Aadhaar Moves Forward As Ministries Navigate SC Order and Public Backlash

The government is banking on mainstream acceptance of the biometric authentication system before the next court hearing.

Biometric data collection for Aadhaar cards. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons

Biometric data collection for Aadhaar cards. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: The Modi government is pushing ahead with mainstream integration of the Aadhaar identification system, despite a lack of clarity amongst ministry officials over which government services need to comply with the Supreme Court’s interim order on keeping Aadhaar enrolment voluntary.

Officials of three major ministries – home affairs, human resource development and railways – are currently evaluating and reassessing the manner in which they will implement the Aadhaar identification system in flagship programmes, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

One problem, railways and education ministry officials claim, is that on one hand finance ministry and UID officials are aggressively pushing for Aadhaar integration. On the other, there are lingering concerns over the mandatory nature of Aadhaar and UIDAI-imposed costs that could be incurred in making sure no citizens are denied a particular service.

What is also dividing government officials is to what extent the notification of the Aadhaar Act negates the court’s interim order. The Supreme Court last year allowed the use of the Aadhaar number for a number of central government programmes while declaring that enrollment could not be deemed mandatory. However, the court is still hearing several, clubbed-together pleas on possible privacy violations resulting from the UIDAI system.

The majority of experts and bureaucrats The Wire spoke with indicated that the Supreme Court’s ongoing hearing would be limited to privacy concerns only and not tackle the question of the voluntary/mandatory nature of the Aadhaar programme.

Three ministry initiatives

While the home ministry is looking to make the unique identification system an integral part of the country’s criminal justice system, which ironically includes the functioning of the Supreme Court, other departments plan or have started implementing Aadhaar for a variety of services and benefits; everything from senior citizen discounts on IRCTC to education scholarships.

“Each department has its own issues when it comes to using Aadhaar. But much of the urging in areas like railways or even education bodies such as the UGC (University Grants Commission) comes from finance ministry officials who are looking to plug leakages and universalise the Aadhaar experience,” a senior bureaucrat, who declined to be identified, said.

Three senior government officials The Wire spoke with, during interviews on the UID system and its integration with government services, indicated that the Modi government’s logic was that the more traction the Aadhaar card gets, the easier the government’s case will be before the Supreme Court’s next hearing on potential privacy violations.

“The strategy for the government is clear now. In rural India its a question of LPG savings and mandatory Aadhaar-linked PDS distribution. For the middle-class, the IRCTC push and education scholarships were first steps. Getting smartphone manufacturers on board and pushing for a quicker method of cash transfer helps both groups here. Mainstream acceptance will be a major argument in next SC hearings,” said one person who had sat in on discussions with UID and finance ministry officials.

HRD, Aadhaar and education

The stumbles in achieving mainstream Aadhaar acceptance in the field of education are numerous. As far back as early 2014, various state social welfare departments, after prodding from a handful of central government agencies, started linking education scholarships to Aadhaar numbers.

According to multiple industry experts and two HRD officials The Wire spoke with, one of the biggest flip-flops when it came to Aadhaar integration was the manner in which the UGC approached the issue earlier this year.

In July, two months ago, a small 200-word circular was put out, informing students that for the forthcoming academic year, “Aadhaar would be used as an identifier for availing benefits of the UGC scholarship/fellowship schemes”. The implication here, and what was later clarified informally, was that Aadhaar numbers were being made mandatory and students who wanted to apply for a UGC scholarship or fellowship would have to re-submit applications with their Aadhaar number attached.

However, less than two months later, on September 15, the UGC doubled back and in an official circular, deputy secretary Sunith Siwach pointed out that “any student who has applied for scholarship/fellowship would not be denied benefit thereof due to non-availability of Aadhaar card”.

“The initial idea was to build on Aadhaar momentum that we were already seeing in tenth standard classes in government and primary schools across the country. Discussions with finance ministry were largely centred around this before the first circular was sent out. But there was a lot of public backlash. Even with the Aadhaar Act being officially notified last week, we were forced to withdraw,” a senior bureaucrat with the HRD ministry told The Wire.

Train tickets and Aadhaar

The premise with which railway ministry officials started was that by employing Aadhaar numbers, it could drastically cut down on the fraud (primarily carried out by ticketing agents) that takes place in senior citizen discounts.

“The finance ministry, over a year ago, was the one that first sent a proposal in early 2015 outlining the possible benefits of Aadhaar-linked senior citizen ticket bookings made online. This was put in cold storage for awhile and then earlier this year after some pressure it was looked at again seriously,” said an IRCTC official.

In the first week of September, IRCTC chairman and managing director A.K. Manocha publicly announced that Aadhaar-based ticketing would start by the year-end. “People will now have to provide Aadhaar number for registering with IRCTC. This will check fraudulent booking by touts and being transparency in the ticketing,” Manocha was reported as saying.

IRCTC and railway officials The Wire spoke to seemed mostly ambivalent about the legalese behind the mandatory or voluntary nature of Aadhaar integration, though a number were worried about potential backlash from the public if Aadhar-based ticketing was extended to every category of tickets.

What is quickly becoming a major source of concern for IRCTC officials, however, are a new set of regulations being prepared by the UIDAI. The most important guideline amongst these indicates that if any government agency plans on Aadhaar integration for its service, it will have to ensure that it does not turn away an individual for the lack of an Aadhaar card. Essentially, this would require the agency in concern (IRCTC) becoming a UIDAI register and setting up enrolment centres that could give an Aadhaar number on the spot.

The UID’s new regulations take obvious inspiration from Delhi’s revenue department, which manages the issuing of marriage certificates. As one reported instance notes, in an effort to fulfil the Supreme Court’s order in letter if not spirit, the department mandated that individuals without Aadhaar numbers who came for a marriage certificate “should be taken to enrolled at the nearest centre so that they could then provide the enrolment number”.

“If we are to go by the new UID regulations, we would have to open up enrolment centres at our local ticketing offices. Think of the compliance costs alone. And how would it work if we want to integrate the Aadhaar function for online booking? It would be very difficult. More clarity is necessary regarding agency responsibility,” said a senior IRCTC official, who declined to be identified.

Criminal justice

The ministry of home affairs has a much simpler plan, according to sources. By giving all convicts an Aadhaar number, it could fix a great deal of administrative errors, speed up the criminal justice process and allow the system to track a criminal offender from the police station to his or her prison cell.

“Curiously enough, a presentation that outlined this upgraded system was given in front of the Supreme Court officials last month and they did not raise concerns regarding the usage of Aadhaar in this format,” said a senior MHA official.

Aadhaar learnings and the way forward

How legal is the government’s push towards total Aadhaar integration? A majority of government officials The Wire spoke with appeared to agree with Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s stance on Aadhaar.

In a series of public remarks after the notification of the Aadhaar Act, he pointed out that the notification would override most public concerns and could be used for a number of government services. “The earlier challenge against mandatory use was against an executive notification that conceived Aadhaar. Now, the law takes care of all concerns surrounding potential misuse,” Rohtagi said.

The divide between the usage of Aadhaar in rural India and what it means for India’s working class and its usage in urban areas for the middle and upper-middle class has also become clear. By March 2017, the linking of all rural bank accounts to Aadhaar numbers will be complete and made mandatory for all major social schemes. This decision comes even as a number of states have reported high rates of failure for Aadhaar-based biometric authentication.

For urban use cases and other instances that have very little do with the distribution of public subsidies, a citizen’s interaction with Aadhaar, it appears, will eventually be left up to how a specific government agency views the legality and convenience of the Aadhaar system.

In the case of the UGC, the education body decided on September 15 that Aadhaar cards would not be made mandatory for any UGC scholarship or fellowship. This was despite the fact that the Aadhaar Act was notified a day before that, providing a legal basis for the body to have decided in favour of Aadhaar. Not only does this indicate that public backlash against Aadhaar identification in educational institutions was quite severe, but also that the institution was unsure of whether it could make Aadhaar mandatory.

For IRCTC and the Indian Railways on the other hand, concerns over whether it would be help responsible in getting individuals an Aadhaar card appears to be giving the agency pause. Requiring an Aadhaar card for purchasing all categories of train tickets, which was first on the table but has now been shelved according to sources, is also a move that could result in much public controversy.

The UIDAI’s new regulations are also curious as they sheds doubt on to what extent the Supreme Court order should be obeyed. As one government official put it, “If the Aadhaar Act being notified legitimises the mandatory nature of Aadhaar, why is the UIDAI requiring government agencies to become a UIDAI register and set-up enrolment centres. It could worry any department that sees value in implementing Aadhaar, thus delaying mainstream acceptance.”