Writing in The Indian Express in July, Vyom Anil and Jean Dreze detailed their account of trying to help Reena Devi from Bihar retrieve her Aadhaar number after she lost it. Losing an Aadhaar number can result in being cut off from critical government services. In Devi’s case, it meant that she could not get a ration card, job card, bank account and widow pension.

A prominent issue that came through from their account was that the grievance redressal system of the Unique Identification Authority of India, or UIDAI, has been designed for a person with access to a mobile phone.

To quote Anil and Dreze, the UIDAI created “a two-track system” for people trying to retrieve their lost numbers, one with “first-rate facilities for some and cattle treatment for the underprivileged”. Ultimately, they did manage to retrieve Devi’s Aadhaar number but it was not due to the grievance redressal system.

Grievance mechanism, RTI model

Intrigued by their account, I decided to obtain information about the UIDAI’s grievance redressal system. According to Section 23(2)(s) of the Aadhaar Act, 2016, the UIDAI is required to set up “…. Facilitation centres and grievance redressal mechanism for redressal of grievances of individuals, Registrars, enrolling agencies and other service providers”.

Setting up a grievance redressal system to deal with complaints from a population of more than a billion Aadhaar users is not a simple task, especially given the stakes for some such as Devi, who could lose access to government programmes that they depend on for survival.

I imagined a grievance redressal system defined by a system of procedural rights, similar to what is outlined in the Right to Information Act, 2005. For example, the Right to Information Act lays out a timeline of 30 days for the public information officer to provide details after which an appeal can be referred to a senior officer.

If there is no satisfactory resolution, the matter can be escalated to the Central Information Commission. At each level, the competent officer is required to provide a reasoned decision under their name, thereby ensuring some level of transparency.

A mystery

The UIDAI’s grievance redressal mechanism, however, is shrouded in mystery. At best, there is Clause 32 in the Aadhaar (Enrollment and Update) Regulations, 2016, which requires the UIDAI to set up a contact centre for grievance redressal through toll-free numbers, emails and by visiting a regional office.

Clause 32 does not provide any details on the procedure or the rights of Aadhaar users during this process.

The only other information that can be found on the website is a section of frequently asked questions, or FAQs, informing readers that the available channels to resolve grievances are a toll-free number, self-service, interactive voice response service, or IVRS, an online portal, emails, post and visiting regional offices.

There are no details about procedural rules and rights to guarantee that the grievance redressal system is fair, transparent and complies with basic principles of administrative law. Worse, the UIDAI outsources this crucial job to a private company, as reported by Anumeha Yadav for Scroll.in in 2016.

In response to Yadav’s Right to Information query seeking details of the grievance redressal system, the UIDAI said that it had outsourced its “contact centre services” to Tata Business Services Solutions, which was responsible for handling the voice calls and emails of those who had queries.

The first query

Since six years had passed, I filed a Right to Information application a few months ago, asking the UIDAI five questions about its grievance redressal mechanism. The response of the public information officer dated March 16, which can be seen here, is an enlightening display of the opacity with which the UIDAI operates.

The response to the Right to Information query dated March 16. Personal information and other sensitive deatils have been redacted.

To the first question on policies or regulations pertaining to the grievance redressal mechanism, the UIDAI’s public information officer pointed me to the website of the authority.

The second question was whether it hired an external organisation to handle grievance redressal and asked for a copy of the contract. The central public information officer confirmed that the grievance redressal work had been outsourced to an external organisation but refused to provide a copy of the contract citing Section 8(1)(d) of the Right to Information Act – which protects proprietary information.

To the third question regarding the number of employees with the UIDAI handling grievance redressal, the public information officer refused to provide any information saying it was prohibited under Section 8(1)(e) of the Right Information Act, which pertains to information held in a fiduciary relationship and is explained in detail further below.

Lastly, regarding the number of grievances handled by the UIDAI since January 1, 2016, the official said the details requested did not fall within the definition of “information” according to Section 2(f) of the Right to Information Act. The central public information officer also proceeded to reproduce excerpts of government circulars and the Supreme Court to back his odd interpretation of Section 2(f).

Flawed interpretation of the law

The central public information officer was wrong on all five counts and displayed a lack of even a basic understanding of the Right to Information Act. For example, Section 8(1)(d) protects only proprietary information if it affects the competitive interests of a third party.

The Central Information Commission has made it amply clear in its decisions that routine contracts between government and private parties will not be covered by Section 8(1)(d). If this was not the case, there would be no way of knowing the amount of money being paid by the government to any private company.

If the information in the contract is, in fact, proprietary information, the burden is on the public information officer to explain the same – merely citing the provision is insufficient.

Similarly, Section 8(1)(e) deals with information held by the government in its capacity as a “fiduciary”. For example, a government bank holds information of customers in its fiduciary capacity. Information regarding the number of officers dealing with grievance redressal in the UIDAI does not fall under Section 8(1)(e) by any stretch of imagination.

With regard to the last question on the volume of grievances it handles, the response that the query did not pertain to “information” as defined in Section 2(f) of the Right to Information Act was completely incorrect.

Citing circulars and Supreme Court judgments, the central public information officer said he is not required to conduct research or compile information that is not otherwise maintained by the authority.

It raises the question that how is the UIDAI paying a private company to handle grievance redressal without any knowledge of the number of grievances that it is disposing of?

Filing an appeal

I filed an appeal with appellate authority explaining why the central public information officer had got it wrong on all five counts.

The appellate authority, however, did not bother giving reasons for dismissing the appeal in a response dated April 29 accessible here. Instead, the appellate authority said the response of the central public information officer was “found to be in order”.

The response from the appellate authority dated April 29.

Now, to file an appeal before the Central Information Commission and be heard would have taken between 18-24 months because of the existing backlog.

I made a second attempt with the UIDAI, this time with a narrower question. The second application, which can be seen below, met with a similar fate, with the UIDAI in its response dated April 11 refusing to name the company which had been contracted for grievance redressal.

The response to a second application, dated April 11.

The application for the reply dated April 11 was filed while waiting for a response from the appellate authority.

Is it legal?

One of the reasons for seeking this information from the UIDAI, especially the contract between the UIDAI and the private company, was to ascertain the extent to which the grievance redressal mechanism was being outsourced.

There may be a serious question of legality over here since it is not legal for public authorities to delegate away powers vested in them by Parliament.

This is a principle captured by an old Latin maxim, delegatus non potest delegare, which means: no delegated powers can be further delegated. In its current form, Parliament via the Aadhaar Act, 2016, delegated to the UIDAI the responsibility of setting up the grievance redressal mechanism.

Parliament never provided the UIDAI with the authority to further delegate this power to another authority, much less a private company that is unaccountable to the general public.

The final answer depends on the wording of the contract between the UIDAI and the private company, something the UIDAI is unwilling to share under the Right to Information Act.

Prashant Reddy T is a lawyer.