Aadhaar Bill fails to incorporate Standing Committee’s suggestions

This article was originally published on The Wire.

In December, 2010, the UPA Government introduced the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 in the Parliament. It was subsequently referred to a Standing Committee on Finance by the Speaker of Lok Sabha under Rule 331E of the the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha. This Committee, headed by BJP leader Yashwant Sinha took evidence from the Minister of Planning and the UIDAI from the government, as well as seeking the view of parties such as the National Human Rights Commission, Indian Banks Association and researchers like Dr Reetika Khera and Dr. Usha Ramanathan. In 2011, having heard from various parties and considering the concerns and apprehensions about the UID scheme, the Committee deemed the bill unacceptable and suggested a re-consideration of the the UID scheme as well as the draft legislation.

The Aadhaar programme has so far been implemented under the Unique Identification Authority of India, a Central Government agency created through an executive order. This programme has been shrouded in controversy over issues of privacy and security resulting in a Public Interest Litigation filed by Judge Puttaswamy in the Supreme Court. While the BJP had criticised the project as well as the draft legislation  when it was in opposition, once it came to power and particularly, after it launched various welfare schemes like Digital India and Jan Dhan Yojna, it decided to continue with it and use Aadhaar as the identification technology for these projects. In the last year, there have been orders passed by the Supreme Court which prohibited making Aadhaar mandatory for availing services. One of the questions that the government has had to answer both inside and outside the court on the UID project is the lack of a legislative mandate for a project of this size. About five years later, the new BJP led government has come back with a rehash of the same old draft, and no comments made by the standing committee have been taken into account.

The Standing Committee on the old bill had taken great exception to the continued collection of data and issuance of Aadhaar numbers, while the Bill was pending in the Parliament. The report said that the implementation of the provisions of the Bill and continuing to incur expenditure from the exchequer was a circumvention of the prerogative powers of the Parliament. However, the project has continued without abeyance since its inception in 2009. I am listing below some of the issues that the Committee identified with the UID project and draft legislation, none of which have been addressed in current Bill.

One of the primary arguments made by proponents of Aadhaar has been that it would be useful in providing services to marginalized sections of the society who currently do not have identification cards and consequently, are not able to receive state sponsored services, benefits and subsidies. The report points that the project would not be able to achieve this as no statistical data on the marginalized sections of the society are being used to by UIDAI to provide coverage to them. The introducer systems which was supposed to provide Aadhaar numbers to those without any form of identification, has been used to enroll only 0.03% of the total number of people registered. Further, the Biometrics Standards Committee of UIDAI has itself acknowledged the issues caused due to a high number of manual laborers in India which would lead to sub-optimal fingerprint scans. A report by 4G Identity Solutions estimates that while in any population, approximately 5% of the people have unreadable fingerprints, in India it could lead to a failure to enroll up to 15% of the population. In this manner, the project could actually end up excluding more people.

The Report also pointed to a lack of cost-benefit analysis done before going ahead with scheme of this scale. It makes a reference to the report by the London School of Economics on the UK Identity Project which was shelved due to a) huge costs involved in the project, b) the complexity of the exercise and unavailability of reliable, safe and tested technology, c) risks to security and safety of registrants, d) security measures at a scale that will result in substantially higher implementation and operational costs and e) extreme dangers to rights of registrants and public interest. The Committee Report insisted that such global experiences remained relevant to the UID project and need to be considered. However, the new Bill has not been drafted with a view to address any of these issues.

The Committee comes down heavily on the irregularities in data collection by the UIDAI. They raise doubts about the ability of the Registrars to effectively verify the registrants and a lack of any security audit mechanisms that could identify issues in enrollment. Pointing to the news reports about irregularities in the process being followed by the Registrars appointed by the UIDAI, the Committee deems the MoUs signed between the UIDAI and the Registrars as toothless. The involvement of private parties has been under question already with many questions being raised over the lack of appropriate safeguards in the contracts with the private contractors.

Perhaps the most significant observation of the Committee was that any scheme that facilitates creation of such a massive database of personal information of the people of the country and its linkage with other databases should be preceded by a comprehensive data protection law. By stating this, the Committee has acknowledged that in the absence of a privacy law which governs the collection, use and storage of the personal data, the UID project will lead to abuse, surveillance and profiling of individuals. It makes a reference to the Privacy Bill which is still at only the draft stage. The current data protection framework in the Section 43A rules under the Information Technology Act, 2000 are woefully inadequate and far too limited in their scope. While there are some protection built into Chapter VI of the new bill, these are nowhere as comprehensive as the ones articulated in the Privacy Bill. Additionally, these protections are subject to broad exceptions which could significantly dilute their impact.

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