Identity Project

India is enrolling infants and children in Aadhaar – but what about their consent?

Within minutes of birth, children are being signed up for the contentious identification programme.

On September 7, Seema (name changed) became the youngest person in India to get an Aadhaar number, after she was enrolled within five minutes of her birth in Khajuwala, Rajasthan.

The government’s biometric-based identification system, which assigns each citizen a unique number, covers 98% of India’s adult population, according to the latest figures. The coverage among children, however, is far less, and when taken into account, brings total enrolment to 82%

To plug this gap, the government has proposed to link five child-specific schemes to Aadhaar. The inclusion of the mid-day meal scheme among others in this list means that for children in government schools, even getting a hot cooked lunch would be contingent on their biometrics.

Lifelong decision at infancy

Passed in March, the Aadhaar Act makes no distinction between the enrolment of infants (below five years old), children (aged 5 to 18) or adults.

This gives rise to two concerns. First, more than 2.5 crore children have already been enrolled under the programme, without any procedural safeguards that look into issues pertaining to consent, or review of information.

Second, though the Unique Identification Authority of India, which operates the Aadhaar programme, has been asked to take “special measures” while issuing an Aadhaar number to children, the Act does not make any mention of what the measures are, and the programme does not allow children to opt out at a later stage. This is an important clause because children are largely not the ones deciding to enroll in the first place.

Researchers agree that children differ from adults in terms of their capacity to make decisions. They point out that the ability to make logical and rational decisions comes with age and the development of one’s cognitive skills. This is not a new finding – lawmakers have been aware of children’s inherent incapacity for a long time. The need for parental consent for children’s medical treatment or the legal invalidity of contracts by minors are examples of this.

In the context of Aadhaar however, these concerns seem to have completely escaped the consideration of our lawmakers. Raising an entire generation in an environment of biometric ubiquity merits a hard look at the implications of such a society and its impact on our children.

Practical concerns

In recent months, the government has been pushing to register children under Aadhaar right at birth, at the hospital itself, to ensure full enrolment in India by 2017.

Children under the age of five do not need to provide biometrics for enrolment. Their Aadhaar number is mandatorily linked to that of their parents. Children are required to submit their biometrics once at the age of five and subsequently at the age of fifteen. This is because biometrics such as fingerprints and irises are yet to fully develop.

However, several problems arose during the pilot project for this. Enrolment agencies found it tough to capture acceptable images because newborns would not keep still. The absence of distinguishing features between children made the photographs meaningless. Further, many children in India are not named immediately at birth. Despite these practical hurdles, the government seems undeterred from its plan of enrolling infants at birth.

Privacy issues

The information collected by the Unique Identification Authority of India is stored on a central database. Apart from the personal details, including biometric information, the database also keeps a record of all transactions made using the Aadhaar number

As a result, every time someone uses the number, a new entry gets created against their record in the system. With children being forced to enrol, this database can become a lifelong trail of all their transactions.

Under the Aadhaar Act, this information can be shared “in the interest of national security” and if ordered by a court. Consequently, detailed information from an individual’s childhood could be retrieved several years later in a completely different context.

At present, the Supreme Court is hearing petitions against the Aadhaar programme. If Aadhaar survives these legal challenges, the UIDAI must ensure that all authentication records are automatically deleted once a child turns 18.

Question of consent

The UIDAI requires parents’ Aadhaar information to be linked with children only up till the age of five. Its website clarifies that children above that age need to submit their biometrics.

However, it makes no mention of parents’ consent being required for enrolment of children between five and 18. Further, there are no rules allowing parents to access their children’s information and review or correct the same.

Sona Mani Devi gave birth on NH-33 in Latehar, Jharkhand on September 10. She was required to get Aadhaar made for her other two children by their school teacher even while she was pregnant and was not in a condition to travel, reported Indian Express.
Sona Mani Devi gave birth on NH-33 in Latehar, Jharkhand on September 10. She was required to get Aadhaar made for her other two children by their school teacher even while she was pregnant and was not in a condition to travel, reported Indian Express.

Several countries across the world have given statutory recognition to the fact that children lack capacity to give consent. The UK Protection of Freedoms Act mandates that written consent of at least one parent is necessary before schools use biometric information of children. This consent can be withdrawn at any stage. Any objection raised by the child overrides parental consent. Further, it is the school’s duty to provide reasonable alternatives to make those services accessible if there is no consent.

Similarly, the US has the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to safeguard children’s information on the internet. It requires websites and applications to obtain a parent’s consent for children below the age of 13. It allows parents to access this information and request that it be deleted.

One may argue that the absence of choice with regard to Aadhaar makes the whole issue of informed consent moot. After all, the resultant exclusion from benefits as a result of non-enrolment implies that people will be forced to enroll. But it is erroneous to think that informed consent is limited only to choice.

Understanding and appreciating the consequences of a decision are inherent aspects of decision-making, and this is a capacity that children lack. However, the enrolment of children under Aadhaar continues unabated without addressing these concerns.

The processes in place for children's enrolment, if any, are completely opaque. There is little clarity on the role of parents’ consent in capturing biometrics, accessing information, correcting it and the duration that every minor’s data can be held for.

As a result, children are being enrolled in a system without any understanding of it and without an option to have their information deleted once they attain adulthood.

And so, many children like Seema will have to prove their identity throughout their lives for the most innocuous and mundane transactions. Within five minutes of her birth, her parents and the health centre officials in Khajuwala, Rajasthan, decided she must have an Aadhaar number. In all probability, she will never have an opportunity to review this decision for herself.

Kritika Bhardwaj works as Programme Officer with the Centre for Communication Governance at the National Law University Delhi.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

A special shade of blue inspired these musicians to create a musical piece

Thanks to an interesting neurological condition called synesthesia.

On certain forums on the Internet, heated discussions revolve around the colour of number 9 or the sound of strawberry cupcake. And most forum members mount a passionate defence of their points of view on these topics. These posts provide insight into a lesser known, but well-documented, sensory condition called synesthesia - simply described as the cross wiring of the senses.

Synesthetes can ‘see’ music, ‘taste’ paintings, ‘hear’ emotions...and experience other sensory combinations based on their type. If this seems confusing, just pay some attention to our everyday language. It’s riddled with synesthesia-like metaphors - ‘to go green with envy’, ‘to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth’, ‘loud colours’, ‘sweet smells’ and so on.

Synesthesia is a deeply individual experience for those who have it and differs from person to person. About 80 different types of synesthesia have been discovered so far. Some synesthetes even have multiple types, making their inner experience far richer than most can imagine.

Most synesthetes vehemently maintain that they don’t consider their synesthesia to be problem that needs to be fixed. Indeed, synesthesia isn’t classified as a disorder, but only a neurological condition - one that scientists say may even confer cognitive benefits, chief among them being a heightened sense of creativity.

Pop culture has celebrated synesthetic minds for centuries. Synesthetic musicians, writers, artists and even scientists have produced a body of work that still inspires. Indeed, synesthetes often gravitate towards the arts. Eduardo is a Canadian violinist who has synesthesia. He’s, in fact, so obsessed with it that he even went on to do a doctoral thesis on the subject. Eduardo has also authored a children’s book meant to encourage latent creativity, and synesthesia, in children.

Litsa, a British violinist, sees splashes of paint when she hears music. For her, the note G is green; she can’t separate the two. She considers synesthesia to be a fundamental part of her vocation. Samara echoes the sentiment. A talented cellist from London, Samara can’t quite quantify the effect of synesthesia on her music, for she has never known a life without it. Like most synesthetes, the discovery of synesthesia for Samara was really the realisation that other people didn’t experience the world the way she did.

Eduardo, Litsa and Samara got together to make music guided by their synesthesia. They were invited by Maruti NEXA to interpret their new automotive colour - NEXA Blue. The signature shade represents the brand’s spirit of innovation and draws on the legacy of blue as the colour that has inspired innovation and creativity in art, science and culture for centuries.

Each musician, like a true synesthete, came up with a different note to represent the colour. NEXA roped in Indraneel, a composer, to tie these notes together into a harmonious composition. The video below shows how Sound of NEXA Blue was conceived.

Play

You can watch Eduardo, Litsa and Samara play the entire Sound of NEXA Blue composition in the video below.

Play

To know more about NEXA Blue and how the brand constantly strives to bring something exclusive and innovative to its customers, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of NEXA and not by the Scroll editorial team.