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Last year ended with a startling policy change as the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill was passed in both houses of Parliament. The Aadhaar database was linked with the Election Commission database to remove duplicates and fake entries from electoral rolls. Such a move can improve the sanctity of the electoral rolls and strengthen the functioning of democracy. But for it to do that, two prominent concerns need to be addressed first.
In a note for the Data Governance Network, in January 2021, we argued that linking the two databases has more negatives than positives. A year later, our key critique stands: we need to strengthen laws that protect the rights of individuals before passing this measure. Aadhaar has shown much promise but equally, it has been dangerous. Linkage should have been done after two conditions were met. Since the amendment has been passed, the government can reduce the fallout by addressing the following concerns.
First, India needs a data protection bill regulating the use and sharing of personal data between citizens and the government, and between government agencies. We lack a framework for safeguarding individual rights, which is worrying for multiple reasons. There have been examples of targeted surveillance using Aadhaar information and demographic data. In Andhra Pradesh, 5.167 million families’ locations could be tracked on a website run by the state government, using religion and caste as search criteria.
Similarly, there are a range of instances where the lack of such an Act has hampered privacy rights. For example, the Delhi Police had sought the electoral rolls of Northeast Delhi to compare names and faces of possible rioters while investigating the 2020 riots. The Election Commission of India explicitly stated that sharing names and photos of voters from its electoral rolls is against its own policies, but they still did so. While the ECI argued that it only allowed a physical inspection of voter rolls, voters’ privacy was still violated without a legal mandate. A recent Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill, too, raises serious concerns about the latitude government agencies have, essentially exempt from data protection standards, which is an ancillary issue that still needs to be addressed.
Second, there is scope for fraud within the Aadhaar database. In multiple court cases, the UIDAI has admitted that it has no information about enrolment operators, agencies or even their location while enrolling someone in Aadhaar. There is, thus, no way to correct for dubious enrolment practices. In the past, the UIDAI has admitted that duplicate Aadhaar cards are an issue. This will affect electoral rolls.
Consider the mandatory linking of Aadhaar and PAN cards, where Aadhaar cards are used to verify the identity of the PAN holder. The authenticity of the Aadhaar card determines the authenticity of the PAN card. In a court case in 2018, the UIDAI has earlier accepted the scope of fraud in Aadhaar, and thus this could extend to fraud in PAN. It has broader implications such as legitimising benami financial transactions by those who obtained a PAN card with a fake Aadhaar. The scope for such wide-scale fraud can result in the proliferation of fake voter IDs, undermining the main purpose of the entire exercise: to eliminate duplicate voters.
By not addressing these questions, the stated intention of the legislation is undermined since it threatens the sanctity of the electoral roll. The haste with which the amendment is passed, and the lack of public debate despite the presence of an informed and vocal civil society, already undermines the view that databases should be integrated to reduce fraud and increase efficiency. More harm should not be done on this front.
While the modalities of integration would be seen when the government publishes rules, it should clarify how people’s rights will be protected. Digitising the electoral rolls, in principle, sounds laudable. Nonetheless, the government cannot dodge its responsibility to the people it claims to be protecting. Democracy demands accountability, and a move that could deprive citizens of their fundamental rights must be addressed to alleviate concerns.
Vibhav Mariwala studied History and Anthropology at Stanford University and is based in New York City.
Prakhar Misra is an independent researcher in Mumbai.