AADHAAR CONTROVERSY

Voluntary, more privacy: What Aadhaar would have looked like if the Rajya Sabha had its way

But the government's Money Bill strategy meant that the Upper House could just be ignored.

The government's decision to move the controversial legislation on the Aadhaar biometrics-based unique identification project as a Money Bill meant that the Lok Sabha on Wednesday was able to send it to the President for signing into law without accepting any of the amendments passed by the Upper House.

Earlier in the day, the Rajya Sabha had vociferously objected to the government's use of the Money Bill manoeuvre past the Upper House. Members of the Rajya Sabha also recommended a number of changes to the Bill, including stronger privacy provisions for the law governing the use of the Unique Identification Number. Despite this, the Lok Sabha rejected all the recommendations and passed it in the form it had originally done.

It was able to do this because the government chose to label it a Money Bill, which comes with special exemptions. Money Bills are meant to be pieces of legislation focused on the way the government taxes or spends its funds, and can only be introduced and passed in the Lok Sabha. The Rajya Sabha, where the Bharatiya Janata Party does not have a majority, can suggest changes to it that are not binding.

The Opposition in the Upper House argued that the government was acting improperly by labeling the Aadhaar legislation – which specifies how the Unique Identification Number will be used to pay out subsidies – as a Money Bill, since it does more than cover spending. In addition to questioning the propriety of this approach, the Opposition also moved amendments to the Bill, so that they could at least put on record the changes they would have preferred.

Although 17 amendments were moved, eventually only five – all introduced by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh – were passed by the Upper House. Here are those amendments.

  • Ramesh asked that if individuals who are on the Aadhaar database make a request to leave it, their authentication records as well as demographic and biometric information should be destroyed within 15 days.
  • The second amendment called for the law to be altered so that it clearly states that Aadhaar is not mandatory, even as it is used for availing government “subsidies, benefits or services".
  • The third amendment was over disclosure of biometric data of individuals to a designated joint secretary in the interest of national security. “National security is too sweeping and loose a term,” Ramesh said, after Jaitley argued that the right to privacy was not absolute. Of 141 members present in the House, a majority of 77 MPs voted in favour of Ramesh’s amendment that the phrase “national security” which is not defined under the Aadhaar Bill or under any existing laws should instead be replaced with the“public emergency or in the interest of public safety”, just as it is in the law governing phone taps. 
  • The last amendment was to drop clause 57 entirely. This clause said that the Bill does not prevent the wider use of Aadhaar number of users by other bodies including private companies. Already, there are instances of private companies advertising that they can use Aadhaar to collate information about citizens at a price.

Independent MP from Karnataka Rajeev Chandrashekhar also proposed a number of amendments, including that Aadhaar should be used as proof of identity. He suggested that only citizens should be eligible to enroll in the database funded by government, in contrast to the current Bill’s provisions for all residents to enroll in it.

He proposed that in the Bill’s provisions on government requests of interception of data, the oversight committee permitting such requests should include a judicial authority such as the attorney general to make it more independent. As per the Bill , the oversight committee will consist of the cabinet secretary and the secretaries in the department of legal affairs and the department of electronics and information technology, which amounts to executive oversight over executive orders.

When these amendments were brought up though, Chandrashekhar chose not to press them. A few other amendments also moved by other members were voted down by the House.

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