New Delhi: One week after the government declared that it was strictly adhering to the Supreme Court’s order on keeping the Aadhaar identification card system voluntary, the Indian Railways has decided that from April 1, 2017, Aadhaar verification would be mandatory for elderly passengers looking to avail of senior citizen discounts.
The railways’ decision to go ahead with making Aadhaar mandatory has been on the books for some time now. In September, The Wire had reported that railway ministry officials received a proposal from the finance ministry in 2015 on how Aadhaar-linked senior citizen ticket bookings could help drastically cut down on fraudulent bookings; primarily carried out by a vast network of ticketing agents.
The railway ministry is now, however, moving cautiously with implementing the Aadhaar proposal. Officials are currently retooling the IRCTC website to add options for Aadhaar verification so as to make it voluntary for a brief period of time before making it a mandatory requirement next April.
“From 1st January to 31st March 2017, Aadhaar verification for getting concessional tickets for senior citizens shall be on voluntary basis. 2. With effect from 1st April 2017, Aadhaar verification for getting concessional tickets for senior citizens shall be mandatory,” documentation on the railways’ website says.
From last week, elderly passengers have already started being alerted of needing to add their Aadhaar cards to their IRCTC profiles. How does the process work? Initial documentation put up by the railways in a beta section shows how.
After logging into the online booking service, users will need to go to the ‘Master list’ section and “provide correct and complete details… as mentioned in the Aadhaar card”. After this, they can ask for a senior citizen concession option and add their Aadhaar number whenever they book tickets.
The matter of how Aadhaar numbers are verified still remains: Is it checked against the UIDAI database or is it merely stored and then checked in person by the train’s ticket collector?
Nevertheless, there does appear to be some verification process, as the image above shows. After it happens, users can then book tickets and avail of the concessions offered for senior citizens.
Legal or not?
Prasanna S., a lawyer who is currently part of a contempt petition case against the mandatory usage of Aadhaar in other instances, points out that the Indian Railway’s initiative to include Aadhaar-linked booking services, both as a voluntary mechanism from January to March 2017 and as a permanent and mandatory requirement from April 2017 would be in contravention of last year’s Supreme Court order on Aadhaar.
In October 2015, the Supreme Court allowed the use of the Aadhaar number for a number of government schemes (MGNREGS, Jan Dhan, central and state government pension schemes and EPFS) in addition to its existing use in the public distribution system and the distribution of cooking gas and kerosene.
“There are two problems here. Firstly, even the expanded usage of Aadhaar to other government programmes is strictly voluntary. So even voluntary use of Aadhaar for train ticket bookings is against the Supreme Court order. Secondly, making it mandatory from April runs afoul of last year’s Supreme Court order and September’s order on the national scholarship portal,” Prasanna told The Wire.
In September, the Supreme Court ruled that the Modi government’s national scholarship portal cannot require students to sign up for an Aadhaar number as part of its registration process. Crucially, this order also reaffirmed its interim order last year on the biometric authentication scheme. In its interim order last year, the Supreme Court said: “We will make it clear that the Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by the court one way or the other.”
“With the notification of the Aadhaar Act, there had been some been confusing as to whether it negated the Supreme Court’s orders,” Prasanna said.
However, as pointed out at the beginning of this article, the government last week declared that it was “strictly adhering to the Supreme Court’s order” which says that having an Aadhaar number cannot be “a precondition for a citizen to obtain any benefit due to them”.
During a Lok Sabha session last week, minister of state for IT and electronics P.P. Chaudhary said that the individuals without Aadhaar numbers “could offer alternate means of identification for availing government subsidies, benefits and services”
What legal basis does the Indian railways decision to have senior citizens present their Aadhaar cards stand on then? It remains to be seen whether this decision will be challenged in court.
In September, The Wire had reported how a new set of UIDAI guidelines indicated that if any government agency planned on Aadhaar integration for its service, it would have to either direct Aadhaar-less people to a UIDAI registrar (so that they could sign up for an Aadhaar number) or set up enrolment centres themselves so that they could issue an Aadhaar number on the spot. It is still unclear what the railways plans on doing to comply with the UIDAI regulations.
Railways profit strategy
The decision to use Aadhaar as a means of plugging financial and fraudulent loopholes in the senior citizen discount scheme can be seen part of the railways’ larger initiative at saving money and boosting non-fare revenue. In October for instance, it announced that it would “monetise large volume of passenger data in its possession through target advertising”.
As Srinivas Kodali, a programmer, points out, the Indian railways has been slightly cavalier in the way it looks at information and data security.
Obvious questions, therefore, need to be raised as to how the railways plans on keeping the large database of senior citizen Aadhaar data (that it will soon maintain) secure.