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After Lull, Momentum Gathers for Frenzied Aadhaar Push in India’s Northeast

After enrolments were halted or pushed back against in many northeastern states, the Aadhaar machine has started rolling again, just as a set of legal hearings against the UID project have begun.

Most of India’s northeastern states have had low Aadhaar saturation rates when compared to the rest of the country. Credit: Reuters

Most of India’s northeastern states have had low Aadhaar saturation rates when compared to the rest of the country. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: Various state governments and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) are kicking off a reinvigorated Aadhaar enrolment drive in India’s northeast, a region that has remained largely underpenetrated with regard to the biometric authentication scheme.

A number of northeastern states have either been hesitant to fully adopt the Aadhaar programme or have halted new enrolments over national security and immigration concerns. However, this is starting to change.

The decision to conduct an Aadhaar “mop-up exercise” came in the months leading up to a set of crucial legal hearings on the constitutionality of the biometric programme in the Supreme Court. In late August, a separate but closely associated nine-judge bench hearing ruled that Indians enjoy a fundamental right to privacy – an outcome that legal experts say could severely curtail the sprawling, general-purpose nature of the biometric authentication programme.

Most of India’s northeastern states – Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland – have had low Aadhaar saturation rates when compared to the rest of the country.

Within the Northeast, as the table below shows, the biometric identification project never took off in Assam and Meghalaya and has been middling at best when it comes to Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur. Tripura and Sikkim are two notable outliers, with Aadhaar saturation rates as high as in most other Indian states.

“There have been a number of factors at play with regard to low adoption of UID in the Northeast. National security, illegal immigration concerns, problems with the National Register of Citizens in certain states and geographical issues. All of these have impacted to a certain extent Aadhaar enrolment,” a senior UIDAI official, who declined to be identified, told The Wire.

 

State

Total Population (Projected, 2017) Number of Aadhaars Assigned (August 15, 2017) Saturation Rate (%)
Assam 34,068,394 2307506 6.8%
Meghalaya 3,230,132 353833 11.0%
Mizoram 1,188,971 820290 69.0%
Nagaland 2,158,431 1165296 54.0%
Arunachal Pradesh 1,506,749 1035882 68.7%
Manipur 2,966,130 2157396 72.7%
Tripura 4,000,638 3550329 88.7%
Sikkim 662,250 575630 86.9%

This situation is now quickly changing, with the UIDAI working with state governments over the last four months to bring the “Northeast up to speed”, according to senior officials who spoke to The Wire.

At least part of this push, sources say, has been motivated by the recent judicial challenges to Aadhaar and fear over it being curtailed.

The Northeast region’s poor adoption of Aadhaar has in recent times been a bit of a bother for the ruling Modi government. Poor adoption has prompted legal interventions by the Centre as it integrates the biometric authentication system with a host of government services. For example, in May 2017, the Centre was forced to exempt citizens residing in Assam and Meghalaya from linking their Aadhaar numbers to their PAN cards.

Assam offensive

The biggest turnaround has been Assam. In December 2016, the six-month-old BJP-ruled state government, sent a notice to the UIDAI, refusing to give it permission for any new enrolments. This decision was justified by state officials on the grounds that the National Register of Citizens had yet to be updated, with the local authorities being worried that illegal Bangladeshi immigrants could get implicit legal backing if they were allowed to sign up for an Aadhaar card and that could not be checked against the NRC.

Assam’s poor Aadhaar saturation rate, however, stretches back before the BJP – the Congress government in 2014 stopped encouraging UID sign-ups after it became clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi favoured the initiative. As the table above shows, just 35 lakh people out of the 3.4-crore-strong population currently have Aadhaar numbers.

However, sources tell The Wire that after some prodding from the Centre, the state’s cabinet decided in May 2017 that the Aadhaar data collection process would start by the end of the year (December 1). A number of conditions were reportedly attached to this decision including a rider that allows the state to collect separate documents in addition to the ones required by the UIDAI.

Local Assamese media has reported that the tender process for UIDAI-affiliated enrolment agencies had started and that the state had been divided into ten districts to take up Aadhaar sign-ups on a war footing.

Meghalaya push back

A Congress-ruled state, Meghalaya, like Assam, has resisted popularising Aadhaar over the last three years. However, the biometric project has also faced strong resistance from local groups such as the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) and the Meghalaya People’s Committee on Aadhaar (MPCA).

According to local news reports, over the last few years, KSU has fought against the linking of Aadhaar with the National Population Register, stating that it would have an impact on minority communities and privacy. In July 2016, the KSU forcibly shut down four Aadhaar enrolment centres over illegal immigrant and “outsider security concerns”.

The MPCA, on the other hand, has consistently petitioned chief minister Mukul Sangma over not making Aadhaar mandatory in view of the interim 2015 Supreme Court order on keeping the identification system voluntary.

However, The Wire has learnt that a push for an Aadhaar enrolment process has also started recently over the last three months in two out of the state’s eleven districts after an Aadhaar awareness campaign. State government officials say that in the West Khasi Hills district, where common service centres started Aadhaar enrolment in early June 2017, they are merely responding to “overwhelming demand for Aadhaar from the state’s residents”.

Nagaland and Mizoram “mop-up”

The states of Nagaland and Mizoram sit comfortably in the middle of the Northeast list with regard to Aadhaar saturation. Fifty-four percent of Nagaland’s population currently has an Aadhaar number while 69% of Mizoram’s residents have signed up for UID.

In both these states, sources tell The Wire that the UIDAI (with the help of the state government) has mounted a “mop-up operation” to bring the saturation rate to over 90%.

In order to achieve this objective, the state governments have designed the general administration department as the nodal department for Aadhaar enrolment and “DC, ADC and SDO offices” being set up as enrolment agencies to help people living in difficult areas and terrains.

“The mopping up operation is being undertaken to ensure maximum coverage as most government and other services such as benefit, subsidies and services… will require Aadhaar as per Section 6 of Aadhaar Act 2016,” a local notice states.

In Mizoram, districts such as Lawngtlai, Champhai and Mamit which have sub-65% saturation are being targeted on an urgent basis. In Nagaland, the districts of Peren, Mon, Kiphire are being seriously looked at in terms of improving Aadhaar coverage.