New Delhi: Despite five Supreme Court orders since September 2013 stating that the Aadhaar card cannot be a mandatory requirement for access to government services or subsidies, the reality on the ground continues to remain very different. The point was underlined at a press conference in Delhi yesterday where, besides lawyers and experts, a resident of Yamuna Khadar, Delhi described how he was denied emergency treatment in two public hospitals when he and his friend required it because the friend did not have an Aadhaar card.“In the ration system in Delhi, the UID project has been used as a tool of exclusion,” said Anjali Bhardwaj of Satark Nagrik Sangathan. Voices from the field spoke of how Aadhaar has emerged as a barrier to the poor, especially women and children, accessing their entitlements. Ramlalli from Lal Gumbad, Delhi had applied for a new ration card under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). She explained that her children’s names were not included in the ration card. She was told at the ration office that this was because their Aadhaar cards were not submitted with the application. Under the NFSA, entitlements have become individual, and due to the exclusion of her children, Ramlalli’s family now does not receive adequate food grain.
Usha Ramanathan, law researcher,said the latest order of the Supreme Court dated August 11 states that the Aadhaar card cannot be used at all except for the purpose of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and LPG allotment. “So, the CBSE or the UGC or banks or anyone else cannot ask for the number at all. This is because the court recognised that voluntariness was being used as a means of imposing a compulsion on people to enrol,” she said. “If they ask for the number, they will be in contempt of the orders of the Supreme Court,” she added.
Aside from the problem of exclusion through the UID project, Gopal Krishna of the Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL) said that the status of the data collected through the UID project has been suspect from the very start. “It is being held by companies of dubious provenance. A contract has been signed between our government and large private companies, which says they will hold the collected data for a period of seven years. Everyone knows that if data is stored for even seven seconds, it can last forever,” he said. Aruna Roy, one of the petitioners in the UID case before the Supreme Court, added that by taking this issue lightly people were tacitly surrendering their economic and social rights.Providing statistics that contradict the claim that the Aadhaar card is the solution for the economically disadvantaged, economist Reetika Khera said, “Rather than being a tool of inclusion, it is fast becoming a tool of exclusion.” In a reply to an RTI query it was learnt that only 0.03% of people who got an Aadhaar card were people who had no ID before. Another stated aim was that the UID would help end corruption in the PDS and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. But it has been seen in the past few years that leakages have been reduced without the use of Aadhaar, she said. In Chhattisgarh, between 2004-5 and 2011-12, leakages came down from 50 to 10%, and in Bihar from 90% to about 20% in the same period.
Duplication in the databases of welfare programs has also been cited as a reason for the importance of Aadhaar. According to Khera, however, for Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) there is a requirement for people to have bank accounts – making this claim void. Furthermore, according to the Dhande Committee report on DBT for LPG, it was found that there were 2% duplicate beneficiaries. A government affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court suggested that there were 2% duplicate job cards in Andhra Pradesh. Khera stated that according to a Public Evaluation of Entitlement Programmes (PEEP) survey only one case of duplication was found from nearly 3800 beneficiaries on pension lists from ten states. The idea that the UID database is fool-proof was shaken by a minister who stated in Parliament that more than nine crore enrolment records in the UID program were rejected because of quality issues and suspected fraud.
Biometrics problematicElaborating on the use of biometrics in India, Usha Ramanathan explained that this is now admittedly experimental. “A Unique Biometrics Competence Center (UBCC) was announced on the UID website on August 13. The site said that the Indian working population poses challenges to the use of biometrics, and so the UBCC was being set up to do research on biometrics”, she said. “This as a statement suggests that it is not only uncertain technology but also untested technology. It seems they only admitted to this weakness because of the Supreme Court’s order that they may have to share the information that is with them with law enforcing agencies like the CBI. If an outsider to the project were to see the database, it seems the unreliability of the biometric database would get exposed, and this is a pre-emptive declaration” she added. A report of the World Bank also stated that the rate of exclusion might be about 40% if identity systems were to be made the basis of access to entitlements; at the conference it was pointed out that the report was soon removed from the World Bank website. Ramanathan noted that only one government agency had acted promptly on the Supreme Court orders – the Election Commission – which released a statement the next day and ensured that there would be no linking of voter ID numbers and the UID.
While the SC has ruled against making the Aadhaar mandatory it is important to note that the biggest failing of the court’s interim order is its own unenforceability. The only recourse that a citizen has against a government agency violating the order is to approach the Supreme Court itself with a contempt petition, and hope for relief. This is simply out of the question for a large section of the population. While the SC decides the constitutional scope of the right to privacy in this case, it seems possible that the court will be told that the scheme has gone on for far too long and is too deeply embedded in the structure of governance. Should this take place, the Supreme Court too would have played a part in the facilitation of this process, speakers at the press conference said.