UIDAI Project

Aadhaar outrages

Print edition : April 04, 2014

A woman with her unique ID card given by the Delhi Chief MInister to mark the launch of the Aadhaar scheme as part of the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi in 2011. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Reetika Khera, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, states in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court that people are not being made aware of the potential misuse of biometric data. Here, she speaks at a national consultation on UID and cash transfer organised by the Right to Food campaign in December 2012. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Life without an Aadhaar number is proving to be a nightmare for the poor despite a Supreme Court order against insisting on it for the supply of subsidised foodgrain and even issuing income, caste and other certificates that are vital for their survival.

SIXTY-YEAR-OLD KIRAN DEVI, who lives in a slum in South Delhi, barely got by with the meagre pension of Rs.1,000 a month that she received from the State government. The financial woes of the lonely widow, deserted by her sons, were only compounded when the bank blocked her widow’s pension for four months because she did not have an Aadhaar number. Kiran’s is not an isolated instance. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s much-touted unique identification number (UID) project, ostensibly meant for better targeting of subsidies, is putting a number of poor people through immense hardship. Despite the Supreme Court’s interim order of September last year that no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar number, government departments and institutions continue to insist on it.

The Supreme Court order came in response to a number of petitions challenging the constitutionality of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). This purported instrument of social inclusion is only coming in the way of the poor getting access to the few state benefits that are available to them. In Delhi itself, access to a large number of services—old-age pension, income certificate, domicile certificate, below-poverty-line ration cards—is contingent on people producing their Aadhaar number. The worst affected by this are migrant workers, who live in slums.

In Jharkhand, the government’s zealousness to achieve 100 per cent seeding under the UID has led to wages for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) being blocked temporarily. Block development officers (BDOs) are under pressure to link Aadhaar with the NREGS information system. The government’s insistence on Aadhaar continues even while a few citizens, apprehensive of the violation of data security and privacy, have demanded an opt-out option in the ongoing Supreme Court case.



Violations

The Revenue Department of the Delhi government issued a notification on December 20, 2012, making the Aadhaar number mandatory for a range of services, including Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes certificates, income and domicile certificates and birth certificates and for the registration of marriages, various documents and deeds at the sub-registrars’ offices. Despite the change of government and the Supreme Court interim order, no further notification was issued to ease the hardships of people not having an Aadhaar number. Instances have come to light of widows drawing a paltry Rs.1,000 from the Delhi government’s Department of Social Welfare being asked to produce their Aadhaar card, with the failure to do so resulting in the pension getting delayed by several months. For 60-year-old Jameela, who works as a domestic worker and who moved to Delhi from Muzzafarpur in Bihar 40 years ago, the monthly widow pension was a big help. The local UCO bank where she holds an account blocked her pension for five months from October 2013 until January 20 this year, insisting that she produce her Aadhaar number. It finally released only a portion of her pending pension in January.

Fifty-five-year-old Shanti Devi, who lives in a slum in Trilokpuri, has a similar story. About a week ago, the State Bank of India branch in Trilokpuri refused to let her open a bank account without an Aadhaar card, though she had a ration card and a voter identification card.

The Revenue Department’s insistence on Aadhaar for issuing income and domicile certificates makes even more cumbersome the already difficult process of securing admission in private schools under the economically weaker section (EWS) quota. When Dharampal, who works as an electrician, approached the subdivisional magistrate (SDM) in Geeta Colony of Trilokpuri for an income certificate in December, he was asked to produce his Aadhaar number. Dharampal needed the certificate to admit his son in a public school under the EWS category. His request for a domicile certificate drew the same response. Ruksana, who works with a non-governmental organisation in the Trilokpuri area, said the SDM’s office continued to ask for an Aadhaar card for SC/ST and OBC certificates.

The disbursal of ration cards to people below the poverty line has also been affected by the insistence on Aadhaar. Amar Singh, a driver who works on a contractual basis, applied for the renewal of his family’s BPL ration card in November last year. The ration office in Sheikh Sarai Phase II refused to renew the card including the names of his two sons and his 70-year-old mother unless he produced their Aadhaar numbers. Amar Singh submitted their numbers in January this year, but he is yet to receive the renewed ration card. The case of Yasmin, a homemaker who lives in a slum in Trilokpuri, is similar. On January 31, Yasmin applied for a new BPL ration card at Mayur Vihar Phase I. The ration office refused to process her application unless she submitted a copy of her Aadhaar card.

Although the Centre has temporarily halted its ambitious plan of transferring LPG subsidy to the Aadhaar-linked bank accounts of beneficiaries under the direct benefit transfer scheme, people without Aadhaar numbers continue to face difficulties in getting subsidised cooking gas.

In Jharkhand, a number of instances have come to light of BDOs and panchayat officials facing pressure to enrol NREGS workers into the UID scheme. It is ironic that beneficiaries of the UPA’s flagship social security programme are suffering because of the UID being made compulsory. On January 25, the UIDAI nodal officer in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, following a meeting with the BDO, issued a notification asking officials at the panchayat level to achieve 100 per cent seeding of the UID in the NREGS management information system. The notification stated that the salaries of panchayat officials would be withheld if they failed to achieve the target. This was clearly an arm-twisting tactic to push the UID scheme. Interestingly, the notification also detailed the number of NREGS workers who did not have an Aadhaar card (see table).

In another notification issued by the Khunti subdivisional magistrate’s office to all officials in the subdivision, January 31, 2014, was given as the deadline to achieve 100 per cent seeding of all NREGS workers.

In an affidavit filed in the ongoing case challenging the constitutionality of Aadhaar in the Supreme Court, Jean Dreze, visiting professor at the Department of Economics, Allahabad University, has highlighted specific instances of NREGS workers without UID being denied wages. The affidavit states that in Tirla gram panchayat in Jharkhand, three workers without UID were denied NREGS wages and gives the details: “Among 22 workers who worked on ‘Land Development in Belahati (Kartik Ram)’ (Work Code 3401009012/LD/101174620) from 19/12/2013 to 25/12/2013, three do not have a UID: Sandeep Kumar Mahto (job card 205), Tijo Devi (job card 172) and Rukmini Kumari (job card 25). Their names are entered in the list of workers to be paid, submitted by the worksite mate to the data entry operator. However, their names are missing from the corresponding e-Muster Roll, which is used for actual payments. The data entry operator skipped their names after entering ‘EID’ against them in the margin, to indicate that they do not have a UID (‘EID’ is a provisional ID number assigned at the time of UID enrolment—the said workers have an EID but no UID as they are still waiting for their UID card).”

The affidavit further states that neither the BDO nor the District Collector was able to explain how these workers were to be paid. The workers who had worked at the NREGS site had confirmed in writing that the three workers had worked with them at the same worksite and wages were due to them.

Following the submissions in court, the Ministry of Rural Development issued a notification on February 11 stating that no job card holder under the NREGS should be denied work on the grounds that he or she did not have an Aadhaar number. However, activists said that workers who did not have the number continued to suffer. In the ongoing hearing of public interest petitions in the Supreme Court, petitioners have raised concerns about the collection of biometric data by enrolment agencies under the UID scheme in violation of provisions of the Information Technology Act. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology in its report on cybercrime, cyber security and the right to privacy released in February 2014, raised concerns about the violation of the right to privacy.

The report states, “The committee is extremely unhappy to note that the government is yet to institute a legal framework on privacy. When asked about the status of the above legislation, the department has diverted the issue stating that the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) is still in the process of evolving legislation to address concerns of privacy, in general, and it is still at the drafting stage.

“The committee seriously feels that in view of enormous data, very sensitive in nature, being consigned to cyberspace each day particularly in the light of government's visionary UIDAI programme, the government should not jeopardise the privacy of citizens on the plea that the department is concerned only with Section 43(A) (of the IT Act) which is based on self-regulation.”

A number of concerned citizens have also filed affidavits in the Supreme Court requesting for an opt-out option in the UID scheme. Reetika Khera, assistant professor of Economics at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, states in an affidavit that there is a complete lack of awareness on the absence of data protection and the misuse of biometrics. She states in the affidavit: “I say that the data collected from me was without providing me proper knowledge of risks involved. In such circumstances, it is extremely necessary that I be permitted to opt out of the Aadhaar enrolment number allotted to me with a guarantee that data collected from me will be destroyed completely. I say that this ‘opt out’ option must be made available to all citizens who have enrolled for the Aadhaar number.”

She also provides examples from her fieldwork of people not being made aware of the potential misuse of biometric data. She states that in the East Godavari pilot project a person has no option but to provide consent to her biometrics being used for authentication purposes for drawing rations before she authenticates her fingerprint in an electronic point of sale (ePOS). The message appears on the screen of the ePOS in English in a Telugu-speaking State. It is unlikely that many ration card holders understand what they are consenting to.

Sahana Manjesh, an advocate in New Delhi, has also raised concerns of privacy and data protection with respect to biometrics. She states that she has learnt of the possible defects in the biometrics technology used by Aadhaar and she wishes to opt out of the scheme. These affidavits were presented in court on February 11.

While legitimate concerns of privacy and data protection have been raised, the linking of Aadhaar to social schemes despite the apex court’s order is only creating more barriers for people who are in dire need of access to the limited benefits provided by the state.

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