pure bravado, platitude and hot air… now you have the response from Europe, making it very clear: you may be setting out your wishlist, but this is where we are,” says Lord Karan Bilimoria, a crossbench member of the House of Lords. “Article 50 was the end of the beginning, and as I predicted, this is going to be so complex and so difficult.” He adds: “The big question which nobody is asking is why we rushed into this. She wants it over before the 2020 elections, but the timing [of the triggering of Brexit] is madness when you have the French elections, and the German elections and all the uncertainty… we have been railroaded into this and reality has hit within days.”

Hopes that Britain would simultaneously be able to conduct negotiations on exiting Europe and a new trading relationship were also dashed this week as Tusk outlined the remaining 27 member states’ firm commitments, which included ensuring that exit talks were well in progress before trade talks could begin. He candidly admitted the talks would be “difficult, complex, and sometimes even confrontational”, though he ruled out a punitive approach, because, as he put it bluntly, “Brexit in itself is already punitive enough.”

Other hopes dashed in the early days after Brexit were for Britain to be able to secure sector-by-sector deals, such as for the car industry and the financial services sector, to ensure that they were able to have the necessary access to workers and passporting rights to Europe, despite the end of freedom of movement that Britain hopes to achieve. “This will lead to further uncertainty for business,” says Bilimoria. And it is not just with Europe that the government will face battles. Details of the Great Repeal Bill, which will bring European laws into British legislation and essentially ensure that Britain has the same body of laws before and after it leaves Europe, and will be essential for Britain to maintain its trading relations with Europe, were published. Through the Bill, the government will seek to acquire powers that would give it the ability to make legislative changes with almost no parliamentary scrutiny: so-called Henry VIII clauses, named after the king who acquired the powers to legislate by proclamation in the 16th century. While the government has insisted that the powers would only be used to effect minor changes, there are concerns it will compromise parliamentary sovereignty: the very thing the pro-Brexit movement had said it wanted to strengthen in the first place. Writing in Daily Mirror, Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, warned that the clauses could let the Conservatives “remake our country’s law to fit into the blinkered Tory vision of the United Kingdom”.

While several legal experts have noted the White Paper still remains short on detail, focussing more on intention than specifics, the paper does provide an inkling of the challenge ahead, and what incorporating E.U. legislation into British laws entails. “There is no single figure for how much E.U. law already forms part of U.K. law,” the report notes at one point, stating that there were around 12,000 E.U. regulations in force, and in Britain there were around 7,900 statutory instruments which have implemented E.U. legislation.

There are many other battles, too: immigration has always been at the forefront of the debate on Brexit, but the government’s ability to control immigration looks increasingly uncertain. In an interview with the journalist Andrew Neil for the BBC, Theresa May avoided answering the question of whether immigration would be significantly lower after Brexit. “What we will be able to do, as a result of leaving the E.U., is to have control of our borders, to set those rules for people coming from outside—from inside the European Union into the U.K.” Should the government struggle to keep net immigration down, it will present a particular challenge for the government as it aims to build trade relations with India and other global powers, several of which have made it clear that the free movement of its skilled professionals and a more welcoming climate for its students will be essential for such a deal to take place.

It is for this reason that the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and others have warned that far from becoming a great trading nation, the government’s strategy was likely to be one based on creating a lower tax, light regulation environment to attract further investment and business.

On February 9, the day that the House of Commons passed the Brexit Bill, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was mocked online for declaring the “real fight starts now”. As the scale of the challenges now faced by the government becomes clear, that prediction may prove accurate after all.

Unmediated

The sting and the stung

Sashi_Kumar

IT was a sting all right. A sting that exposed a devious conspiracy by a new Malayalam TV news channel to ensnare a Minister. This is how the conspiracy played out. A woman journalist working in the channel cultivated a person purported to be the Minister over a period of time and inveigled him into telephonic sex talk with her. One such conversation between the two was then recorded by the caller, the woman journalist. The dialogue was then converted into a monologue by removing all that the woman said, whatever was meant to draw him out and egg him on, and keeping only what the so-called Minister said, so much so that one would wonder whether this Minister character was given to bouts of steamy soliloquy. This audio track of his erotic rave and rant was the channel’s inaugural offering to the public, on the day of its launch. To give it a semblance of a public-interest cause, unspecific misleading hints were dropped that the Minister was seeking sexual gratification from a woman who approached him for a favour.

The sting called that bluff. It also exposed the more than unfair, in fact criminal, trade practice indulged in by the channel—by using its manufactured sleaze to destroy its targeted victim’s dignity and public reputation—driven, no doubt, by the ambition to hoist itself up there on the Television Rating Point (TRP) charts even on day one. The sting pierced through the grandstanding and stonewalling by the channel. It persisted in the face of the counter thrusts by the channel, wielding the shield of press freedom and investigative journalism. It did not defer or yield to the stereotype that the politician at the centre of it must after all be the guilty party—a stereotype the perpetrators of this perfidy must have been banking on. When offence as defence, and then error of judgment as excuse, wilted before the unrelenting and insistent probe mounted by the sting, the shield turned into a fig leaf, and when that too fell away with a dismal admission on the channel that it was a put-on job, a pathetic self-nakedness was all there was left to see—with no sex talk, this time, to spice it up.

It was a collective public sting on a news channel. It was a new democratic manifestation of sting. Online and offline, civil society, women in various walks of life and particularly women journalists, public figures cutting across party lines, and even an overwhelming part of the news media, prosecuted the sting. They were asking the right probing questions, they were outraged by the injustice of it all, they were not going to allow a fatuous claim of press freedom rescue a blatant violation of a person’s right to privacy and his defamation through deception. The hierarchy of probability in terms of vulnerability was reversed. If this could happen to a Minister how do the common people protect themselves against the voyeuristic depredations of the press? What happens when the press becomes the moral brigade? These concerns, going by the tenor of the response across the board to this faux news scoop, seemed to override the faith in the natural role and right of the press to take on the powerful on behalf of the common man.

The funny part of it is that the channel thought it was doing the sting. And it was the one stung instead. The sad part, apart from the irredeemable damage done to the Minister, who promptly resigned, is that the channel’s self-serving irresponsibility has put the already strained credibility of the fourth estate at further risk. It has again brought to the fore the fragile nature of the relationship between the press and the public. The disconnect between the two has been growing and has reached a stage where even in a case, unlike the present one, where the press, in what it believes to be the public interest, is pitted against a powerful force, the odds are that the benefit of doubt in the same public’s mind could go against it.

The results for 2017 of the annual Trust Barometer survey conducted by the influential global communications marketing firm, Edelman, show that across the sampling of 28 countries, public trust in the four public institutions of government, media, business and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is collapsing. The decline of trust in the Media, with a fall of four points, is more drastic than in the other three—at one point each for both government and business, and two for NGOs—and is now at an all-time low. Although India belongs to, in fact leads, a small group of countries (among them China, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates and Singapore) which bucks this international trend, and where the public emerges more trusting of the four institutions, the media fares poorer than the other three. In India the trust in government has shot up by 10 points between 2016 and 2017, that in NGOs by seven points between the two years, and in Business by five points, whereas the trust in media shows a relatively lower rise of three points since last year and is actually lower by four points from 2015.

So when things are not exactly going too well for the news media, when the distance between trust and distrust in the fourth estate seems just a matter of a few steps, what we don’t need is such counterfeiting of media currency and credibility. It becomes important, in this context, to revisit and re-interrogate the peculiar brand of journalism called “sting”. It may be unexceptionable journalistic practice, but in actual practice has often proved suspect in its intent and dubious in its methodology. The sting is not a higher form of journalism. It is journalism of the last resort. It is a subset of investigative journalism. It is a form of deception investigative journalism is compelled to take to in extremis because there is no other means of public disclosure in the larger public interest. Compelling public interest is its sole raison d’etre and litmus test; its extenuating circumstance. It is the exception, never the rule, in journalism. You do not begin a story or coverage with a sting; you arrive at it if and when, despite all legitimate means and rigour of investigation, evidence for a story that must be told —in the public interest—remains inaccessible because a vested interest is keeping it so.

Eager beaver sting operations, sting as a method ab initio, invariably trip up and deteriorate into low-level voyeurism or vicarious entertainment, often wreaking havoc on reputations that had no earthly reason to be wrecked. What the TV news channel did was plain mean and perverse, let alone have any vestige of journalistic ethics. What did its version of sting set out to show or prove? That a septuagenarian can have sexual drive? That his private expression of it to his consensual partner (or partner posing to be so) can be inelegant or even gross? (Whether sex talk, howsoever private or intimate, can or needs to have literary finesse or be couched in politically proper language is another marginal discussion that emerged from this episode.)

This was no sting by any stretch of journalistic imagination. It was a fly on the wall unashamedly prying into the very private behaviour of a person in his very private time and space. The news channel then took recourse, in discussions on other TV channels, to journalistic jargon to make it appear that all this was part of some occupational hazard. It said it had to remove the woman’s voice from the audio track to protect the source. Protection of source after all is a journalist’s elementary duty. It carried the dissemblance and fabrication even further, describing the woman as a housewife, then as a widow, and said at one stage that it would disclose the woman’s identity if the judicial commission appointed to go into the whole affair required it to do so. All this was before its clumsily constructed story collapsed under the weight of peer and public pressure and censure, and it had to admit that there was no aggrieved woman in the picture in the first place, and that one of its own woman journalists had set this honey trap. The moral of this news-story-that-never-was and for such flies on walls looking to lay honey traps is, as the saying goes, that the wise fly settles on the sugar, not on the honey—lest it gets stuck in its own trap.

Aadhaar and Midday meals

Politics of exclusion

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI cover-story

THE National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s singular obsession with pushing the linking of Aadhaar with a range of entitlements, especially those affecting the poorer sections of the population, has come as a surprise. When the move to map the country and its citizens with a Unique Identification Number, or Aadhaar, came first as the brainchild of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the NDA, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), opposed the project. Now it is resorting to various means by expanding the ambit in the name of efficiency and stemming corruption.

Between August 2015 and October 2015, Aadhaar was made compulsory for obtaining the benefits of the public distribution system (PDS) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) subsidies and later expanded to other schemes. In October 2015, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court placed restrictions on making Aadhaar contingent for a wide range of benefits and essentially held that a citizen could not be compelled to have Aadhaar as a pre-condition to access Centrally sponsored welfare schemes. Despite the court order, there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to show that people have been harassed and denied their legitimate entitlements, including their right to have a bank account, if they do not possess an Aadhaar card.

Moreover, some of the government decisions on expanding the requirement for Aadhaar were made part of the Finance Bill, 2017, thus sealing any option for contestation in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA does not have a majority. The Left and other opposition parties opposed the inclusion of amendments not related to taxation and finance, such as electoral bonds for political funding, in the Finance Bill as a form of “backdoor’’ entry. In the Rajya Sabha, Kapil Sibal of the Congress accused the government of violating the Supreme Court’s orders and said that the government’s explanation could “only be an arrogance of power”. He expressed concern over breach of privacy and the possibility of hacking of banking transactions if Aadhaar was made compulsory for filing of income tax returns. Aadhaar was envisaged by the UPA for “targeting subsidies for targeted people” and “not to pry into the affairs of people”, he said.

Sitaram Yechury, Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP, said: “By smuggling in non-financial matters and non-tax matters and defining the Finance Bill as a Money Bill, the Rajya Sabha had been deprived of its right to discuss matters.” Describing the inclusion of Aadhaar in the Finance Bill as the “worst kind of subterfuge”, he said it had been “smuggled” into the Finance Bill. He said the insistence on Aadhaar was leading to a “surveillance state in India”.

The Aadhaar (The Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services Bill) 2016 was passed by the Lok Sabha as a Money Bill, thus preventing the Rajya Sabha from incorporating and passing any amendments to it. The classification of the Aadhaar Bill as a Money Bill has been challenged in court by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh and the final verdict is awaited. However, despite the Supreme Court’s October 2015 ruling and the petition challenging the definition of Aadhaar as a Money Bill, the government has been aggressively pushing for the linkage of Aadhaar as a precondition to obtain benefits under Central schemes.

A press release issued by the head office of the Employees Provident Fund Office (EPFO) on February 7 stated that members and pensioners under the Employees Pension Scheme (EPS), 1995, were required to furnish their Aadhaar number by March 31. In case the member had not been allotted an Aadhaar number, a copy of the Aadhar enrolment ID slip was required to be attached to the settlement of claim under the EPS for pension processing and monthly pension payments. The same statement allowed for the extension of the last date of submission of life certificate by pensioners until March 31, noting that many pensioners were yet to submit their Aadhaar authenticated Jeevan Pramaan as life certificate for withdrawal of pension. It was evident that many people, pensioners and non-pensioners, were yet to avail themselves of an Aadhaar card.

In early 2014, the EPFO assigned a unique 12-digit Universal Account Number (UAN) to all EPFO subscribers. Now, subscribers are required to additionally “seed” the Aadhaar number to the UAN. The implication that all UAN members have to have an Aadhaar number was evident from the EPFO press release, which said that for those who were “yet to seed Aadhaar and bank details with their UAN, a new composite claim form (non-Aadhaar)” replaces the existing forms. Nowhere did the EPFO release state that having an Aadhaar was optional barring those schemes for which it had been made compulsory earlier and also upheld by the court.

The same modus operandi was followed for other schemes as well. In perfect synchronisation, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, in pursuance of Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act, notified that anganwadi workers and helpers working in anganwadi centres or mini anganwadi centres were required to furnish proof of possession of Aadhaar number or undergo an Aadhaar authentication. Those who did not possess the proof were required to apply by March 31, 2017. The notification was specific that the honorarium would be paid only through Aadhaar-seeded bank accounts with effect from April 1, 2017. Those who did not have such seeded accounts were to furnish proof of enrolment or a copy of the request made for Aadhaar enrolment or furnish either a bank photo passbook, voter identification card, ration card or kisan photo passbook, driving licence or PAN card or an MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act) job card or an employee photo identity card issued by the government or a public sector undertaking or any other document specified by the State government or Union Territory administration. It was also specified that in case the workers and helpers could not enrol owing to non-availability of enrolment centres in the blocks or tehsils or taluks, child development project officers were required to create enrolment facilities at convenient locations.

Nowhere did the notification state that the absence of an Aadhaar card, the absence of enrolment proof or the inability to furnish any other document verifying the identity of the person would not be used as a precondition for the non-release of the honorarium for these workers, who belonged to indigent families and many of whom were single women. The rationale given for the insistence on seeding the bank accounts with the Aadhaar was that the “use of Aadhaar as an identity document for delivery of services or benefits or subsidies simplified government processes, brought in transparency and efficiency and enabled beneficiaries to get their entitlements directly in a convenient and seamless manner” and obviated the need to produce multiple documents to prove one’s identity.

Further, as the Aadhaar Bill had been moved and passed as a Money Bill, the notification justified the seeding of bank accounts with an Aadhaar number on the grounds that the honorarium was paid by the Centre and State governments and involved recurring expenditure from the Consolidated Fund of India. This was the same grounds on which the Aadhaar Bill was introduced and passed as a Money Bill.

The government did not stop with this. Another notification, part of the same overall gazette notification, stipulated that “individuals desirous of availing themselves of the Supplementary Nutrition Programme offered at the anganwadi centres are required to provide proof of possession of Aadhaar number authentication with effect from April 1, 2018. Those who did not possess the number or had not yet enrolled would have to apply for such enrolment by March 31, 2018, provided he or she was entitled to obtain Aadhaar. Individuals could visit any Aadhaar enrolment centre listed on the UIDAI website. It may be recalled that the ICDS was the largest supplementary nutrition programme in the world for children in the zero to six years age group and for pregnant women and lactating mothers.

Aimed at exclusion

In a country rated very low in the hunger index, struggling to achieve zero infant and maternal mortality, and with a high rate of wasting and stunting in children in the zero to five cohort, the insistence on an Aadhaar number for those in need of supplementary nutrition is shocking in the very least. Even to expect such beneficiaries, the poorest among the poor, to access the list from the UIDAI website seemed ridiculous if not insensitive. Pregnant and lactating women were required to give an undertaking that they were not availing themselves of services or benefits from any other anganwadi centre. Even children up to the age of six were required to have an Aadhaar number or a copy of his/her request and the parent required to give an undertaking that the child was residing with him or her and that they were not availing themselves of the services or benefits for the child from any other anganwadi centre. Rather than put in place robust measures to ensure that supplementary nutrition was made universally available to all pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under five without any conditions whatsoever given the pathetic health indices, the government, through its notifications, was making Aadhaar a precondition for availing themselves of such basic forms of nutrition. The targeting was aimed at exclusion. All this was even more shocking because the government had recently committed itself to raising the health budget as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) to 2.5 per cent by 2025.

Not to be left behind, on February 28, the Ministry of Human Resource Development notified that those children in classes one to eight who were availing themselves of the national midday meal scheme aimed at improving their nutritional status would be required to furnish their Aadhaar numbers or undergo an Aadhaar authentication. Like the ICDS, the midday meal scheme is the largest school-based supplementary nutrition scheme for children in government and government-aided schools. The children who availed themselves of such food belonged to the poorer sections of society.

There is enough evidence to show that enrolment in schools had gone up in view of the provisioning of midday meals. The notification also said that the cooks and helpers were paid an honorarium (just like the ICDS workers and helpers) for their services, expenditure for which was incurred partly or fully from the Consolidated Fund of India. These cooks and helpers, the majority of whom are women, are also required to furnish proof of possession of the Aadhaar number or undergo Aadhaar authentication.

The Central government has been reluctant to treat the workers and helpers in the ICDS scheme or the cooks and helpers involved in the midday meal scheme as government employees entitled to a minimum wage and social security, engaged as they are in almost every government programme. The 45th Indian Labour Conference had recommended that workers under the scheme, including anganwadi workers, be recognised as employees and given benefits like minimum wage, pension and social security. Rather than addressing the real livelihood issues of these frontline workers, including their steadily increasing working hours, the emphasis to get them authenticated under Aadhaar and also putting the onus on them to help out with the enrolment for the beneficiaries seemed a skewed priority at best. The stress on identification also effectively served to distract from the real issues of reduced budgeting for ICDS as well as the midday meal scheme.

Interestingly, the Akshay Patra Foundation, which is the world’s largest school meal programme in the government sector, and claims to reach 1.6 million children in 13,529 government, government-aided schools and anganwadi centres in 11 States, has welcomed the linking of Aadhaar with the benefits. The Akshay Patra Foundation operates in a public private partnership mode with the Centre and the State governments.

After a hue and cry was raised, the Ministry for Women and Child Welfare issued a clarification stating that there was no plan to replace the hot cooked meals for children in the three-six age group in ICDS centres with dry rations to substitute the meals with cash transfers. It, however, stated that it was exploring conditional cash transfers instead of take-home rations in view of complaints regarding the quality of such rations. It was also thinking of launching pilot conditional cash transfer (CCT) in select districts. A.R. Sindhu, general secretary of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers, said that the idea behind CCT was to ultimately wind up the ICDS centres. She told Frontline that already in Telengana, the government had started direct cash transfers on an experimental basis. While pushing for enrolment under Aadhaar for the beneficiaries of the ICDS on the one hand, the government has drastically reduced the ICDS budget for 2017-18, which is far less than the budget estimates for 2015-16. It was half of the ICDS budget allocated for the 12th Plan.

The idea behind the extensive push for Aadhaar does not stem from a concern to address the real issues confronting people, that of hunger and deprivation, but is a plan to map them for some intangible purposes. Notwithstanding the concerns of privacy, the move seems more in the direction of exclusion rather than inclusion in the name of better targeting and efficiency.

Aadhaar project

Blundering along, dangerously

USHA RAMANATHAN cover-story

IN the last seven years, the right to privacy of Indian citizens has been downgraded in several crucial steps. It was argued that Google and Facebook had more information than any other database; and that the voter IDs in several States, with personally identifiable information, were publicly available. Zealous advocates on a techno-utopian mission argued that the trifling matter of privacy would have to give way to the sheer convenience offered by technology. The argument went thus: it is only those who have something to hide who ask for privacy and, conversely, those who have nothing to hide ought not to worry about the loss of privacy. In August 2015, all this was brought to a head when the government categorically told the court that was hearing the unique identification number (UID) cases that the people of this country simply did not have a right to privacy. Significantly, at the same time as the right to privacy was being denied, before another bench of the court, the government was asserting that the offence of defamation in Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code needed to remain on the statute book so as to enable the government to protect the right to privacy. Privacy advocates were disparaged as espousing elite interests, that the poor have no interest in privacy, but only in being able to get their entitlements.

The spate of notifications making it mandatory to “seed” the UID number in a bewildering multiplicity of databases have placed the privacy debate on a wholly different plane. Crucially, they have highlighted concerns that the privacy rights of the poor, far from being an esoteric matter, are literally a matter of life and death for a large section of the population. In the process, the poor, the disadvantaged and the weak are in danger of losing not only their legitimate entitlements but their very dignity.

In September 2010, 17 eminent citizens, including Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Prof. Romila Thapar, Prof. Upendra Baxi, administrator S.R. Sankaran , Justice A.P. Shah, film-maker Amar Kanwar, social activists Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Deep Joshi, and advocate K.G. Kannabiran, issued a statement asking for the UID project not to forge ahead without a law, without a feasibility report, and without considering its implications for privacy (see full text of the statement on page 30). Bezwada Wilson, the national president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a signatory, explains that the identity project does not seem to understand the principles of identity; what those employed as manual scavengers want, he explains, is to bury their identity, not perpetuate it. The notification making it mandatory to seed the UID number as a prelude to the rehabilitation of a person engaged in manual scavenging is precisely the problem that Wilson has been battling in his opposition to the UID project.

Women rescued from prostitution, bonded labour, victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, persons who are HIV-positive and needing anti-retroviral therapy (ART), those building toilets with state assistance, persons with disabilities, and children in the mid-day meal scheme are all being compelled to affix their UID numbers to different databases. There is simply no question of consent. Neither is there a provision to opt out. The language of entitlements has been displaced by “benefits”, “subsidies” and “services” in the Aadhaar Act 2016. Notification after notification begin with the bland statement that seeding the UID number “simplifies governmental delivery processes, bringing in transparency and efficiency, and enables beneficiaries to get their entitlements directly in a convenient and seamless manner… obviating the need for producing multiple documents to prove one’s identity”.

With these notifications, the privacy debate has moved onto another level, indeed onto another terrain, where the dignity of a person and the heightened vulnerability of the individual are added to the concerns of convergence, profiling and surveillance. These notifications also make plain the privacy interests of the poor in relation to the UID project.

Private interests, public data

One of the provisions in the Aadhaar Act 2016 which makes it impossible to justify its passage as a Money Bill is Section 57. It permits the “use of the Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual for any purpose, whether by the state or any body corporate or person...”.

Indeed, much before the UID acquired the protection and sanction of the law, the growing cacophony of private companies’ interest in the project was articulated openly by business interests. They enthusiastically welcomed the implementation of the project because the system could be used to “leverage” businesses. In fact, when the Aadhaar Bill was being debated in the Rajya Sabha, parliamentarians cited the instance of TrustID, which advertised itself as “India’s 1st Aadhaar-based mobile app to verify your maid, driver, electrician, tutor, tenant and everyone instantly”. This is a business model in which the UID authentication is used as the foundation on which profiles are built.

BetterPlace offers “multipoint verification and safety capabilities through a combination of sources—location-based data analytics, digital footprint of an individual and Aadhaar information”.

In February 2017, OnGrid caused outrage when it tweeted an image with the photograph of a young man across which read:

Aadhaar Number: 8625-xxxx-7706

Name: Kxxxxx Sxxxxx

Mobile: xxxxxxxxxx

DoB: xx xx 1986

Gender: x

Aadhaar address: xxxx

Current address: xxxx

Police verification: xxxx

On the screen was “indiastack.org/ekyc”.

The website carried the description, “Aadhaar-enabled Trust Bureau of India”. “OnGrid is a trust bureau that modernises verification and background checks in India by linking an individual’s data, documents and incidents to his/her 12-digit aadhaar number for a faster and cleaner access to true identity and background.”

BetterPlace advertises itself as “leveraging multiple data sources, including Aadhaar—the massive database of biometric and demographic data of the entire country. BetterPlace has in place and continues to create a unique profile of every citizen with accurate and comprehensive personal, professional and social information.”

Data gathering about individuals, and profiling, are the business model of these UID-based companies, even as data emerge as the new property.

A closed circuit of interests

In 2013, a grouping of technology entrepreneurs got together as iSpirt—Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable. Nandan Nilekani is their mentor. Two others who stepped down from the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI)—Pramod Varma, who was Chief Technology Architect of Aadhaar, and Sanjay Jain, who was Chief Product Manager—are volunteers with iSpirt and work on creating India Stack, which is a stack of applications being built on the UID platform. Their paid employment is with Ek Step, a philanthropy established by Rohini and Nandan Nilekani. They work on the stack, and, as Nilekani says in his book Rebooting India, evangelise it to the government. Some of the components of the stack were created and adopted when Nilekani was still Chairperson of the UIDAI. In 2009, even before the first enrolment, the Aadhaar Auth API (Aadhaar Authentication Application Programming Interface) was launched. In 2011 the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) launched the Aadhaar Payments Bridge and Aadhaar Enabled Payments System. The “National” and “India” in NPCI are misleading; established in December 2008 with N.R. Narayana Murthy as its first Chairperson, it is a company registered under the Companies Act as a non-profit, and Nandan Nilekani and Pramod Varma are honorary consultants telling the NPCI how to adopt the UID number in its working. In 2012 eKYC was launched. Then a hiatus, after which in 2015, eSign. In 2016, the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) was launched, as was the DigiLocker.

A technology-based structure is being evangelised to the government which will give a leg-up to fintech companies. In the Credit Suisse India Financials Report 2016, Nilekani candidly sets out the ambitions: India will go from being a data poor country to becoming a data rich country in two to three years. “Digital footprints” will form part of this data. “And as data becomes the new currency, financial institutions will be willing to forgo transaction fees to get rich digital information on their customers.”

The “go cashless” brigade’s zeal, in much evidence after demonetisation, is not confined to the innocent dream of replacing cash with more modern payment systems. In reality, cashless is the next big pitch to convert personal data of the mass of Indian citizens into tangible—and profitable—business opportunities.

Bungling with biometrics

The use of fingerprint authentication has proved to be a major hurdle for large sections of people in accessing rations across the country. In Rajasthan, for instance, government records show that up to 30 per cent of the households have not been able to avail themselves of rations using their fingerprints to authenticate. That means that in these households, nobody had fingerprints that work; in the rest, there is at least one person whose fingerprints work. Since 2011, reports from various parts of the country, including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Jharkhand, have confirmed this phenomenon of mass-scale denial. Connectivity problems and quality of PoS (point of sale) devices add to the travails of the poor in a system that appears to be geared to deny what is their due. The Wattal Committee (December 2016) recognises the latter two, but makes no mention of biometric failure rates, when it asks that eKYC in the digital economy should not be made to work with biometrics. Instead, it suggests that the two-factor authentication could be a One Time Password (OTP) that is sent to a registered mobile number or email address.

In a case that the UIDAI has been fighting with the Central Bureau of Investigation since 2013, the CBI asked for the biometric database of all persons enrolled in Goa, and later narrowed its request to running sets of fingerprints across the UID database in connection with the investigation relating to the rape of a seven-year-old child in a school toilet. The UIDAI refused on grounds of protecting privacy and because the database is incapable of being used for forensics. Initially, in March 2014, the Supreme Court ordered that biometrics were not to be used except with the consent of the individual; but, in August 2015 the court changed its order, making an exception when a court directs that it be used in the course of a criminal investigation.

Around then, the UBCC was introduced to the UIDAI website. That is, the UIDAI Biometric Centre of Competence. The “mission” of the UBCC was “to design (a) biometrics system that enables India to achieve uniqueness in the national registry. The endeavour of designing such a system is an ongoing quest to innovate biometrics technology appropriate for the Indian conditions.” The way they saw it, the “nature and diversity of India’s working population adds another challenge to achieving uniqueness through biometric features”. It is therefore no surprise that fingerprints do not work in rural areas, or for the working classes.

In this context, the 2016 version of the “Strategy Overview” paper says: “Fingerprint: This is the most commonly used biometric attribute across the world but the large variation of quality of fingerprint in India may pose challenge to implementation of a reliable solution.”

In December 2016, Hussain Dalwai asked an unstarred question in Parliament: “ (a) Whether it is a fact that UIDAI has set up a Unique Biometric Competency Centre (UBCC); (b) if so, whether UBCC has been established to address the biometric challenges faced by UIDAI, if so, what are these challenges.” P.P. Chaudhary, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, responded with: “(a): No, Sir.” And, “(b): Does not arise.”

Why was the Minister denying its existence? What happened to the UBCC?

The Aadhaar Act 2016 now protects the biometric database from scrutiny. It is not accessible where there are national security demands, or where a court orders it, and even the person whose biometrics are stored cannot view it—in the interests of protecting our privacy!

Insecurities in the UID system

Two recent episodes have exposed the insecurities in the use of biometrics in the UID system.

In February 2017, the UIDAI lodged a first information report (FIR) with the Delhi Police Cyber Cell against Axis Bank, which has partnered in the UID project from early on; Suvidhaa Infoserve, the bank’s business correspondent; and eMudhra, the eSign provider. The UIDAI complained that the three entities had illegally stored biometric data and performed unauthorised Aadhaar authentication. They were accused of performing repeated transactions through “replay” of biometrics that had been stored on their devices, which amounts to attempting unauthorised authentication and impersonation by illegally accessing stored UID data. The UIDAI noticed the infraction when, between July 14, 2016, and February 19, 2017, it was observed that 397 biometric transactions had been performed by one individual. It is reported that 194 of these transactions were performed through Axis Bank, 112 through eMudhra and 91 through Suvidhaa Infoserve. The three parties explained that this occurred when the system was being tested and that no actual transactions had taken place. Axis Bank has said that while there have been no breaches, they had suspended the services of Suvidhaa Infoserve.

Sameer Kochhar, an entrepreneur, publishes a magazine, Inclusion. On February 11, 2017, he published an article titled “Is a deep state at work to steal digital India?” A video accompanied the article, which showed how stored biometrics could be used to “replay” transactions much in the same manner as they did in the Axis Bank episode. The immediate reaction from the UIDAI was denial. Ajay Bhushan Pandey, the UIDAI’s CEO, tweeted, “Video is fake. No evidence of connection with Aadhaar server.” An FIR was lodged against Kochhar for making a false claim. In turn, Kochhar tweeted a letter from the UIDAI to a registered authentication user agency about multiple concurrent transactions on one date, January 11, using stored biometrics. The letter also referred to a “licence key” that had been illegally used by a firm to perform an eKYC function.

In a recent interview to CNBC-TV18, Pandey asserted that there was “not a single case of data leak from the UIDAI, data breach from UIDAI, not a single case of identity theft or financial loss has been reported to us”. He then went on to explain: “There are two parts of this whole problem. One is, as you know, the database which is inside the UIDAI and as I mentioned, no breach has happened and we are quite vigilant about it, because we can never say that we are 100 per cent and absolutely secure. In the security world, there is nothing called fully secure and absolute security.”

In another incident, a reporter with CNN News 18, along with a cameraperson, enrolled in two different enrolment stations, using two different names, Debayan Roy and Raj Kishore Roy, demonstrating the porosity of the enrolment process. The episode was telecast. There was little to doubt the incident was not to cheat the system, but to expose its weaknesses. The UIDAI filed an FIR against the reporter for impersonation and fabrication of documents. The two enrolments would have been detected during de-duplication and it is not that he would have got two UID numbers; nor was the operation secret and hidden, it was telecast. In 2014, Cobrapost had done an exercise which too demonstrated the ease with which anyone could enrol, with no documents and at a price.

In January 2012, the Home Ministry had threatened to withdraw from the UID process citing as a reason the manner of enrolment; that within three weeks, the Prime Minister had produced a compromise where the UIDAI shared enrolment 50:50 with the National Population Register being prepared by the Registrar General of India is one of the unanswered mysteries surrounding this project. The Intelligence Bureau too had complained in 2012. So, this is not the first time these questions have been raised. It is, however, the first time it has gone public since the Aadhaar Act 2016 was passed. This manner of use of the Act could have a chilling effect on those who see flaws in the system and who may refrain from letting the public know what they learn. Given that the UID number is being seeded, and used, in multiple sensitive places, including in financial transactions, this enforced silence could end up costing us very dearly.

Usha Ramanathan works on the jurisprudence of law, poverty and rights.

Cover Story

Aadhaar invasion

V. VENKATESAN cover-story

THE legal challenge to making it mandatory for Indian citizens to part with their demographic and biometric information and assigning them unique identity numbers ostensibly to ensure efficient delivery of subsidies, benefits and services under the Aadhaar Act, 2016, has witnessed several twists and turns.

In Round One, the public interest litigation petitioners—including a former High Court judge, a retired major general and an activist espousing the cause of manual scavengers—who challenged the Act’s previous avatar, the Aadhaar scheme, succeeded in persuading the Supreme Court to confine the voluntary use of Aadhaar to six specified schemes. That was on October 15, 2015, when a five-judge Constitution Bench modified the previous order of a three-judge bench in August that year to accommodate the Central government’s growing appetite for including more and more schemes under the Aadhaar umbrella even though the Supreme Court’s larger bench was yet to adjudicate on its very constitutionality.

Round Two: wherein the Supreme Court found itself unable to go ahead and adjudicate on the issue expeditiously and, therefore, has been prevaricating since October 2015. The balance of advantage appeared to tilt increasingly in favour of the respondent in the case, the Union of India, which began to brazenly violate the Supreme Court’s restrictions on making Aadhaar mandatory and still manage to avoid the kind of strictures that an ordinary litigant not complying with the court’s directives could expect in the normal course of events.

Thus, when the media reported on March 27 that the Supreme Court had held that the non-mandatory restriction on the Aadhaar scheme in the October 15, 2015, order applied to social welfare and benefit schemes and did not apply to non-welfare activities such as filing of income tax returns or verification of mobile phone connections, it came like a bolt from the blue. These observations, attributed to Chief Justice of India (CJI) J.S. Khehar in the course of the judicial proceedings on the Aadhaar case, are not binding judicial orders. The CJI made them because he had not heard these petitions earlier and, therefore, sought to gain familiarity with them. (See box.)

The Constitution, in theory, endows the CJI only with symbolic powers. At his swearing-in ceremony, he takes the same oath that is prescribed for the other judges of the Supreme Court, thus marking him as the first among equals. However, as the administrative head, the CJI enjoys a certain discretion in deciding which of the pending cases need to be heard on priority and who among his brother or sister judges can hear and decide them. Therefore, when the CJI refuses to accord priority to a pending matter, though his predecessors have emphasised the need to hear it expeditiously, it makes one wonder whether the CJI, on the administrative side, is not bound by the rule of precedent.

Previous orders

On August 11, 2015, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court found a strong prima facie case made by the petitioners in the K.S. Puttaswamy case and passed an interim order restricting the use of Aadhaar to two schemes. The production of an Aadhaar card would not be a condition for obtaining any benefit otherwise due to a citizen, the bench had categorically held in that order. More important, while referring the question whether right to privacy was a fundamental right to a larger bench for consideration, the three-judge bench said: “Having regard to importance of the matter, it is desirable that the matter be heard at the earliest.”

Thereafter, the five-judge Constitution Bench held in Paragraph 5 of its Interim Order of October 15, 2015: “We will also make it clear that the Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this court one way or the other.” In Paragraph 8, the same bench held: “Since there is some urgency in the matter, we request the learned Chief Justice of India to constitute a bench for final hearing of these matters at the earliest.” Specifically, the order restricted the use of the Aadhaar number to six schemes (adding four more to the two already identified by the three-judge bench in August 2015), namely, public distribution system (PDS), subsidised LPG cylinder, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), National Social Assistance Programme (old age pensions, widow pensions and disability pensions), Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan Yojana, and Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation. Even in these six schemes, enrolment for Aadhaar can only be voluntary, the order was categorical. However, the Central government issued a series of notifications making it mandatory for purposes other than those permitted by the court.

Notifications since October 2015

The Union Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises made it mandatory for MSMEs to register online through Udyog Aadhaar from October 20, 2015, within five days of the Supreme Court’s interim order.

From June last year, scholarships under the University Grants Commission began to be restricted to Aadhaar card holders or those who had enrolled for it. In a public notice dated January 31, the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) insisted on Aadhaar for National Eligibility cum Entrance Test-2017 aspirants. The Railway Recruitment Board made it mandatory for its examinations from December 23 last year. The CBSE has insisted on it for its Joint Entrance Examination from this year.

Candidates for the Uttar Pradesh State Entrance Examination were required to furnish Aadhaar numbers from this year. The Andhra Pradesh Engineering, Agriculture, and Medical Common Entrance Test was also restricted to Aadhaar card holders from last year. From last year, the results of the 10th and 12th class examinations conducted by the Bihar State Education Board are stored in a digital locker that is accessible only with the use of the Aadhaar number.

The Ministry of Railways made it mandatory for advance verification of senior citizens through Aadhaar from April 1 to get concessional tickets. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) made it mandatory for the national means-cum-merit scholarship scheme and for the National Scheme of Incentive to Girls for Secondary Education from February 16 last year. It made it mandatory for the Central Sector Scheme of Scholarship for College and University Students from February 17 last year. In January this year, Aadhaar enrolment became mandatory under the National Food Security Act (under the PDS) and the Employee Pension Scheme. On February 28, the MHRD issued a notification making it mandatory from June 30 for students who want to avail themselves of the mid-day meal scheme in schools. It issued similar notifications for the beneficiaries of the Saakshar Bharat and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan schemes it runs. On February 16, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment made it mandatory for people who want to avail themselves of the central scholarship from March 31. Beneficiaries of the National Action Plan for Skill Training of Persons with Disabilities and of the Scheme of Assistance to Disabled Persons for Purchase/Fitting of Aids and Appliances were also mandatorily required to enrol for Aadhaar. The Ministries of Health and Family Welfare, Labour and Employment, and Women and Child Development followed suit, restricting access to their schemes to the Aadhaar-enrolled.On February 15, the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions made it mandatory for four schemes under it. Section 139AA of the Income Tax Act, 1961, as amended by the Finance Act, 2017, provides for mandatory quoting of Aadhaar/enrolment ID of Aadhaar application form to file income tax returns and to make an application for allotment of a permanent account number (PAN).

Simplification of the delivery process, transparency and efficiency, receipt of entitlements in a convenient and seamless manner, and obviating the need to produce multiple documents to prove one’s identity are the objectives behind insisting on Aadhaar, as stated in many of these recent government notifications making it mandatory for people who want to avail themselves of government schemes. But in practice, these stated goals appear to be vacuous and irrelevant, if not counterproductive, to the intended beneficiaries of these schemes. Even private enterprises have apparently begun to use the Aadhaar platform for the purpose of verifications and authentication.

Mobile subscriber verification

The outcome of a public interest litigation petition seeking to make verification of mobile subscribers mandatory was an instance of how a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court dealt with the Aadhaar issue oblivious of the five-judge bench’s earlier ruling. On February 6, the three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Khehar disposed of the petition, filed by Lokniti Foundation, expressing its hope that by using the Aadhaar platform for verification of SIM cards the government would be able to verify the identity of all mobile subscribers in the country within a year. The bench was obviously unaware of the fact that on October 15, 2015, the five-judge Constitution Bench expressly rejected the plea of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) seeking permission to use the Aadhaar platform for e-KYC (Know Your Customer) verification of SIM cards. However, TRAI had no compunctions about launching the Aadhaar-based e-KYC for mobile connections on August 16 last year, though that amounted to contempt of the Supreme Court’s orders. Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, who briefed the bench on the issue, apparently omitted to explain the relevance of the October 15 interim order in the Aadhaar case.

Major General (retd) S.G. Vombatkere submitted a petition contending that under Part III and Part IV of the Constitution a citizen is entitled to enjoy various social and civil rights such as right to receive education, a scholarship, medical assistance, pensions and benefits under government schemes without having to part with his or her personal biometrics and personal information. He averred that Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution not only protected a citizen from restraint on free speech but also from “compelled speech”, that is, the compulsion to give or disclose details that the citizen otherwise did not want to disclose. Relying on the Unique Identification Authority of India’s own data, one can point out that the number of cases where deduplication resulted in the rejection of an application for an Aadhaar number is to the tune of nine crore out of around 99 crore enrolments. As this means that every tenth person who applied for an Aadhaar number is not issued one because of the flawed biometric technology being used, petitioners have asked whether Aadhaar is an instrument of exclusion to deprive people who are otherwise entitled to financial and other subsidies, benefits and services from receiving these entitlements.

One of the issues that the petitioner wanted to bring to the court’s notice was that a number of below poverty line card holders and MGNREGA workers from Rajasthan had come forward and stated the troubles they had faced because of the faulty Aadhaar system, including not being able to get Aadhaar or to authenticate oneself and connectivity issues during authentication.

It is interesting to note that on September 14 last year a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in All Bengal Minority Students Council and Anr vs Union of India and Ors, reiterated that Aadhaar could not be made a mandatory condition for any government scheme. The bench restrained the Centre from making Aadhaar number a mandatory requirement for the purpose of grant of scholarships. This is a significant order as it was delivered after Parliament enacted the Aadhaar Act, and it had come into force. While hearing a petition from G.S. Sukanya on February 10, the Karnataka High Court granted an interim stay on the mandatory requirement of Aadhaar card for getting rations. “The respondents shall disburse ration to which she is entitled even without production of Aadhaar card,” Justice A.S. Bopanna directed in his order.

The passage of the Aadhaar Act as a Money Bill in the Lok Sabha has been challenged in the Supreme Court, which has decided to hear the petition filed by former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh. A Bill can be correctly termed a “Money Bill” under Article 110 of the Constitution if it contains only provisions dealing with all or any of the matters specifically enumerated in clauses (a) to (g) of Article 110 (1). This provision deals with matters relating to expenditure incurred or income received with respect to the Consolidated Fund of India. Experts have pointed out that the Aadhaar Act deals with several issues that fall outside the limited scope of Article 110. On this ground alone, they say that the Act is ex facie unconstitutional, illegal and liable to be struck down by the Supreme Court.

Serious issues

The challenges to the Aadhaar Act raise serious issues, which are awaiting resolution by the Supreme Court.

One is whether it is constitutionally permissible for the state to make the discharge of its constitutional and statutory obligations conditional upon an individual parting with his or her core biometrics. As one petitioner before the court put it: “The Aadhaar Act inasmuch as it foists a Faustian bargain on every citizen and resident is unconstitutional and deeply flawed at its very foundation.” The state’s obligation to provide financial and other benefits, subsidies and services extends to a class of citizens or residents on the basis of certain objective criteria such as household income, gender, age and disability. Persons falling within this group, for short “entitled persons”, form a single homogenous class. Each one of them is entitled to one or more benefits in the form of financial subsidies, services, scholarships, and so on. Whether or not an individual parts with his/her core biometric information to avail himself/herself of the entitlements is completely irrelevant to his/her receiving the entitlement, the petitioners say. The Act is palpably arbitrary and illegal inasmuch as it creates an artificial impermissible classification between those entitled persons who have parted with biometrics and those entitled persons who have not parted with biometrics. This is a serious flaw and, therefore, can be held violative of Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the laws.

Another aspect of the challenge to the Act is that it makes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign promise of ensuring minimum government and maximum governance once he came to power ring hollow.

A key facet of the constitutional role of the state is that it is a benign and benevolent state and not a police or authoritarian state. This aspect of a benevolent state is clearly derived from the Independence movement, the constitutional history leading to the framing and adoption of the Constitution of India, and the Preamble to the Constitution by which the people of India have given themselves the Constitution. A direct obligation on the state that flows from this is that it must act in recognition of its limited role and is under an active constitutional duty to preserve and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. This implies that the state cannot enact a law or create a system that by its very design and operation will place the state in an extremely dominant position in relation to every citizen. The state is under an obligation under Article 13(2) of the Constitution to ensure that it shall not make any law that takes away or abridges the rights conferred under Part III of the Constitution. The Aadhaar Act purports to provide legal sanction to a programme that lays the framework for and enables real-time surveillance of every Indian. Constitutional limitations are such that the government cannot engage in surveillance of citizens even when each of these citizens volunteers to be subject to surveillance, petitioners have claimed. As a person has full dominion and control over her core biometrics, just as she has over her body and personal autonomy, any collection of personal biometrics can only be done through free and informed written consent on the part of the individual.

The Act purports to validate actions taken before the Act was brought into force in terms of Section 59 of the Act. But no consent whatsoever was taken for any of the enrolments carried out until the bringing into force of the Act, the petitioners have pointed out. The taking of a person’s fingerprints and iris scan without informed consent is a physical invasion of his or her bodily integrity, they claim. The element of free consent is not addressed or adequately protected in the impugned Act even with respect to enrolments subsequent to the Act coming into force, they have pointed out.

While engaging in the exercise of collecting biometrics, the government acts as a trustee at every stage. The role of a trustee, given the sensitive nature of the information, must be exercised by the state or organs of the state alone and cannot under any circumstance be delegated to private parties operating without any governmental supervision. The crucial stage of obtaining consent/informed consent is entirely in the hands of private players under the impugned Act, and this has been questioned by the petitioners as against the principle of trusteeship.

On April 5, the Supreme Court decided to set up a five-judge Constitution Bench to hear from April 18 the petition accusing WhatsApp and Facebook of privacy violations. Although the court’s according priority to hear the WhatsApp case first is a disappointment of sorts to those who expected the Aadhaar case to be heard first, observers have expressed surprise that the two cases have not been tagged as both have raised the issue of privacy.

However, there is a silver lining in the court’s announcement. If the privacy issue is resolved first in the WhatsApp case, the court is likely to give a definite ruling on whether the right to privacy is a fundamental right, the very question that the three-judge bench in the Aadhaar case referred to a larger bench in August 2015. Therefore, the outcome of the WhatsApp case could give us some idea about the future of Aadhaar.

Aadhaar and Midday meals

Politics of exclusion

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI cover-story

THE National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s singular obsession with pushing the linking of Aadhaar with a range of entitlements, especially those affecting the poorer sections of the population, has come as a surprise. When the move to map the country and its citizens with a Unique Identification Number, or Aadhaar, came first as the brainchild of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the NDA, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), opposed the project. Now it is resorting to various means by expanding the ambit in the name of efficiency and stemming corruption.

Between August 2015 and October 2015, Aadhaar was made compulsory for obtaining the benefits of the public distribution system (PDS) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) subsidies and later expanded to other schemes. In October 2015, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court placed restrictions on making Aadhaar contingent for a wide range of benefits and essentially held that a citizen could not be compelled to have Aadhaar as a pre-condition to access Centrally sponsored welfare schemes. Despite the court order, there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to show that people have been harassed and denied their legitimate entitlements, including their right to have a bank account, if they do not possess an Aadhaar card.

Moreover, some of the government decisions on expanding the requirement for Aadhaar were made part of the Finance Bill, 2017, thus sealing any option for contestation in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA does not have a majority. The Left and other opposition parties opposed the inclusion of amendments not related to taxation and finance, such as electoral bonds for political funding, in the Finance Bill as a form of “backdoor’’ entry. In the Rajya Sabha, Kapil Sibal of the Congress accused the government of violating the Supreme Court’s orders and said that the government’s explanation could “only be an arrogance of power”. He expressed concern over breach of privacy and the possibility of hacking of banking transactions if Aadhaar was made compulsory for filing of income tax returns. Aadhaar was envisaged by the UPA for “targeting subsidies for targeted people” and “not to pry into the affairs of people”, he said.

Sitaram Yechury, Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP, said: “By smuggling in non-financial matters and non-tax matters and defining the Finance Bill as a Money Bill, the Rajya Sabha had been deprived of its right to discuss matters.” Describing the inclusion of Aadhaar in the Finance Bill as the “worst kind of subterfuge”, he said it had been “smuggled” into the Finance Bill. He said the insistence on Aadhaar was leading to a “surveillance state in India”.

The Aadhaar (The Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services Bill) 2016 was passed by the Lok Sabha as a Money Bill, thus preventing the Rajya Sabha from incorporating and passing any amendments to it. The classification of the Aadhaar Bill as a Money Bill has been challenged in court by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh and the final verdict is awaited. However, despite the Supreme Court’s October 2015 ruling and the petition challenging the definition of Aadhaar as a Money Bill, the government has been aggressively pushing for the linkage of Aadhaar as a precondition to obtain benefits under Central schemes.

A press release issued by the head office of the Employees Provident Fund Office (EPFO) on February 7 stated that members and pensioners under the Employees Pension Scheme (EPS), 1995, were required to furnish their Aadhaar number by March 31. In case the member had not been allotted an Aadhaar number, a copy of the Aadhar enrolment ID slip was required to be attached to the settlement of claim under the EPS for pension processing and monthly pension payments. The same statement allowed for the extension of the last date of submission of life certificate by pensioners until March 31, noting that many pensioners were yet to submit their Aadhaar authenticated Jeevan Pramaan as life certificate for withdrawal of pension. It was evident that many people, pensioners and non-pensioners, were yet to avail themselves of an Aadhaar card.

In early 2014, the EPFO assigned a unique 12-digit Universal Account Number (UAN) to all EPFO subscribers. Now, subscribers are required to additionally “seed” the Aadhaar number to the UAN. The implication that all UAN members have to have an Aadhaar number was evident from the EPFO press release, which said that for those who were “yet to seed Aadhaar and bank details with their UAN, a new composite claim form (non-Aadhaar)” replaces the existing forms. Nowhere did the EPFO release state that having an Aadhaar was optional barring those schemes for which it had been made compulsory earlier and also upheld by the court.

The same modus operandi was followed for other schemes as well. In perfect synchronisation, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, in pursuance of Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act, notified that anganwadi workers and helpers working in anganwadi centres or mini anganwadi centres were required to furnish proof of possession of Aadhaar number or undergo an Aadhaar authentication. Those who did not possess the proof were required to apply by March 31, 2017. The notification was specific that the honorarium would be paid only through Aadhaar-seeded bank accounts with effect from April 1, 2017. Those who did not have such seeded accounts were to furnish proof of enrolment or a copy of the request made for Aadhaar enrolment or furnish either a bank photo passbook, voter identification card, ration card or kisan photo passbook, driving licence or PAN card or an MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act) job card or an employee photo identity card issued by the government or a public sector undertaking or any other document specified by the State government or Union Territory administration. It was also specified that in case the workers and helpers could not enrol owing to non-availability of enrolment centres in the blocks or tehsils or taluks, child development project officers were required to create enrolment facilities at convenient locations.

Nowhere did the notification state that the absence of an Aadhaar card, the absence of enrolment proof or the inability to furnish any other document verifying the identity of the person would not be used as a precondition for the non-release of the honorarium for these workers, who belonged to indigent families and many of whom were single women. The rationale given for the insistence on seeding the bank accounts with the Aadhaar was that the “use of Aadhaar as an identity document for delivery of services or benefits or subsidies simplified government processes, brought in transparency and efficiency and enabled beneficiaries to get their entitlements directly in a convenient and seamless manner” and obviated the need to produce multiple documents to prove one’s identity.

Further, as the Aadhaar Bill had been moved and passed as a Money Bill, the notification justified the seeding of bank accounts with an Aadhaar number on the grounds that the honorarium was paid by the Centre and State governments and involved recurring expenditure from the Consolidated Fund of India. This was the same grounds on which the Aadhaar Bill was introduced and passed as a Money Bill.

The government did not stop with this. Another notification, part of the same overall gazette notification, stipulated that “individuals desirous of availing themselves of the Supplementary Nutrition Programme offered at the anganwadi centres are required to provide proof of possession of Aadhaar number authentication with effect from April 1, 2018. Those who did not possess the number or had not yet enrolled would have to apply for such enrolment by March 31, 2018, provided he or she was entitled to obtain Aadhaar. Individuals could visit any Aadhaar enrolment centre listed on the UIDAI website. It may be recalled that the ICDS was the largest supplementary nutrition programme in the world for children in the zero to six years age group and for pregnant women and lactating mothers.

Aimed at exclusion

In a country rated very low in the hunger index, struggling to achieve zero infant and maternal mortality, and with a high rate of wasting and stunting in children in the zero to five cohort, the insistence on an Aadhaar number for those in need of supplementary nutrition is shocking in the very least. Even to expect such beneficiaries, the poorest among the poor, to access the list from the UIDAI website seemed ridiculous if not insensitive. Pregnant and lactating women were required to give an undertaking that they were not availing themselves of services or benefits from any other anganwadi centre. Even children up to the age of six were required to have an Aadhaar number or a copy of his/her request and the parent required to give an undertaking that the child was residing with him or her and that they were not availing themselves of the services or benefits for the child from any other anganwadi centre. Rather than put in place robust measures to ensure that supplementary nutrition was made universally available to all pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under five without any conditions whatsoever given the pathetic health indices, the government, through its notifications, was making Aadhaar a precondition for availing themselves of such basic forms of nutrition. The targeting was aimed at exclusion. All this was even more shocking because the government had recently committed itself to raising the health budget as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) to 2.5 per cent by 2025.

Not to be left behind, on February 28, the Ministry of Human Resource Development notified that those children in classes one to eight who were availing themselves of the national midday meal scheme aimed at improving their nutritional status would be required to furnish their Aadhaar numbers or undergo an Aadhaar authentication. Like the ICDS, the midday meal scheme is the largest school-based supplementary nutrition scheme for children in government and government-aided schools. The children who availed themselves of such food belonged to the poorer sections of society.

There is enough evidence to show that enrolment in schools had gone up in view of the provisioning of midday meals. The notification also said that the cooks and helpers were paid an honorarium (just like the ICDS workers and helpers) for their services, expenditure for which was incurred partly or fully from the Consolidated Fund of India. These cooks and helpers, the majority of whom are women, are also required to furnish proof of possession of the Aadhaar number or undergo Aadhaar authentication.

The Central government has been reluctant to treat the workers and helpers in the ICDS scheme or the cooks and helpers involved in the midday meal scheme as government employees entitled to a minimum wage and social security, engaged as they are in almost every government programme. The 45th Indian Labour Conference had recommended that workers under the scheme, including anganwadi workers, be recognised as employees and given benefits like minimum wage, pension and social security. Rather than addressing the real livelihood issues of these frontline workers, including their steadily increasing working hours, the emphasis to get them authenticated under Aadhaar and also putting the onus on them to help out with the enrolment for the beneficiaries seemed a skewed priority at best. The stress on identification also effectively served to distract from the real issues of reduced budgeting for ICDS as well as the midday meal scheme.

Interestingly, the Akshay Patra Foundation, which is the world’s largest school meal programme in the government sector, and claims to reach 1.6 million children in 13,529 government, government-aided schools and anganwadi centres in 11 States, has welcomed the linking of Aadhaar with the benefits. The Akshay Patra Foundation operates in a public private partnership mode with the Centre and the State governments.

After a hue and cry was raised, the Ministry for Women and Child Welfare issued a clarification stating that there was no plan to replace the hot cooked meals for children in the three-six age group in ICDS centres with dry rations to substitute the meals with cash transfers. It, however, stated that it was exploring conditional cash transfers instead of take-home rations in view of complaints regarding the quality of such rations. It was also thinking of launching pilot conditional cash transfer (CCT) in select districts. A.R. Sindhu, general secretary of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers, said that the idea behind CCT was to ultimately wind up the ICDS centres. She told Frontline that already in Telengana, the government had started direct cash transfers on an experimental basis. While pushing for enrolment under Aadhaar for the beneficiaries of the ICDS on the one hand, the government has drastically reduced the ICDS budget for 2017-18, which is far less than the budget estimates for 2015-16. It was half of the ICDS budget allocated for the 12th Plan.

The idea behind the extensive push for Aadhaar does not stem from a concern to address the real issues confronting people, that of hunger and deprivation, but is a plan to map them for some intangible purposes. Notwithstanding the concerns of privacy, the move seems more in the direction of exclusion rather than inclusion in the name of better targeting and efficiency.

Aadhaar project

Blundering along, dangerously

USHA RAMANATHAN cover-story

IN the last seven years, the right to privacy of Indian citizens has been downgraded in several crucial steps. It was argued that Google and Facebook had more information than any other database; and that the voter IDs in several States, with personally identifiable information, were publicly available. Zealous advocates on a techno-utopian mission argued that the trifling matter of privacy would have to give way to the sheer convenience offered by technology. The argument went thus: it is only those who have something to hide who ask for privacy and, conversely, those who have nothing to hide ought not to worry about the loss of privacy. In August 2015, all this was brought to a head when the government categorically told the court that was hearing the unique identification number (UID) cases that the people of this country simply did not have a right to privacy. Significantly, at the same time as the right to privacy was being denied, before another bench of the court, the government was asserting that the offence of defamation in Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code needed to remain on the statute book so as to enable the government to protect the right to privacy. Privacy advocates were disparaged as espousing elite interests, that the poor have no interest in privacy, but only in being able to get their entitlements.

The spate of notifications making it mandatory to “seed” the UID number in a bewildering multiplicity of databases have placed the privacy debate on a wholly different plane. Crucially, they have highlighted concerns that the privacy rights of the poor, far from being an esoteric matter, are literally a matter of life and death for a large section of the population. In the process, the poor, the disadvantaged and the weak are in danger of losing not only their legitimate entitlements but their very dignity.

In September 2010, 17 eminent citizens, including Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Prof. Romila Thapar, Prof. Upendra Baxi, administrator S.R. Sankaran , Justice A.P. Shah, film-maker Amar Kanwar, social activists Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Deep Joshi, and advocate K.G. Kannabiran, issued a statement asking for the UID project not to forge ahead without a law, without a feasibility report, and without considering its implications for privacy (see full text of the statement on page 30). Bezwada Wilson, the national president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a signatory, explains that the identity project does not seem to understand the principles of identity; what those employed as manual scavengers want, he explains, is to bury their identity, not perpetuate it. The notification making it mandatory to seed the UID number as a prelude to the rehabilitation of a person engaged in manual scavenging is precisely the problem that Wilson has been battling in his opposition to the UID project.

Women rescued from prostitution, bonded labour, victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, persons who are HIV-positive and needing anti-retroviral therapy (ART), those building toilets with state assistance, persons with disabilities, and children in the mid-day meal scheme are all being compelled to affix their UID numbers to different databases. There is simply no question of consent. Neither is there a provision to opt out. The language of entitlements has been displaced by “benefits”, “subsidies” and “services” in the Aadhaar Act 2016. Notification after notification begin with the bland statement that seeding the UID number “simplifies governmental delivery processes, bringing in transparency and efficiency, and enables beneficiaries to get their entitlements directly in a convenient and seamless manner… obviating the need for producing multiple documents to prove one’s identity”.

With these notifications, the privacy debate has moved onto another level, indeed onto another terrain, where the dignity of a person and the heightened vulnerability of the individual are added to the concerns of convergence, profiling and surveillance. These notifications also make plain the privacy interests of the poor in relation to the UID project.

Private interests, public data

One of the provisions in the Aadhaar Act 2016 which makes it impossible to justify its passage as a Money Bill is Section 57. It permits the “use of the Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual for any purpose, whether by the state or any body corporate or person...”.

Indeed, much before the UID acquired the protection and sanction of the law, the growing cacophony of private companies’ interest in the project was articulated openly by business interests. They enthusiastically welcomed the implementation of the project because the system could be used to “leverage” businesses. In fact, when the Aadhaar Bill was being debated in the Rajya Sabha, parliamentarians cited the instance of TrustID, which advertised itself as “India’s 1st Aadhaar-based mobile app to verify your maid, driver, electrician, tutor, tenant and everyone instantly”. This is a business model in which the UID authentication is used as the foundation on which profiles are built.

BetterPlace offers “multipoint verification and safety capabilities through a combination of sources—location-based data analytics, digital footprint of an individual and Aadhaar information”.

In February 2017, OnGrid caused outrage when it tweeted an image with the photograph of a young man across which read:

Aadhaar Number: 8625-xxxx-7706

Name: Kxxxxx Sxxxxx

Mobile: xxxxxxxxxx

DoB: xx xx 1986

Gender: x

Aadhaar address: xxxx

Current address: xxxx

Police verification: xxxx

On the screen was “indiastack.org/ekyc”.

The website carried the description, “Aadhaar-enabled Trust Bureau of India”. “OnGrid is a trust bureau that modernises verification and background checks in India by linking an individual’s data, documents and incidents to his/her 12-digit aadhaar number for a faster and cleaner access to true identity and background.”

BetterPlace advertises itself as “leveraging multiple data sources, including Aadhaar—the massive database of biometric and demographic data of the entire country. BetterPlace has in place and continues to create a unique profile of every citizen with accurate and comprehensive personal, professional and social information.”

Data gathering about individuals, and profiling, are the business model of these UID-based companies, even as data emerge as the new property.

A closed circuit of interests

In 2013, a grouping of technology entrepreneurs got together as iSpirt—Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable. Nandan Nilekani is their mentor. Two others who stepped down from the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI)—Pramod Varma, who was Chief Technology Architect of Aadhaar, and Sanjay Jain, who was Chief Product Manager—are volunteers with iSpirt and work on creating India Stack, which is a stack of applications being built on the UID platform. Their paid employment is with Ek Step, a philanthropy established by Rohini and Nandan Nilekani. They work on the stack, and, as Nilekani says in his book Rebooting India, evangelise it to the government. Some of the components of the stack were created and adopted when Nilekani was still Chairperson of the UIDAI. In 2009, even before the first enrolment, the Aadhaar Auth API (Aadhaar Authentication Application Programming Interface) was launched. In 2011 the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) launched the Aadhaar Payments Bridge and Aadhaar Enabled Payments System. The “National” and “India” in NPCI are misleading; established in December 2008 with N.R. Narayana Murthy as its first Chairperson, it is a company registered under the Companies Act as a non-profit, and Nandan Nilekani and Pramod Varma are honorary consultants telling the NPCI how to adopt the UID number in its working. In 2012 eKYC was launched. Then a hiatus, after which in 2015, eSign. In 2016, the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) was launched, as was the DigiLocker.

A technology-based structure is being evangelised to the government which will give a leg-up to fintech companies. In the Credit Suisse India Financials Report 2016, Nilekani candidly sets out the ambitions: India will go from being a data poor country to becoming a data rich country in two to three years. “Digital footprints” will form part of this data. “And as data becomes the new currency, financial institutions will be willing to forgo transaction fees to get rich digital information on their customers.”

The “go cashless” brigade’s zeal, in much evidence after demonetisation, is not confined to the innocent dream of replacing cash with more modern payment systems. In reality, cashless is the next big pitch to convert personal data of the mass of Indian citizens into tangible—and profitable—business opportunities.

Bungling with biometrics

The use of fingerprint authentication has proved to be a major hurdle for large sections of people in accessing rations across the country. In Rajasthan, for instance, government records show that up to 30 per cent of the households have not been able to avail themselves of rations using their fingerprints to authenticate. That means that in these households, nobody had fingerprints that work; in the rest, there is at least one person whose fingerprints work. Since 2011, reports from various parts of the country, including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Jharkhand, have confirmed this phenomenon of mass-scale denial. Connectivity problems and quality of PoS (point of sale) devices add to the travails of the poor in a system that appears to be geared to deny what is their due. The Wattal Committee (December 2016) recognises the latter two, but makes no mention of biometric failure rates, when it asks that eKYC in the digital economy should not be made to work with biometrics. Instead, it suggests that the two-factor authentication could be a One Time Password (OTP) that is sent to a registered mobile number or email address.

In a case that the UIDAI has been fighting with the Central Bureau of Investigation since 2013, the CBI asked for the biometric database of all persons enrolled in Goa, and later narrowed its request to running sets of fingerprints across the UID database in connection with the investigation relating to the rape of a seven-year-old child in a school toilet. The UIDAI refused on grounds of protecting privacy and because the database is incapable of being used for forensics. Initially, in March 2014, the Supreme Court ordered that biometrics were not to be used except with the consent of the individual; but, in August 2015 the court changed its order, making an exception when a court directs that it be used in the course of a criminal investigation.

Around then, the UBCC was introduced to the UIDAI website. That is, the UIDAI Biometric Centre of Competence. The “mission” of the UBCC was “to design (a) biometrics system that enables India to achieve uniqueness in the national registry. The endeavour of designing such a system is an ongoing quest to innovate biometrics technology appropriate for the Indian conditions.” The way they saw it, the “nature and diversity of India’s working population adds another challenge to achieving uniqueness through biometric features”. It is therefore no surprise that fingerprints do not work in rural areas, or for the working classes.

In this context, the 2016 version of the “Strategy Overview” paper says: “Fingerprint: This is the most commonly used biometric attribute across the world but the large variation of quality of fingerprint in India may pose challenge to implementation of a reliable solution.”

In December 2016, Hussain Dalwai asked an unstarred question in Parliament: “ (a) Whether it is a fact that UIDAI has set up a Unique Biometric Competency Centre (UBCC); (b) if so, whether UBCC has been established to address the biometric challenges faced by UIDAI, if so, what are these challenges.” P.P. Chaudhary, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, responded with: “(a): No, Sir.” And, “(b): Does not arise.”

Why was the Minister denying its existence? What happened to the UBCC?

The Aadhaar Act 2016 now protects the biometric database from scrutiny. It is not accessible where there are national security demands, or where a court orders it, and even the person whose biometrics are stored cannot view it—in the interests of protecting our privacy!

Insecurities in the UID system

Two recent episodes have exposed the insecurities in the use of biometrics in the UID system.

In February 2017, the UIDAI lodged a first information report (FIR) with the Delhi Police Cyber Cell against Axis Bank, which has partnered in the UID project from early on; Suvidhaa Infoserve, the bank’s business correspondent; and eMudhra, the eSign provider. The UIDAI complained that the three entities had illegally stored biometric data and performed unauthorised Aadhaar authentication. They were accused of performing repeated transactions through “replay” of biometrics that had been stored on their devices, which amounts to attempting unauthorised authentication and impersonation by illegally accessing stored UID data. The UIDAI noticed the infraction when, between July 14, 2016, and February 19, 2017, it was observed that 397 biometric transactions had been performed by one individual. It is reported that 194 of these transactions were performed through Axis Bank, 112 through eMudhra and 91 through Suvidhaa Infoserve. The three parties explained that this occurred when the system was being tested and that no actual transactions had taken place. Axis Bank has said that while there have been no breaches, they had suspended the services of Suvidhaa Infoserve.

Sameer Kochhar, an entrepreneur, publishes a magazine, Inclusion. On February 11, 2017, he published an article titled “Is a deep state at work to steal digital India?” A video accompanied the article, which showed how stored biometrics could be used to “replay” transactions much in the same manner as they did in the Axis Bank episode. The immediate reaction from the UIDAI was denial. Ajay Bhushan Pandey, the UIDAI’s CEO, tweeted, “Video is fake. No evidence of connection with Aadhaar server.” An FIR was lodged against Kochhar for making a false claim. In turn, Kochhar tweeted a letter from the UIDAI to a registered authentication user agency about multiple concurrent transactions on one date, January 11, using stored biometrics. The letter also referred to a “licence key” that had been illegally used by a firm to perform an eKYC function.

In a recent interview to CNBC-TV18, Pandey asserted that there was “not a single case of data leak from the UIDAI, data breach from UIDAI, not a single case of identity theft or financial loss has been reported to us”. He then went on to explain: “There are two parts of this whole problem. One is, as you know, the database which is inside the UIDAI and as I mentioned, no breach has happened and we are quite vigilant about it, because we can never say that we are 100 per cent and absolutely secure. In the security world, there is nothing called fully secure and absolute security.”

In another incident, a reporter with CNN News 18, along with a cameraperson, enrolled in two different enrolment stations, using two different names, Debayan Roy and Raj Kishore Roy, demonstrating the porosity of the enrolment process. The episode was telecast. There was little to doubt the incident was not to cheat the system, but to expose its weaknesses. The UIDAI filed an FIR against the reporter for impersonation and fabrication of documents. The two enrolments would have been detected during de-duplication and it is not that he would have got two UID numbers; nor was the operation secret and hidden, it was telecast. In 2014, Cobrapost had done an exercise which too demonstrated the ease with which anyone could enrol, with no documents and at a price.

In January 2012, the Home Ministry had threatened to withdraw from the UID process citing as a reason the manner of enrolment; that within three weeks, the Prime Minister had produced a compromise where the UIDAI shared enrolment 50:50 with the National Population Register being prepared by the Registrar General of India is one of the unanswered mysteries surrounding this project. The Intelligence Bureau too had complained in 2012. So, this is not the first time these questions have been raised. It is, however, the first time it has gone public since the Aadhaar Act 2016 was passed. This manner of use of the Act could have a chilling effect on those who see flaws in the system and who may refrain from letting the public know what they learn. Given that the UID number is being seeded, and used, in multiple sensitive places, including in financial transactions, this enforced silence could end up costing us very dearly.

Usha Ramanathan works on the jurisprudence of law, poverty and rights.

Cover Story

Aadhaar invasion

V. VENKATESAN cover-story

THE legal challenge to making it mandatory for Indian citizens to part with their demographic and biometric information and assigning them unique identity numbers ostensibly to ensure efficient delivery of subsidies, benefits and services under the Aadhaar Act, 2016, has witnessed several twists and turns.

In Round One, the public interest litigation petitioners—including a former High Court judge, a retired major general and an activist espousing the cause of manual scavengers—who challenged the Act’s previous avatar, the Aadhaar scheme, succeeded in persuading the Supreme Court to confine the voluntary use of Aadhaar to six specified schemes. That was on October 15, 2015, when a five-judge Constitution Bench modified the previous order of a three-judge bench in August that year to accommodate the Central government’s growing appetite for including more and more schemes under the Aadhaar umbrella even though the Supreme Court’s larger bench was yet to adjudicate on its very constitutionality.

Round Two: wherein the Supreme Court found itself unable to go ahead and adjudicate on the issue expeditiously and, therefore, has been prevaricating since October 2015. The balance of advantage appeared to tilt increasingly in favour of the respondent in the case, the Union of India, which began to brazenly violate the Supreme Court’s restrictions on making Aadhaar mandatory and still manage to avoid the kind of strictures that an ordinary litigant not complying with the court’s directives could expect in the normal course of events.

Thus, when the media reported on March 27 that the Supreme Court had held that the non-mandatory restriction on the Aadhaar scheme in the October 15, 2015, order applied to social welfare and benefit schemes and did not apply to non-welfare activities such as filing of income tax returns or verification of mobile phone connections, it came like a bolt from the blue. These observations, attributed to Chief Justice of India (CJI) J.S. Khehar in the course of the judicial proceedings on the Aadhaar case, are not binding judicial orders. The CJI made them because he had not heard these petitions earlier and, therefore, sought to gain familiarity with them. (See box.)

The Constitution, in theory, endows the CJI only with symbolic powers. At his swearing-in ceremony, he takes the same oath that is prescribed for the other judges of the Supreme Court, thus marking him as the first among equals. However, as the administrative head, the CJI enjoys a certain discretion in deciding which of the pending cases need to be heard on priority and who among his brother or sister judges can hear and decide them. Therefore, when the CJI refuses to accord priority to a pending matter, though his predecessors have emphasised the need to hear it expeditiously, it makes one wonder whether the CJI, on the administrative side, is not bound by the rule of precedent.

Previous orders

On August 11, 2015, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court found a strong prima facie case made by the petitioners in the K.S. Puttaswamy case and passed an interim order restricting the use of Aadhaar to two schemes. The production of an Aadhaar card would not be a condition for obtaining any benefit otherwise due to a citizen, the bench had categorically held in that order. More important, while referring the question whether right to privacy was a fundamental right to a larger bench for consideration, the three-judge bench said: “Having regard to importance of the matter, it is desirable that the matter be heard at the earliest.”

Thereafter, the five-judge Constitution Bench held in Paragraph 5 of its Interim Order of October 15, 2015: “We will also make it clear that the Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this court one way or the other.” In Paragraph 8, the same bench held: “Since there is some urgency in the matter, we request the learned Chief Justice of India to constitute a bench for final hearing of these matters at the earliest.” Specifically, the order restricted the use of the Aadhaar number to six schemes (adding four more to the two already identified by the three-judge bench in August 2015), namely, public distribution system (PDS), subsidised LPG cylinder, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), National Social Assistance Programme (old age pensions, widow pensions and disability pensions), Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan Yojana, and Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation. Even in these six schemes, enrolment for Aadhaar can only be voluntary, the order was categorical. However, the Central government issued a series of notifications making it mandatory for purposes other than those permitted by the court.

Notifications since October 2015

The Union Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises made it mandatory for MSMEs to register online through Udyog Aadhaar from October 20, 2015, within five days of the Supreme Court’s interim order.

From June last year, scholarships under the University Grants Commission began to be restricted to Aadhaar card holders or those who had enrolled for it. In a public notice dated January 31, the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) insisted on Aadhaar for National Eligibility cum Entrance Test-2017 aspirants. The Railway Recruitment Board made it mandatory for its examinations from December 23 last year. The CBSE has insisted on it for its Joint Entrance Examination from this year.

Candidates for the Uttar Pradesh State Entrance Examination were required to furnish Aadhaar numbers from this year. The Andhra Pradesh Engineering, Agriculture, and Medical Common Entrance Test was also restricted to Aadhaar card holders from last year. From last year, the results of the 10th and 12th class examinations conducted by the Bihar State Education Board are stored in a digital locker that is accessible only with the use of the Aadhaar number.

The Ministry of Railways made it mandatory for advance verification of senior citizens through Aadhaar from April 1 to get concessional tickets. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) made it mandatory for the national means-cum-merit scholarship scheme and for the National Scheme of Incentive to Girls for Secondary Education from February 16 last year. It made it mandatory for the Central Sector Scheme of Scholarship for College and University Students from February 17 last year. In January this year, Aadhaar enrolment became mandatory under the National Food Security Act (under the PDS) and the Employee Pension Scheme. On February 28, the MHRD issued a notification making it mandatory from June 30 for students who want to avail themselves of the mid-day meal scheme in schools. It issued similar notifications for the beneficiaries of the Saakshar Bharat and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan schemes it runs. On February 16, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment made it mandatory for people who want to avail themselves of the central scholarship from March 31. Beneficiaries of the National Action Plan for Skill Training of Persons with Disabilities and of the Scheme of Assistance to Disabled Persons for Purchase/Fitting of Aids and Appliances were also mandatorily required to enrol for Aadhaar. The Ministries of Health and Family Welfare, Labour and Employment, and Women and Child Development followed suit, restricting access to their schemes to the Aadhaar-enrolled.On February 15, the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions made it mandatory for four schemes under it. Section 139AA of the Income Tax Act, 1961, as amended by the Finance Act, 2017, provides for mandatory quoting of Aadhaar/enrolment ID of Aadhaar application form to file income tax returns and to make an application for allotment of a permanent account number (PAN).

Simplification of the delivery process, transparency and efficiency, receipt of entitlements in a convenient and seamless manner, and obviating the need to produce multiple documents to prove one’s identity are the objectives behind insisting on Aadhaar, as stated in many of these recent government notifications making it mandatory for people who want to avail themselves of government schemes. But in practice, these stated goals appear to be vacuous and irrelevant, if not counterproductive, to the intended beneficiaries of these schemes. Even private enterprises have apparently begun to use the Aadhaar platform for the purpose of verifications and authentication.

Mobile subscriber verification

The outcome of a public interest litigation petition seeking to make verification of mobile subscribers mandatory was an instance of how a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court dealt with the Aadhaar issue oblivious of the five-judge bench’s earlier ruling. On February 6, the three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Khehar disposed of the petition, filed by Lokniti Foundation, expressing its hope that by using the Aadhaar platform for verification of SIM cards the government would be able to verify the identity of all mobile subscribers in the country within a year. The bench was obviously unaware of the fact that on October 15, 2015, the five-judge Constitution Bench expressly rejected the plea of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) seeking permission to use the Aadhaar platform for e-KYC (Know Your Customer) verification of SIM cards. However, TRAI had no compunctions about launching the Aadhaar-based e-KYC for mobile connections on August 16 last year, though that amounted to contempt of the Supreme Court’s orders. Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, who briefed the bench on the issue, apparently omitted to explain the relevance of the October 15 interim order in the Aadhaar case.

Major General (retd) S.G. Vombatkere submitted a petition contending that under Part III and Part IV of the Constitution a citizen is entitled to enjoy various social and civil rights such as right to receive education, a scholarship, medical assistance, pensions and benefits under government schemes without having to part with his or her personal biometrics and personal information. He averred that Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution not only protected a citizen from restraint on free speech but also from “compelled speech”, that is, the compulsion to give or disclose details that the citizen otherwise did not want to disclose. Relying on the Unique Identification Authority of India’s own data, one can point out that the number of cases where deduplication resulted in the rejection of an application for an Aadhaar number is to the tune of nine crore out of around 99 crore enrolments. As this means that every tenth person who applied for an Aadhaar number is not issued one because of the flawed biometric technology being used, petitioners have asked whether Aadhaar is an instrument of exclusion to deprive people who are otherwise entitled to financial and other subsidies, benefits and services from receiving these entitlements.

One of the issues that the petitioner wanted to bring to the court’s notice was that a number of below poverty line card holders and MGNREGA workers from Rajasthan had come forward and stated the troubles they had faced because of the faulty Aadhaar system, including not being able to get Aadhaar or to authenticate oneself and connectivity issues during authentication.

It is interesting to note that on September 14 last year a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in All Bengal Minority Students Council and Anr vs Union of India and Ors, reiterated that Aadhaar could not be made a mandatory condition for any government scheme. The bench restrained the Centre from making Aadhaar number a mandatory requirement for the purpose of grant of scholarships. This is a significant order as it was delivered after Parliament enacted the Aadhaar Act, and it had come into force. While hearing a petition from G.S. Sukanya on February 10, the Karnataka High Court granted an interim stay on the mandatory requirement of Aadhaar card for getting rations. “The respondents shall disburse ration to which she is entitled even without production of Aadhaar card,” Justice A.S. Bopanna directed in his order.

The passage of the Aadhaar Act as a Money Bill in the Lok Sabha has been challenged in the Supreme Court, which has decided to hear the petition filed by former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh. A Bill can be correctly termed a “Money Bill” under Article 110 of the Constitution if it contains only provisions dealing with all or any of the matters specifically enumerated in clauses (a) to (g) of Article 110 (1). This provision deals with matters relating to expenditure incurred or income received with respect to the Consolidated Fund of India. Experts have pointed out that the Aadhaar Act deals with several issues that fall outside the limited scope of Article 110. On this ground alone, they say that the Act is ex facie unconstitutional, illegal and liable to be struck down by the Supreme Court.

Serious issues

The challenges to the Aadhaar Act raise serious issues, which are awaiting resolution by the Supreme Court.

One is whether it is constitutionally permissible for the state to make the discharge of its constitutional and statutory obligations conditional upon an individual parting with his or her core biometrics. As one petitioner before the court put it: “The Aadhaar Act inasmuch as it foists a Faustian bargain on every citizen and resident is unconstitutional and deeply flawed at its very foundation.” The state’s obligation to provide financial and other benefits, subsidies and services extends to a class of citizens or residents on the basis of certain objective criteria such as household income, gender, age and disability. Persons falling within this group, for short “entitled persons”, form a single homogenous class. Each one of them is entitled to one or more benefits in the form of financial subsidies, services, scholarships, and so on. Whether or not an individual parts with his/her core biometric information to avail himself/herself of the entitlements is completely irrelevant to his/her receiving the entitlement, the petitioners say. The Act is palpably arbitrary and illegal inasmuch as it creates an artificial impermissible classification between those entitled persons who have parted with biometrics and those entitled persons who have not parted with biometrics. This is a serious flaw and, therefore, can be held violative of Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the laws.

Another aspect of the challenge to the Act is that it makes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign promise of ensuring minimum government and maximum governance once he came to power ring hollow.

A key facet of the constitutional role of the state is that it is a benign and benevolent state and not a police or authoritarian state. This aspect of a benevolent state is clearly derived from the Independence movement, the constitutional history leading to the framing and adoption of the Constitution of India, and the Preamble to the Constitution by which the people of India have given themselves the Constitution. A direct obligation on the state that flows from this is that it must act in recognition of its limited role and is under an active constitutional duty to preserve and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. This implies that the state cannot enact a law or create a system that by its very design and operation will place the state in an extremely dominant position in relation to every citizen. The state is under an obligation under Article 13(2) of the Constitution to ensure that it shall not make any law that takes away or abridges the rights conferred under Part III of the Constitution. The Aadhaar Act purports to provide legal sanction to a programme that lays the framework for and enables real-time surveillance of every Indian. Constitutional limitations are such that the government cannot engage in surveillance of citizens even when each of these citizens volunteers to be subject to surveillance, petitioners have claimed. As a person has full dominion and control over her core biometrics, just as she has over her body and personal autonomy, any collection of personal biometrics can only be done through free and informed written consent on the part of the individual.

The Act purports to validate actions taken before the Act was brought into force in terms of Section 59 of the Act. But no consent whatsoever was taken for any of the enrolments carried out until the bringing into force of the Act, the petitioners have pointed out. The taking of a person’s fingerprints and iris scan without informed consent is a physical invasion of his or her bodily integrity, they claim. The element of free consent is not addressed or adequately protected in the impugned Act even with respect to enrolments subsequent to the Act coming into force, they have pointed out.

While engaging in the exercise of collecting biometrics, the government acts as a trustee at every stage. The role of a trustee, given the sensitive nature of the information, must be exercised by the state or organs of the state alone and cannot under any circumstance be delegated to private parties operating without any governmental supervision. The crucial stage of obtaining consent/informed consent is entirely in the hands of private players under the impugned Act, and this has been questioned by the petitioners as against the principle of trusteeship.

On April 5, the Supreme Court decided to set up a five-judge Constitution Bench to hear from April 18 the petition accusing WhatsApp and Facebook of privacy violations. Although the court’s according priority to hear the WhatsApp case first is a disappointment of sorts to those who expected the Aadhaar case to be heard first, observers have expressed surprise that the two cases have not been tagged as both have raised the issue of privacy.

However, there is a silver lining in the court’s announcement. If the privacy issue is resolved first in the WhatsApp case, the court is likely to give a definite ruling on whether the right to privacy is a fundamental right, the very question that the three-judge bench in the Aadhaar case referred to a larger bench in August 2015. Therefore, the outcome of the WhatsApp case could give us some idea about the future of Aadhaar.

Aadhaar and NPR

A legal hurdle in Assam

THE Central government’s decision to link Aadhaar numbers to welfare schemes, PAN applications and filing of income tax returns cannot be implemented in Assam for the simple reason that until March 31, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has assigned Aadhaar numbers to only seven per cent of the State’s projected 2015 population of 32,968,997 (source: UIDAI website).

The UIDAI authorities took up the work of enrolling people and assigning Aadhaar numbers to them on a pilot basis in three districts—Golaghat, Sonitpur and Nagaon—during the previous Congress regime in the State. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Assam in 2016, headed by Sarbananda Sonowal, decided to keep in abeyance the Aadhaar work until completion of the ongoing work of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951.

In his speech at the 11th meeting of the Inter-State Council held on July 16, 2016, Sonowal spelt out the policy of his government on Aadhaar thus: “Although Aadhaar enrolment is only for the purpose of identification and does not confer citizenship to any person, there is a genuine apprehension in the minds of people of Assam that without updating the NRC, Aadhaar may be used by illegal migrants for getting various government schemes and for claiming citizenship.”

Sonowal requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Central government to consider using alternative mechanisms to provide direct benefits, including subsidies and public services, to citizens in Assam. “Once our NRC updation is completed, we will take up Aadhaar enrolment and we will join other parts of the country in using Aadhaar for various purposes,” the Chief Minister said in his speech and added that his government expected the NRC work to be completed in the next couple of months.

However, legal complexities in the process of the updating the NRC may force the Assam government to put Aadhaar work on the back burner for a longer period.

Altogether 68.21 lakh families have applied for inclusion in the updated NRC and a total of 6.67 crore documents, involving about 3.27 crore individuals, are being verified to identify applicants and authenticate the eligibility claims for inclusion in the updated citizens’ register.

A Division Bench of the Gauhati High Court comprising Justices Ujjal Bhuyan and Rumi Kumari Phukan said in its judgment on February 28 that a large number of certificates provided by applicants as supporting documents to substantiate their claims for inclusion in the updated NRC had “no statutory sanctity”—46,76,391 certificates, including 41,94,733 new certificates, issued by gaon panchayat secretaries in rural areas; 4,19,394 by circle officers in urban areas and 62,264 by lot mondals in Bodoland Territorial Council areas and hill districts.

“We hold that such a certificate has no statutory sanctity, being beyond the mandate of the 1994 Act [Assam Panchayat Act, 1994] and the Rules framed thereunder. We have already held that issuance of such certificates is contrary to the mandate of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, besides not being in the national interest,” the judgment states.

The State Coordinator, NRC, Prateek Hajela, submitted before the court that these certificates were intended to support the residential status of married women because post-marriage they normally shift to a different location to reside with their husbands.

The NRC, 1951, is being updated in accordance with modalities prescribed by the Central government on November 22, 2014, which are based on the modalities forwarded by the Assam government on July 5, 2013. The Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India granted his approval to amended modalities that allowed submission of supporting documents, including certificates issued by secretaries of village panchayats countersigned by the local revenue official in respect of women who had migrated to other villages after marriage.

A tripartite meeting between the Centre, the State government and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) on the implementation of the Assam Accord held on May 5, 2005, decided that the NRC, 1951, would be updated with March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date within two years’ time and photo identity cards would be issued to those enrolled in the updated NRC. March 25, 1971, is also the cut-off date stipulated in the Assam Accord for identification and expulsion of “Bangladeshi migrants” who had entered Assam without valid travel documents after this cut-off date and were staying illegally in the State.

The High Court observed that barring the certificates issued by the gaon panchayat secretaries in rural areas and by circle officers in urban areas, all the other documents were existing documents issued up to midnight of March 24, 1971. “When the State is facing ‘external aggression’ and ‘internal disturbance’ due to the presence of a large number of illegal migrants, as held by the Supreme Court, where is the need to issue special directives to gaon panchayat secretaries for creation of new documents to facilitate inclusion of names in updated NRC? While on the one hand the Supreme Court has lamented the lack of political will to proceed against the foreigners and to send them out of the country, on the other hand we see an over-exuberance to create additional documents running into millions to facilitate inclusion of names in updated NRC,” the judgment states.

However, on March 8, the Supreme Court in a direction to the NRC State Coordinator, said the High Court order “should not halt the process of upgradation of the NRC”. A Division Bench of the apex court, comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton Fali Nariman, in its order also directed the State Coordinator, to “continue to undertake the process of scrutiny that is presently going on in respect of all other claims for inclusion in the NRC and thereafter proceed to publish the draft NRC”. The court further directed that claims made on the basis of the aforesaid document “may be kept in abeyance for the present and will be subject to such orders as the court may pass on a later date.”

Even after the issue of verification of the claims of the over 46 lakh applicants is settled in accordance with orders to be passed by the Supreme Court and the updated NRC is published, both the Centre and the State government might be required to take a call on the legal status of Hindu Bangladeshis, whom the Centre proposes to grant Indian citizenship, in Assam vis-a-vis the updated NRC. The Centre has already tabled The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in both Houses of Parliament, which has been strongly opposed by opposition parties, the AASU and various student and youth bodies of the State.

As the Sonowal government has decided that Aadhaar should be issued only to those whose names are in the updated NRC, it presents a possibility that even after acquiring Indian citizenship, Hindu Bangladeshis may not be eligible for assignment of Aadhaar numbers. Unless the cut-off date for submitting claims for inclusion in the updated NRC is altered, any post-1971 Indian citizen will not be eligible for inclusion in the citizens’ register in Assam. However, a change in the cut-off date will render the entire process of updating the NRC, 1951, towards finding a permanent solution to the vexed foreigners’ issue, a fruitless exercise. Until such issues are settled, people in Assam may be required to keep producing, for an uncertain period, a whole lot of documents to authorities outside the State to prove their exemption from producing Aadhaar proof.

Interview: Sitaram Yechury

‘Database for a totalitarian state’

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI cover-story

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.

Interview: Bezwada Wilson

The Dalit identity dilemma

AKSHAY DESHMANE cover-story

MAGSAYSAY Award winning activist and national president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan Bezwada Wilson is a co-petitioner with Major General (Retd) S.G. Vombatkere in a Supreme Court case relating to the Aadhaar project. He raises an important concern about the impact of Aadhaar on people born into oppressed castes, particularly safai karmacharis, or manual scavengers. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

What is your opinion on Aadhaar?

There is no necessity for Aadhaar. Common people do not understand why Aadhaar exists. Voters’ card, driving licence, passport, ration card—all of them have their own purposes. What is the purpose of Aadhaar? I am still asking why. Nobody is giving a real answer for this. I do not believe that Aadhaar was brought in to check pilferages in social-sector schemes; after all, this government waived off corporate loans worth Rs.1.14 lakh crore. For the first time, I started suspecting [the intention of] this decision when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced funds allocation and the launch of Aadhaar without any discussion in Parliament. First they said it was only for welfare, then LPG subsidy and then kept on expanding it. Every time you keep on changing, this makes citizens suspect these actions.

You [the government] may want control over citizens by allotting them numbers, but for citizens it is an additional burden because managing existing identity and other official cards itself is difficult, especially for the poor. Aadhaar reflects a complete slavery mindset. My father was a safai karmachari in Kolar [Karnataka] near the goldmine that was operated by the British until 1962 and then changed hands when the Indian government became its owner in 1980. Until the time of his retirement in 1976, he was identified by token number 95/17, which he would wear on his waist. When he retired, he gave it back to the company. They didn’t know his name; he was identified only by the token number. This is similar to Aadhaar. This mindset of controlling is similar to how the British controlled my father. My brother was also working there and had a similar experience.

Why did you become a petitioner in the Supreme Court case?

Identities of Dalits and Adivasis should never be permanent; they should be able to transcend them. My basic problem is that [Aadhaar facilitates] keeping identity forever. This is against my principle. Because it is a caste-ridden society and we already have identities. You don’t need any Aadhaar; [people are] already branded so we don’t need any fingerprints or iris recognition. We are segregated in such a way very clearly, demarcated in villages. In this society we must have a technology or application through which we can destroy these boundaries and make India a humane society. Instead of that you have now started branding very clearly, documenting everybody. For instance, as manual scavengers we want to come out of the identity and destroy it forever. We don’t want that identity again. Any marginalised community, any manual scavenging or vulnerable community wants to destroy its existing identity; that is our whole struggle. So you are branding; even if I come out of this and get liberation also, but in your Aadhaar, my occupation, where I come from, everything will be there. Once you get the data, you can segregate in any way by means of technology. See, you never used identity to support us, never purposely did a proper survey to identify and rehabilitate us. Now you want to give us an identity?

For 70 years since Independence, there has been no record of how many manual scavengers are there. Names were not enrolled in government records to ensure they come out of the profession by helping them accordingly. You are not giving me some benefits on account of the identity, nor are you letting me get out of it. Your [government’s] intervention itself is suspect.

How has Aadhaar affected the everyday life of safai karmacharis?

Last year the Maharashtra government passed an Act that says all safai karmachari jobs are reserved fully for this [sweeper] community. So if a safai karmachari goes to seek some other job, he will be immediately identified. Officials will ask him, “Why are you here for a job when there is 100 per cent reservation for your community?”

It has happened to me in my life. In 1984, after 10th class, while I was studying my pre-university course in my native place of Kolar, I had enrolled myself at the Employment Exchange. I was told you get seniority [in the application process]. I was 18 or 19 years old and looking for clerical jobs. But a clerical staff from the exchange enrolled my name for a sanitation job. When I asked him why, he said, “You are from that caste. You reside in that [Dalit] colony, no? So I wrote the occupation accordingly.” I could have been anything, a typist, attender, gardener, watchman, working in some lab —anything but a scavenger. So I tore apart the [employment exchange] card.

When I have such an experience, when you do these kinds of things [making Aadhaar compulsory], I do get scared about this whole system. In Maharashtra, for example, you cannot apply for any other job. The government may not have linked Aadhaar to the law but all officials ask for Aadhaar [in government offices].

Another example is regarding the one-time cash assistance of Rs.40,000 given by government to safai karmacharis for getting out of the profession. When our safai karmacharis applied for this assistance, they [officials] are openly saying that they won’t give it without Aadhaar. So they [safai karmacharis] are forced to get it soon, which is an inconvenience. Aadhaar centres in villages particularly are not available all the time.

While speaking of privacy and collection of fingerprints in Aadhaar, some cite instances of citizens willing to give personal data; for example, while applying for passports. How would you respond?

Applying for passport is not mandatory, it is a choice. If I want something, I will apply. But you are throwing it on me; as a citizen I don’t want to accept it. I am not a slave. [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange and [U.S. whistle-blower] Edward Snowden say any data can be misused. Let people have their own choice on Aadhaar. You don’t look at citizens from your own viewpoint, but try to understand theirs.

Aadhaar and welfare schemes

Data nightmare

DIVYA TRIVEDI cover-story

THE right to food campaigner Dipa Sinha feels India is staring at a data nightmare. With the Central government making all efforts to bring all the citizens on to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) platform, two issues threaten the project: exclusions and a lack of clarity on how to plug leakages. The idea is being sold to people as a tool to reduce corruption but according to Dipa Sinha, the only thing it is doing right now is keeping people away from what they are entitled to. Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:

There is a lot of confusion around notifications being issued with deadlines for Aadhaar enrolment.

The government has issued a large number of notifications, for 91 schemes at last count, including the public distribution system [PDS], pension and MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act], even after the Supreme Court’s orders and clarifications. Several of them have June 30 as the deadline for either enrolment or getting an acknowledgment that one has applied for Aadhaar. In case someone still does not have it then the organisation where Aadhaar is required has to make arrangements to see that one is enrolled. Until June 30, other identity cards can be used. The only thing about which they did respond was the midday meal scheme as it became a big issue with people who generally do not talk about Aadhaar being a problem also taking a stand. There was a seeming “retraction” of the midday meal notification but it only said that it must be ensured that children are enrolled for Aadhaar and not that Aadhaar will be fully voluntary. The government issued a press release saying “Yes, it is wrong to mandate Aadhaar for midday meal”, but went on to repeat what the notification said, that children desirous of getting the welfare benefit under the scheme needed to undergo Aadhaar authentication. So, in essence, the notification was not withdrawn. They are simply giving you time and making it easier for you to get Aadhaar. For now, schools are closing for summer. We will know the full impact of this only when they reopen.

Are people falling outside the welfare net owing to discrepancies in Aadhaar?

There are two kinds of exclusions happening because of Aadhaar. Firstly, in Delhi we saw during the initial days of Aadhaar enrolment for the PDS that only those members who had an Aadhaar card were included. This affects the entitlement as the quantity of foodgrains received under the National Food Security Act is on a per capita basis. In 2013-14, when the new ration cards were distributed, a number of people, mainly children, the disabled and the elderly, were not included on the ration card as they did not have Aadhaar. Later, as people got enrolled under Aadhaar, they demanded that their names be included in the ration cards. But now, for the PDS the Delhi government has said that the quota of 42 per cent is full and new names can be enrolled only when older names are cancelled. So now we have a situation where families identified as poor by the Delhi government have to lose 5 kg or more of grain because the names of some of their family members are not there on the ration card.

Secondly, the government is making Aadhaar mandatory supposedly to reduce leakages by de-duplication. While some leakages might have been happening by registering fake, or ghost, beneficiaries, we do not know how many fakes existed. The numerous verification exercises have shown fewer than 10 per cent fakes. Besides, authentication failures are happening on a large scale because of technical glitches and the government has no way of solving these. For instance, when (say) Raju goes to get ration and puts his finger on the machine, the machine tries to recognise his fingerprint with the one existing in the system. In many cases, the system refuses to authenticate owing to faulty image or because the biometrics have not been captured properly. Fingerprints change for manual labourers, children and the elderly. Almost 30 per cent of the people are not getting grains because of authentication failure. The government has no way of recording this. In response to a Right to Information query, the government said it did not have records of this. On the basis of this, tall claims are being made about how thousands of crores of rupees have been saved by the Finance Minister, Nandan Nilekani and Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] leaders. In Rajasthan, we had a situation where they said if for three months your biometrics did not match, then you would be declared a “ghost”. So it is a big scam. In the case of children whose biometrics change, chances of failure are higher. Now until the age of five there is no fingerprint, so fingerprinting cannot be done. Between ages five and 15, the government says biometrics should be updated regularly. For instance, if at the age of six a child got his Aadhaar and at age nine his biometrics do not match, then are they going to stop his scholarship or midday meal? Why should parents take their children for updating biometrics often when the government has admitted children’s biometrics are not formed?

How does making Aadhaar compulsory for filing income tax returns or for pension fund affect citizens?

Mandating Aadhaar for non-welfare benefits, which the Supreme Court has not allowed but the government is forcing, makes it even more clear that it is being done to bring people on to the system. If my PAN, bank account and telephone are linked to Aadhaar, then everything I do, the state knows. I don’t know what they are doing with the data or who they are sharing them with, as the provisions for this in the Aadhaar Act are weak. There is nothing in the Act that provides me safeguards against misuse and I cannot even approach a court directly in case of misuse as only the UIDAI is authorised to approach courts in case of misuse of Aadhaar data, which is a conflict of interest. It all boils down to civil rights and liberties. By linking all my information to one number and generating authentication records, which will be stored for five years with the government, the State is generating a lot of metadata, which may reveal my personal details. Even if I do not do anything illegal, disparate pieces of metadata can be misused to show patterns which may not be true. The state will know where I am eating, what I am having for dinner, where I am travelling, what I am buying, and so on.

Reliance has taken unique identification for all Jio connections. What is it doing with the data? Online data of Aadhaar have been leaking through illegally stored biometrics as well as simple Google searches for bank details and Aadhaar numbers. There is a company, trustID, which advertised that it will do background checks for hiring based on Aadhaar. Now, one may not want to reveal something for employment with a firm, which may not necessarily be illegal, but how much choice does a job applicant have? But this firm will put together all the data and create a profile of you, as a parallel database. As it is, it is unfortunate that a lot of our data are on Google through smartphones and the global positioning system. But there is a difference between powers of a corporation and the powers of a government, which may coerce you, imprison you, and deprive you of your rights. Also I can opt out of Google and Facebook, can I opt out of dealing with my government? These are ways of forcing citizens to enrol without putting in place a foolproof system of data protection. There is no proper law on how data can be shared, especially with private players. The [Narendra Modi] government has argued in the Aadhaar case in the Supreme Court that citizens have no fundamental right to privacy. So, making it compulsory for filing income tax returns or for pension fund leaves citizens with no choice.

What, according to you, is the intent behind making Aadhaar the only identification number?

It is clear that it is not to plug leakages but 100 per cent coverage, so it seems like this is being done for surveillance purposes. The government is mandating Aadhaar for Bhopal gas tragedy victims, for women rescued from trafficking and sexual assault, for HIV/AIDS patients to get medicines. If this is being done to reduce leakages, then where, for instance, is there a problem of duplication in the case of medicines for HIV/AIDS patients? Should that not be established first before making Aadhaar mandatory? Even if there is a problem, what percentage of people are being inconvenienced to fix that?

What has been the experience of similar schemes in other places?

There is no country in the world where a biometric based identification system is used for so many purposes in this manner. The Social Security Number in the United States has important differences with the way Aadhaar is laid out, the most important being that it is not an identity number. It does not collect biometrics and it is protected by strict laws around who can share the data. The scale at which Aadhaar is done has not happened anywhere else. Even in the United Kingdom, where it was proposed, and implemented in 2006-07, the government destroyed the database seeing the potential risks involved, an aspect the Parliamentary Committee on Finance in India recognised in 2011.

What is the status of the High Court case filed by the Right to Food Campaign?

Our case is about how the government is violating the Supreme Court orders by making Aadhaar mandatory for welfare schemes. The High Court has asked the government to file its response to the petition. It is supposed to do this by mid April and then a hearing will be held. A Karnataka High Court judgment in the context of PDS says how Aadhaar cannot be mandatory.

A recent Right to Information query revealed that more than 85 lakh Aadhaar numbers have been cancelled.

Aadhaar can be suspended when biometrics or other data have not been updated. An SMS is usually sent by way of informing. Most of the cancelled numbers are those of children, possibly for non-updation of fingerprint data. The government does not have enough manpower, resources or technical know-how to check or correct the flaws that occur in the system. There is no official data on how many people fall out of the welfare net because they do not have Aadhaar. In the public distribution system and pension schemes, whatever micro data are available, 25-30 per cent seems to be Aadhaar-related exclusion.

Biometric data

Huge concerns

THE controversy about Aadhaar, or unique identification number, acquires a sinister overtone when one realises that no other country in the world except Pakistan has done a similar codification exercise for its citizens. The pursuit of the biometric Aadhaar project by the Narendra Modi government, in violation of the Supreme Court’s October 15, 2015, order, defies logic. The court had stated categorically that the use of the unique identification number should not be made mandatory and restricted the use of Aadhaar to six schemes (the public distribution system, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Social Assistance Programme, the Prime Minister Jan Dhan Yojana, the Employees Provident Fund Office and liquefied petroleum gas distribution). In these schemes, too, the order said, enrolment for Aadhaar was voluntary.

But the Centre has made Aadhaar mandatory for a clutch of financial services/transactions, such as obtaining or retaining PAN (permanent account number) cards, filing of income tax returns and obtaining a SIM card or a driving licence, giving rise to serious concerns. Does it not constitute a breach of the right to privacy? What are the safeguards for data security? In case of misuse of information, which authority can be approached for redress? Are the government’s intentions genuine?

These questions assumed seriousness after a bizarre set of tweets started doing the rounds in social media in the last week of March. Sakshi Dhoni, cricketer M.S. Dhoni’s wife, in a series of tweets, complained that Dhoni’s Aadhaar details had been leaked by an agency in Ranchi he had approached to update his details. The agency, VLE Mariya Farooqui, had tweeted not only a picture of Dhoni giving his biometrics but uploaded his application form as well. Union Minister for Law and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad “liked” the tweet without realising that it constituted a serious breach of the cricketer’s privacy. It was only after Sakshi Dhoni raised a complaint that the agency’s tweet was deleted. The agency has been blacklisted for 10 years.

Had Sakshi Dhoni not noticed the breach, the information could have been misused by unscrupulous elements, resulting in irreversible damage to the cricketer in the long run.

The incident has brought to the fore the real and serious danger of biometric data breach associated with Aadhaar and its consequences. The other issues that needed to be addressed include outlining the safety mechanism embedded in the system to reassure people that the data being collected are in safe hands and provide a platform for people to seek justice if their data are stolen, tampered with or misused.

Big hoax

Activists involved in conducting studies on the dangers associated with Aadhaar and legal experts are of the opinion that Aadhaar is a big hoax being played on the country, seriously compromising not only the individual’s safety and security but the nation’s security as well. “The next wars are not going to be fought with guns and tanks, neither are they going to be fought with nuclear weapons. They will be fought with information and whoever has access and control of information will win. Here we are giving all our information to foreigners on a platter. Why?” asked Aishwarya Bhati, a senior Supreme Court lawyer who is handling one of the writ petitions challenging Aadhaar in the court.

According to Aishwarya Bhati, all the data collected for biometric identification are stored in servers abroad and anyone having access to these servers can play havoc with this information. “Imagine you can delete crores of citizens with a click of the mouse, people will simply cease to exist,” she said. While this may sound like science fiction, it is a real possibility when one considers the ground reality. Linking all sorts of identities, like bank accounts, telephone numbers, SIM, PAN cards and driving licences with just a single number means you have all these data stored in just one place and anyone having access to this one database can tamper with this number and your entire identity disappears from the digital world. You become a non-existent person if that one digital number is the only access you have for accessing all your other identities.

The possibility of data being tampered with is a real one if one takes into account the way data are collected and the agencies that are collecting them. First of all, these agencies were not screened and all sorts of companies with poorly trained staff have been involved in collecting biometric data without having any clue about data security or how information should be handled. There have been instances of the personnel employed by these agencies simply abandoning the completed enrolment forms, compact discs and computer hard discs, leaving all the information unattended. In Bengaluru, first information reports have been filed over such instances. These FIRs are a part of the petitions that are pending in the Supreme Court. It is also intriguing why the Supreme Court has not yet taken up the issue with the urgency that it merits: it recently refused to hear a clutch of petitions on an urgent basis, giving the government time to go ahead with linking Aadhaar with all other identities.

Activists who have been involved in gathering information point out the dangers associated with Aadhaar. They say biometric identification across large numbers does not work, these work only for a small, targeted audience, say, for a small number of hardened criminals. “In a large number, the chances of fake/duplicate identities are there and this can potentially lead to misuse of data,” said Col (retd) Mathew Thomas, an activist from Bengaluru, who is also one of the petitioners challenging Aadhaar in the Supreme Court. According to him, the UIDAI had confessed that the chances of errors in the data are huge: one in 10. As per this admission, there already are 80 million fake or duplicate data in the 1.12 billion data that have been gathered. This figure has been arrived at by a system called Automatic Biometric Identification System, which employs the principles of probability to arrive at the margins of error. According to Thomas, this admission of 80 million fake data is mentioned in the UIDAI’s reply to his writ petition on page number 171. “With such mind-boggling potential for fraud/error, it is unfortunate that the Supreme Court is not hearing our petitions urgently and the government is having a field day taking the citizens for a ride,” he said. “Since the Aadhaar number is prone to duplication it cannot be described as a unique identification number. The very aadhaar of Aadhaar is fake,” he said.

Hidden facts

Thomas, who has extensive experience in handling and keeping large data in the Army and has an idea about how data can be tampered with, said: “Aadhaar is such a sham. First of all, people should know it is not a smart card, it is just a number which cannot replace their identity card and since the government has not clarified this categorically, this is one of the deceits. Another deceit is the secrecy surrounding the name. Aadhaar is the name of a private trust of Nandan Nilekani, the brain behind the unique identification concept, and it is inexplicable why this has been kept such a secret all this while,” he says.

Another point that made the entire Aadhaar exercise suspect, he said, was the manner in which private companies, employing semi-literate contract employees, gathered and handled data. “I have filed copies of FIR showing how Aadhaar numbers were issued to illegal immigrants, how data collected by some of these agencies were just lying around unattended. The entire manner in which this exercise was handled was wrong,” he said.

Aadhaar card is prone to misuse because any resident, who may or may not be a citizen, could get an Aadhaar card and claim government benefits. “There are instances of illegal immigrants having got Aadhaar and I have filed proof of this with my petition,” he said.

Yet another fact about Aadhaar, which has been kept carefully hidden, he said, is that the United States agency which had been entrusted with collection and storage of data, called L1 Identity Solutions Operating Company Ltd, was the same company that gathered data for Pakistan. Incorporated in Delaware, U.S., the company was taken over by Safran, which actually is a French government-owned consortium, dealing with defence contracts. “All this information has been kept hidden from the Indian people and this gives rise to suspicion. What this government is doing constitutes a potential threat to our national security. We are handing over all our information to foreign agencies on a platter. This is the largest database ever and only fools can do it,” Thomas said.

Duplicands

The fact that this humongous database is prone to errors and hence constitutes a grave risk to not only individuals but also to the country has been proven mathematically by Dr Hans Mathew, whose mathematical calculations prove that at current population figures, one in every 121 persons will have his biometric identifiers matching with another person. Such cases are described as duplicands, and in the case of Aadhaar there will be an extremely high number of duplicands. Hence “the unique identification number” provided to individual identifiers cannot be unique. The paper, which was published in the February 27, 2016, issue of Economic & Political Weekly, said the formula (simple differential calculus) used by Hans Mathew was the same as the one used by UIDAI in the early stages of its data collection. Mathew, who does mathematical and statistical modelling at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, inferred that such a high number of duplicands meant the programme was bound to fail to uniquely identify individuals.

Issues relating to privacy are even more worrying. The technology involved in biometrics is such that a person can be identified even when he does not want to. This increases one’s vulnerability. According to Sunil Abraham, executive director, the Centre for Internet and Society, the government should have opted for a smart card instead of biometric identification because in a smart card operation, the individual’s consent is built in, while with biometrics even a dead or unconscious person can be identified, increasing the potential for misuse.

According to Chinmayi Arun, executive director of Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University Delhi, in a country like India where the government holds the view that citizens have no right to privacy (Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said this in the Supreme Court), such pervasive surveillance will give rise to a police state because the act provides for no safeguards to citizens in case there is a breach of privacy. There is no external oversight agency to monitor the functioning of the UIDAI and there is no mechanism available to citizens if a breach of privacy happens. In case of breach of privacy, the UIDAI has to initiate action, which, ironically, puts it in a conflict of interest position.

Without ensuring a citizen’s right to privacy, it is difficult to understand how other fundamental rights can be guaranteed at all. Is the government willing to compromise the very tenets of democracy for the sake of Aadhaar?

Aadhaar

All-pervasive Aadhaar

THE Narendra Modi-led government’s recent decrees making Aadhaar mandatory for those seeking to receive a host of government benefits, and even for obtaining mobile connections, and for actions such as filing income tax returns, have removed every pretense that enrolment in the universal identity card scheme is voluntary any more. It is yet another instance of the government arm-twisting the citizens into signing up for the scheme despite the official promise since its inception that it would not be made mandatory and subsequent apex court statements supporting it.

One of the biggest areas of impact is the Centre’s direct benefit transfer mission involving tens of crores of beneficiaries and several thousand crores of rupees every year. According to data from www.dbtbharat.gov.in, some 32.92 crore beneficiaries received a total of Rs.1,61,620 crore in subsidies, assistance, or other forms of benefit in the four years between January 1, 2013 and January 31, 2017. The transfers involved payments made to workers under the MGNREGS scheme, cooking gas subsidies, scholarships and social assistance. Overall, the seeding of Aadhaar with beneficiaries’ data was 78 per cent. However, only 27.37 per cent of all funds transferred were through the Aadhaar Payments Bridge, “a system that facilitates seamless transfer of all welfare scheme payments to beneficiary residents’ Aadhaar-enabled bank accounts”.

The government has made Aadhaar mandatory for mid-day meals too, impacting the lives and education of millions of children. Statistics from the Ministry of Human Resource Development show that at least 10 crore children across the country benefit from the mid-day meal scheme, whose budgeted estimate dipped from Rs.11,937.00 crore in 2012-13 to Rs.9,236.40 crore in 2015-16 before rising again to Rs.9,700 crore in 2016-17.

As on March 15, 2017, seven States and the Union Territory of Lakshadweep had achieved 100 per cent Aadhaar saturation on the basis of a projected 2015 population, according to the Unique Identification Authority of India. Using the same yardstick, 11 States had achieved 90-99 per cent saturation.

Public Health

Battle against mosquito

MOSQUITOES have a prominent place in human history, and the deadly diseases, such as malaria and Japanese encephalitis (JE), they visit on humans have been variously chronicled. We, in India, thought that we had conquered malaria in the 1960s, but the cheeky mosquito continues to dodge the best efforts of the human brain. In this ongoing battle against the mosquito, the insect is currently winning. This article narrates the details of the indefatigable battle the biologist Payyalore Krishnaier Rajagopalan waged against mosquitoes.

Rajagopalan was born as the second son to P.R. Krishnaier and T.A. Gowri in Mukteswar, a hill station in the Kumaon Hills (now in Uttarakhand), on October 27, 1930. Young Rajagopalan grew up in present-day Palakkad under the care of his maternal grandfather. After secondary schooling, Rajagopalan moved to Varanasi in 1945 to study at the Banaras Hindu University.

He completed an MSc in zoology with entomology as specialisation in 1951. In 1953, he joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s Virus Research Centre (or VRC, which was renamed the National Institute of Virology in 1978), Pune, as a research assistant. He rose through the ranks to become Assistant Director in early 1970. He was appointed Deputy Director of the Research Unit on the Genetic Control of Mosquitoes (RUGCM), New Delhi, which was an initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO)/Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). He was at this post until 1975. He was then appointed Director of the Vector Control Research Centre (VCRC), which was newly started under the aegis of the ICMR. For 15 years, Rajagopalan led the VCRC on a trail-blazing path in the battle against mosquitoes. He retired in 1990 and is based in Chennai.

While Rajagopalan was at the VRC, the Government of India deputed him for advanced training in medical epidemiology to the University of California Berkeley where he pursued a master’s in public health. While at the university’s Department of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health, Rajagopalan was trained by William C. Reeves, who considered it critical for him to get training on malaria from Lewis W. Hackett of the International Research Division of the Rockefeller Foundation and on zoonotic diseases from Karl F. Meyer of the Hooper Foundation for Medical Research because he came from a developing nation. Reeves also arranged for Rajagopalan to gain experience at his encephalitis field laboratory in Bakersfield, California. Rajagopalan cherishes what he learned while in the United States about the value of hard work, honesty and research ethics.

In 1965, he completed his PhD at the University of Poona (now the Savitribai Phule Pune University).

Rajagopalan was fortunate to come under the tutelage of the pioneering Indian medical entomologist Thammaji Ramachandra Rao (T.R. Rao), who trained him in sampling mosquito ecology and generously enabled his scientific encounters with the mosquito and its biology in the 1950s.

At the VRC, Rajagopalan was charged with the task of dealing with the then newly recognised viral disease Kyasanur Forest disease (KFD) in Hassan district of Mysore State (now Karnataka). Whether the virus was transmitted by migratory birds from Siberia was a daunting question that had to be answered. Over the course of a two-year investigation, Rajagopalan examined about 8,000 birds and extracted some 10,000 ectoparasitic ticks but, curiously, found no exotic ticks. Tests of the blood sera from the birds at the VRC disclosed a cross reaction to the Russian Spring-Summer encephalitis complex, which indicated that KFD was indigenous. Salim Ali of the Bombay Natural history Society trained Rajagopalan in the handling of birds and understanding migratory ecology.

Arboviruses & anthropods

The distinct absence of yellow fever in India was a key factor behind the establishment of the VRC and the evolution of a committed interest in medical entomology and acarology in the country in the late 1950s. Rajagopalan was one of the beneficiaries of this interest. With JE being recognised in 1954 and KFD being reported in 1957, interest in arboviruses and their transmitting arthropods grew significantly in India. Rajagopalan studied the ecology of several medically relevant arthropods of Devimane Ghat, a virgin tropical evergreen forest in what is now Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. This study included extensive sampling of arthropods and collection of blood samples from a large number of humans and other mammals for serology and characterisation of possible viruses.

Devimane Ghat was Rajagopalan’s first field site, where he learnt about the spatial distribution of mosquitoes in a tropical forest. The theory uppermost in Rajagopalan’s mind was that these arboviruses had zoonotic origins. He and his team had an unequivocal demonstration of this while working on KFD. The construction of a dam across the Sharavathi river in 1964 inundated an extensive natural forest area and displaced the wild animals that lived there. This forced the ectoparasitic ticks present on the animals to move into human suburbia and eventually live by parasitising livestock. Rajagopalan’s studies at the Devimane Ghat site enabled him to clarify vital but unknown aspects of the zoonotic cycles of various viruses.

Rajagopalan was posted to Vellore, Tamil Nadu, in the mid 1950s when there was a breakout of JE. He and his team sampled thousands of culicine mosquitoes ( Culex vishnui group) and were able to isolate the JE virus. The work on JE was extended to Akividu, Andhra Pradesh, to explore the role of migrant birds in introducing the JE virus to an area since pelicans and similar birds nested in the Akividu lake. He realised that operational research methods were sorely needed to manage the populations of medically relevant arthropod vectors. He was interested in exploring what the most practical and viable methods to save human lives would be and how one could predict an epidemic.

While at the RUGCM, he studied the ecology of C. quinquefasciatus, the mosquito that transmits filarial nematodes. The RUGCM’s mandate was to manage malarial and filarial vectors through genetic manipulation. The RUGCM folded up in 1975 because of a political controversy.

The sterile-insect technique trialled in the Midwestern U.S. to manage populations of screw-worm flies was considered a turning point in the management of nuisance insects. The females mated once in their lifetime, which is also the case with mosquitoes. Because of a distinct size difference between the pupae of male and female screw worms, after successfully mass rearing them, American scientists were easily able to separate the male pupae and sterilise them with radioactive exposures, and release them into natural populations. This practice reduced the screw worms that affected American cattle.

A few foreign and Indian medical entomologists were keen on trialling sterile-insect technique to regulate mosquito populations. But it was not possible to segregate the sexes in mosquito pupae. A 2 to 5 per cent contamination, which is a large number considering the size of mosquito populations in India, always prevailed during the segregation of male pupae from females. Moreover, the sterilised and genetically manipulated male mosquitoes were not as competitive as the males in the wild, and therefore the results were disappointing.

Rajagopalan’s leadership qualities came to the fore after he took over the reins of the VCRC in 1977 as its first Director. The then Director General of the ICMR, Colathur Gopalan, saw the need to establish a centre to manage the exploding populations of mosquitoes in southern India, and the VCRC was born in Puduchery in 1975. Over the next few years, it grew into a premier organisation offering cutting-edge knowledge on the ecological management of different species of mosquitoes.

Today, it has grown into a centre of excellence for research and training in vector-borne diseases and control and a WHO collaborating Centre for Research and Training in Lymphatic Filariasis and Integrated Methods of Vector Control because of Rajagopalan’s vision and unstinting efforts. It is due to him that a two-year-long master’s programme in medical entomology, unique in India, commenced at the VCRC in 1986. Close to 20 students got their PhDs with Rajagopalan as their principal supervisor in various sub-disciplines at the VCRC.

A key strategy Rajagopalan designed and launched was locality-specific management, which was based on a comprehensive understanding of mosquito biology and the manner in which the insect transmits protozoan or nematode parasites. The Filariasis Control Demonstration Project, which used large-scale, integrated vector management (IVM) tactics, was launched in 1980. It reduced filarial parasite ( Wuchereria bancrofti) infections in Puduchery. The IVM tactic entailed the reduction of the population density of C. quinquefasciatus, the agent that transmits W. bancrofti.

Rajagopalan established a research project in Cherthala (Kerala) to manage C. quinquefasciatus, which transmits the nematode Brugia malayi. The Cherthala project involved the physical and mechanical removal of the water plants that served as breeding sites for C. quinquefasciatus. Another VCRC project aimed at mosquito management at Rameswaram Island by targeting the unusual breeding sites of the Anopheles culicifacies, the local malarial mosquito. The issue was complicated by periodical movements of local human residents, mostly fisherfolk, who passively transmitted the parasite to nearby islands and mainland India. The malarial parasite confined to this island was resistant to common anti-malarial drugs.

Rajagopalan investigated the breakouts of JE in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu (1978), and in Burdwan and Bankura, West Bengal (1976). He demonstrated that JE was seasonal and that its epidemiology varied subtly in different regions. C. tritaeniorhynchus breeds profusely in rain- and floodwater pools and feeds on livestock. Rajagopalan was of the opinion that forecasting an epidemic and initiating proactive measures of vector control was more significant than implementing management strategies later. He vehemently argued that this strategy necessitated long-term studies on vector populations in JE-prone areas so that an epidemic breakout could be prevented. Even a 50 per cent reduction in the vector population, Rajagopalan argued, would prevent an outbreak.

Since C. tritaeniorhynchus was zoophilic, only the odd mosquito would bite humans. His argument that the human was an incidental link in the endemic infective cycle between C. tritaeniorhynchus and wild birds deserves a thorough investigation today. Under certain specific circumstances, larval control measures could be practical and economically justifiable, but Rajagopalan was of the strong opinion that they would not work in the context of JE virus transmission as he argued in the article “Combating a killer” ( Frontline, November 30, 2012).

To investigate tribal malaria, he opened a field station in Jeypore, Koraput district, Odisha, where he encountered difficulties with the terrain and the hostility of the local people. Malaria due to Plasmodium falciparum and P. vivax had been persistent in this region for several years. Rajagopalan’s wise decision to appoint a woman doctor to deal with the health needs of the tribal women in particular and to have the VCRC distribute medication free of cost enabled it to gain the trust of people in Jeypore. The VCRC team found that cases of P. malariae and P. ovale also occurred there. The Jeypore field station was a jewel in the crown of the VCRC because it demonstrated how quality work could be achieved in adverse, and even dangerous, conditions. The VCRC was able to carry out long-term ecological studies on mosquitoes.

In addition to the battlefronts referred to above, Rajagopalan made efforts to address key issues relating to a few other vector-borne diseases, such as lymphatic filariasis and dengue. During his time at the VCRC, he worked closely with various national and international agencies, such as the WHO, identifying evidence-based solutions for operational challenges faced in various vector-management programmes. The Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene, London, recognised him as a Fellow in 1990. The Government of India conferred the Padma Shri on him in 1990.

All through his professional life, Rajagopalan fought the mighty mosquito and strove towards achieving the goal of better health for his fellow citizens. He may not have been 100 per cent successful in his efforts to keep mosquito populations within reasonable threshold levels, but his efforts were always genuine.

Anantanarayanan Raman is a senior academic engaged with the ecology of insects in agricultural contexts. He currently teaches at Charles Sturt University, Orange, NSW, Australia.

Racism

Targeting Africans

DIVYA TRIVEDI social-issues

“SO, what sort of music do you like?”

“Jazz.”

“Let me introduce you to some African jazz,” said Lawrence, scrolling through the playlist on his smartphone. As the soothing melody filled the room, we (six African youths and myself) momentarily forgot why we had gathered in the two-room house in Greater Noida in the National Capital Region (NCR).

Lawrence asked: “Have you had the opportunity to hang out with Africans like this before?” To my embarrassment, I reckoned that I had not and realised how very comfortable and familiar it felt.

Ezeugo Nnamdi Lawrence II, coordinator of the African Association of Students in India (AASI), lives in south Delhi. As it was too dangerous for him to travel to the meeting venue in Greater Noida by himself, he was asked by a friend to travel the 48-kilometre distance to Greater Noida, which is in Gautham Budh Nagar of Uttar Pradesh, with an Indian journalist he had met before and who was writing a story based on the events that unfolded in the last week of March.

Around 11 p.m. on March 25, an alert flashed on Un-fair Web, a Facebook identity that shares updates on the African community in India and has emerged as a platform against racism. The previous day, a group of people had barged into the house of five Nigerian students in NSG Black Cat Enclave in Greater Noida, accusing them of killing and eating Manish Khari, a class 12 student. They checked the refrigerator for body parts and threatened to harm the students if they did not confess to the crime. Only two of the five Nigerian students were present in the house at the time; they panicked and called the police, who took them into protective custody. The intruders defended their actions saying that Manish was last seen with the Nigerian students. The police were unable to verify the claim as CCTV cameras in the locality did not work.

The next day, Manish stumbled home in a disoriented state. He was rushed to hospital but passed away soon after. On the basis of a complaint filed by Manish’s parents, the police registered a first information report (FIR) against the five Nigerians (Usman Abdul Qadir, Mohammad Amir, Saeed Kabir, Abdul Usman and Saeed Abu Waqar), all students of Noida International University (NIU).

On March 27, African students, led by the AASI, protested outside the Kasna police station in Beta-II in Greater Noida. “Skin tone is not a crime”, “We all bleed the same colour” and “Black Lives Matter, Say No To Racism” were some of the posters they carried during the protest. The five students were let off as the police did not find any evidence to suggest that they were responsible for Manish’s death, Sujata Singh, Superintendent of Police, Greater Noida Rural, said. The post-mortem report was inconclusive, and the cause of Manish’s death could not be ascertained.

The AASI and Un-fair Web called upon the media and civil society in India to take note of the matter. “But nobody came forward,” said Najib Hamisu of the AASI. “Had they highlighted the issue that day, the events of Monday [March 28] could perhaps have been averted.”

On Monday, Manish’s family members and the local people staged a counter march on the busy thoroughfare from NSG Society to Pari Chowk holding a banner with the words: “Throw out Nigerians from Greater Noida. Increasing crime rate. Illegal drug trade.” By now, rumours that the African students had administered drugs to the boy and later chopped him into tiny pieces began to spread on WhatsApp and social media sites.

Meanwhile, unaware of the frenzy that was building up against the African community, Endurance, Precious and Chkwoma were walking near the Ansal Plaza mall. Some protesters spotted them and ran towards them with murderous intent. They beat up Chkwoma on the street. His companions ran into the mall for safety. The mob followed them and attacked them. While Precious was hit with sharp objects, Endurance was surrounded and beaten with dustbins, chairs, and whatever the mob could lay its hand on. Nobody came forward to help them. A shopper on the upper floor of the mall video recorded the barbarous attack. The recording went viral.

Seven other simultaneous incidents of violence against Africans took place in Greater Noida. In a complaint submitted to the police, nine Africans were named as victims and an equal number of assaulters were identified. No FIR was registered. Two cars were smashed and one burnt. There was panic in the area, and the AASI repeatedly sent out advisories to African students to stay indoors. “We were trying to understand why this was happening to us. We had not heard of anything like this before coming to India,” said 20-year-old Husain (name changed). “I realised that in the Indian caste system, because of our skin colour, we must be even below the untouchables. When Indians, who are racist, see us driving fancy cars and getting education in their universities, it must infuriate them.” He said he saw racism as another form of casteism and the events in Uttar Pradesh as an extension of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s project of saffronisation. It comes as no surprise that all the five students accused of cannibalism have Muslim names.

On March 29, there were reports of an attack on a Kenyan woman but these were subsequently retracted. The media woke up to the situation and sent its reporters to Greater Noida. The media reports highlighted instances of racist attacks such as the assault on a Congolese man outside Kishangarh village, the attack on African people, including children, in Raipur-Khurd as they were returning from midnight mass, and the incident in Bengaluru in which a Tanzanian woman was stripped and beaten. It may be recalled that the then Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti raided the homes of Africans in Khirki Extension in January 2014 accusing the women living there of prostitution. This gave rise to anti-African feelings in other localities in Delhi.

Since several rumours were being floated, the AASI felt the need to correct the misreporting and hastily called a press conference in a park in a posh locality in south Delhi. As the meeting was going on, two policemen arrived and demanded to know if the organisers had permission to hold a press conference there. The conference ended abruptly. In a statement released subsequently, the AASI said it was tired of the promises made by the Indian government and would therefore take stringent actions. Samuel T. Jack, the AASI president, said: “[Because of the] failure to secure the lives of African students and to ensure maximum security in areas where African students live, we will write to [the] African Union to cut all bilateral trade with India. We will ensure that all the local media houses in our respective countries get details of the growing racism which African students are facing in India. We will ensure that a detailed report on the barbaric racism African students are facing in India is sent to the high levels of all African governments and heads of state. We will ask African students in our respective countries to stop making India their study destination with immediate effect. We will call for a nationwide protest inviting all international media houses.”

The heads of mission of 43 African countries in India condemned the attacks in strong terms, calling them “xenophobic” and “racial in nature”. They agreed to take further action, demand an independent investigation by the Human Rights Council and other human rights bodies and send a comprehensive report on the matter to the African Union Commission. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was forced to take note and she promised help. She spoke to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to ensure a free and fair probe. Importantly, the Nigerian authorities summoned the Indian envoy to that country to explain the attacks.

The following days were full of fear and uncertainty as African students remained indoors. As food and other essential supplies were low, the AASI enlisted volunteers to provide them. It was only on March 31 that the Africans stepped out of their homes and Lawrence ventured out to check the situation on the ground. As the cab drove through the empty streets of Greater Noida, one wondered where the police vigil promised by the administration was. Outside Sharda University, where several African students have enrolled, policemen were conspicuously missing. The African students were also not to be seen. “Some of them have exams going on, I don’t know what will happen,” said Lawrence. The five AASI members, including Lawrence, who had gathered at Greater Noida to plan out relief strategy, were visibly tired. They had barely got any sleep since the attacks began. “Yesterday, when I woke up after a brief nap, there were 69 missed calls on my phone. Some from people who needed stuff and many from the media,” said Najib, rubbing his eyes. Some mediapersons had asked them if they took drugs, and that, he said, irritated them. “What is this stereotyping of all Africans as drug peddlers or prostitutes?” Zaharaddeen Muhammad, national academic coordinator of the AASI, asked. He was making a list of townships in the area and calling people to find out what they needed. Edmundo wanted to pick up some groceries from Ansal and so the three of us (Edmund, Lawrence and myself) headed out. Lawrence began to explain the nuances of songs playing on the stereo. There was no sign of policemen on the streets. However, a police van was parked at the entrance to the mall.

When we stepped into the mall, it seemed like we were entering a crime scene. As a woman in Delhi, I am used to being stared at uncomfortably. But the way people held their gaze at us was of a different nature of humiliation altogether. People everywhere, standing alone or in groups, stared at us, pointing and jeering. It made me feel like an object of great distaste. Edmundo bought the groceries and we could not wait to leave the place. When I expressed surprise at the coolness with which the two of them dealt with the situation, Lawrence said: “We are used to this.” Lawrence, who is of royal descent, said: “They treat us like beggars here.”

Rukhsar, a security guard at the mall, was sorry about what happened and put the blame on unruly local people. “What happened was absolutely wrong. One person’s crime should not result in another’s persecution,” she said. She believed that the Africans had killed a boy but was against mob violence. She personally did not feel any animosity towards Africans who came to the mall.

On our way back, Edmundo took us to his home and rustled up an authentic Portuguese dish consisting of mutton, potato wedges, omelette, bread and cheese. He is from Guinea-Bissau, an erstwhile Portuguese colony. As the conversation veered towards food and culture, I asked them if they had eaten a meal in an Indian home. Lawrence had but Eddie and the others had not.

After the sumptuous food, we headed back to the house where the NIU deputy registrar had come to deliver 250 food packets. “They are all vegetarian and there is no water,” complained someone. “It’s okay. We should appreciate whatever they have brought,” said another. David from Bengaluru talked about peace-building measures. “With our experience of facing racist attacks in Bengaluru, we have started to organise seminars and cultural events such as food festivals with like-minded Indians. Building bridges is something we have to do in times of peace. We are going to suggest orientation programmes in universities where Africans study to educate them about racism.” Even as we were speaking, three teenagers, riding past in a scooter, shouted abuses at the group. It filled me with anger, but David merely said: “They are ignorant, they don’t know what they are doing is wrong.” As more volunteers arrived, the food packets were loaded into cars and dispatched to various areas. “Our people are getting tired here. Tomorrow we will meet the police and request them to provide security so that the students can attend classes. Africans are free people,” said Lawrence.

Manuel said: “Students from various strata come here for education, some on scholarship, some on education loans, some come with the money saved, some are rich and politically connected. But after these attacks, many prospective students have decided not to come.”

Aadhaar

All-pervasive Aadhaar

THE Narendra Modi-led government’s recent decrees making Aadhaar mandatory for those seeking to receive a host of government benefits, and even for obtaining mobile connections, and for actions such as filing income tax returns, have removed every pretense that enrolment in the universal identity card scheme is voluntary any more. It is yet another instance of the government arm-twisting the citizens into signing up for the scheme despite the official promise since its inception that it would not be made mandatory and subsequent apex court statements supporting it.

One of the biggest areas of impact is the Centre’s direct benefit transfer mission involving tens of crores of beneficiaries and several thousand crores of rupees every year. According to data from www.dbtbharat.gov.in, some 32.92 crore beneficiaries received a total of Rs.1,61,620 crore in subsidies, assistance, or other forms of benefit in the four years between January 1, 2013 and January 31, 2017. The transfers involved payments made to workers under the MGNREGS scheme, cooking gas subsidies, scholarships and social assistance. Overall, the seeding of Aadhaar with beneficiaries’ data was 78 per cent. However, only 27.37 per cent of all funds transferred were through the Aadhaar Payments Bridge, “a system that facilitates seamless transfer of all welfare scheme payments to beneficiary residents’ Aadhaar-enabled bank accounts”.

The government has made Aadhaar mandatory for mid-day meals too, impacting the lives and education of millions of children. Statistics from the Ministry of Human Resource Development show that at least 10 crore children across the country benefit from the mid-day meal scheme, whose budgeted estimate dipped from Rs.11,937.00 crore in 2012-13 to Rs.9,236.40 crore in 2015-16 before rising again to Rs.9,700 crore in 2016-17.

As on March 15, 2017, seven States and the Union Territory of Lakshadweep had achieved 100 per cent Aadhaar saturation on the basis of a projected 2015 population, according to the Unique Identification Authority of India. Using the same yardstick, 11 States had achieved 90-99 per cent saturation.

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Oct 9,2020