Survey of India Stirs Aadhaar-Citizenship Debate with Release of Online Maps

The government mapping agency wants to restrict its digital open series maps to Indian citizens by using Aadhaar authentication. But Aadhaar isn’t proof of citizenship.

The Survey of India's new Nakshe portal. Credit: The Wire

The Survey of India’s new Nakshe portal. Credit: The Wire

New Delhi: The Survey of India (SoI) – the government agency officially in charge of mapping – on Monday waded into the mandatory Aadhaar debate by using the biometric identification scheme as a “security measure” for its newly released online maps.

The mapping organisation has spent the last six months developing a web portal that allows the general public to access a set of topographical maps that can be used for civilian and development purposes. Dubbed ‘Nakshe’, the website, which was launched on Monday, contains a set of 3,000 maps available to Indian citizens “for free download in PDF form”.

The only catch? Anybody that wants to access the maps needs to have an Aadhaar number. After logging onto the Nakshe website, the portal requires users to enter their Aadhaar numbers and fill out a CAPTCHA code. After doing so, a one-time password (OTP) is sent to the mobile number associated with the Aadhaar number that was inputted.

This, according to SoI documentation, was done to “address security concerns” and ensure that the maps could only be viewed by Indian citizens. At a press conference organised at the FICCI auditorium in New Delhi, Survey of India and science ministry officials stumbled while offering justifications for Aadhaar-based user authentication.

Much of the published and online material on the Nakshe portal refers to how the online maps are specifically meant only for Indian citizens.

At least three different points during the media interaction. Science & Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan stressed how having an Aadhaar number served as proof of Indian citizenship.

“Only Indians have an Aadhaar card and an Aadhaar number,” the minister said.

Aadhaar is not proof

However, the minister is mistaken. The Aadhaar Act, 2016, clearly states that “every resident shall be entitled to obtain an Aadhaar number… by undergoing the process of enrolment”. There is no mention of the word ‘citizen’.

Resident, as defined by the legislation, refers to any “individual who has resided in India for a period or periods amounting in all to one hundred and eighty-two days or more in the twelve months immediately preceding the date of application for enrolment”.

In December 2016, the Calcutta High Court reaffirmed this in a order that stated that owning an “Aadhaar card was not proof of citizenship”.

The ruling party is well aware of this. In fact, in the state of Assam, the BJP government has issued an informal ban on any new Aadhaar enrolments. It did so in order to avoid giving any sense of legitimacy to illegal immigrants – which indicates that while Aadhaar doesn’t confer citizenship, it is used for so many government programmes that it might as well translate to citizenship.

Some form of identification

Survey of India chief Swarna Subba Rao and Department of Science secretary Ashutosh Sharma, however, pointed out that it was more of ensuring some form of identification.

“We could have made passports mandatory for this service. But not all Indians have passports, so we decided to go ahead and use Aadhaar for this,” Rao, who serves as Surveyor General of India, said.

Sharma, on the other hand, pointed out the mandatory Aadhaar identification was a hangover of how open series maps were obtained physically. “Before we had this web portal, if an Indian wanted to purchase and view the maps, he would have to take them from a government department and at that point he would have to present some form of ID. This is just like that, but with Aadhaar,” the science secretary said.

Why national security?

The Survey of India plans on making a total of 5,000 topographical, open series maps available through its online portal. Today’s launch only contains 3,000 maps, and another 1,300 are in the process of being readied. The remaining 700 maps, however, require clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs if they are to make it onto the Nakshe platform.

When asked why these maps could only be viewed by Indian citizens, the government officials didn’t offer concrete responses; only reiterating that national security concerns have always existed historically.

The Survey of India has, in the past, often been influenced by national security concerns. It usually signs on, without questions, to worries raised by India’s defence and home affairs ministries. In fact, with 2016’s controversial geospatial bill, as The Wire has reported, the Survey of India was almost bypassed when it came to drafting the proposed legislation.