On the night of August 5, a little before 10, Dr Venkatesh* and his wife Geeta in New Delhi heard their doorbell ring. At the entrance was an official from the electoral office who asked whether anyone in the family had applied for a voter identity card. Dr Venkatesh said that his daughter Medha had done so a few weeks before. The official handed Dr Venkatesh a form asking him to get his daughter to apply again.

Apart from the lateness of the hour, what made the visit surprising was that earlier in the day, Medha Ramji's case had come up in the Supreme Court as part of the ongoing hearings in the petitions challenging the legality of Aadhaar, the government's biometrics-based identity project.

Medha Ramji, a 21-year-old graduate in visual arts, stated in an affidavit in the Supreme Court that she had been denied a voter ID after she had said that she did not wish to enrol for Aadhaar. While it is unclear whether the official's late-night visit was a consequence of the hearing earlier in the day, the incident helps explain why many people have taken the government to court over Aadhaar.

The government maintains that the decision to enrol and use Aadhaar is purely voluntary. Yet in practice, officials regularly insist on an Aadhaar number when citizens attempt to access services in banks, schools, public offices.

By linking Aadhaar to more and more schemes and public services, the government is able to push for higher enrolments in the scheme. But critics of Aadhaar say this this has caused inconvenience to beneficiaries and even led to denial of entitlements to those who do not wish to enrol in the programme.

Voluntary or compulsory?

Ramji, a visual arts graduate who lives with her family in a government colony, said she had given the the electoral office valid proof of address and age in the form of her passport and driver’s licence. But the officials turned her away on July 21 and a second time on July 24, allegedly maintaining that her “application could not be accepted without an Aadhaar, or EID number” – the temporary number given to citizens when they begin Aadhaar enrolment.

On her second visit to the electoral office, Ramji said she carried copies of the previous Supreme Court orders that Aadhaar was not mandatory for obtaining government services. When challenged with the copies, officials directed her to a senior. “The official said they required an Aadhaar number to issue voter IDs and showed me a circular from the Election Commission on June 30 this year,” Ramji said.

For  their part, senior officials at the Election Commission said they have not made Aadhaar number mandatory for voter ID. They said they are carrying out a “purification of electoral rolls” under a National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme, and verifying demographic details (name, date of birth) provided for Aadhaar against the demographic details in electoral rolls as one of the authentication methods.

“Staff hired through other departments are present in electoral offices,” said VN Shukla, director (information technology), Election Commission of India. “Data entry operators may have asked for Aadhaar but we have not said this is mandatory. Where this is being brought to our notice – we have found out about instances in Delhi, Maharashtra – we have sent officials to correct this.”

The Election Commission official said Aadhaar is just one of the methods being used in the latest electoral roll verification drive, but the government's statement on the programme emphasises Aadhaar describing NERPAP as "linking of Aadhaar database with electoral database".

Public services denied

While Ramji may now get a voter ID card, there are several others who continue to face difficulties. Several other people are making representations in the Supreme Court saying they were coerced into enrolling for Aadhaar or were denied services for not having an Aadhaar number.

Sanjay Kumar, a 50-year-old Delhi resident, said he is unable to get a voter ID without an Aadhaar. On May 5, officials in the electoral office at Mehrauli told him his address could not be verified unless he enrolled for an Aadhaar number. When he pointed to the Supreme Court directive, “the official who had told me this folded his hands and sarcastically commented that he had made a mistake by divulging this information to me”. He has yet to get his voter card.

Manoj Kumar Mishra, a 60-year-old retired Indian Forest Service officer, submitted that he had repeatedly received text messages to furnish his Aadhaar details with his pension account. "I have several identity proofs and do not wish to enroll in Aadhaar," said Mishra. "If the government wishes to make it mandatory to enroll in Aadhaar, why is it not bringing a law on this?"

Inder Singh, a 46-year-old resident of Delhi, said he was denied a caste certificate because he did not have an Aadhaar. The sub-divisional magistrate’s office rejected his application in 2013, claiming the new software did not accept applications without an Aadhaar number.

Abdul Rasheed, 46, a resident of Kozhikode, submitted that his six-year-old daughter faced difficulty enrolling in a school as she did not have an Aadhaar number. The General Education Department in Kerala, as it happens, had made Aadhaar mandatory for schoolchildren.

Suneetha Balakrishnan, a 50-year-old journalist and translator based in Thiruvananthapuram, said she had been denied her LPG subsidy for a year from 2014 because she declined to submit her Aadhaar. She said though she enrolled for the National Population Register, she received an Aadhaar card.

Several residents of Bihar’s Katihar and Araria districts said that government officials were demanding their Aadhaar numbers before providing any government services or subsidies. Kamechiya Devi from Chitoriya in Katihar said officials at North Bihar Grameen Bank told her on July 3 that she could not open a bank account to receive MNREGA wages until she enrolled for Aadhaar.

Quick and dirty

Sudaniya Devi, a resident of the same panchayat in Katihar, said she had been denied a voter ID in June as she did not have an Aadhaar. In her affidavit, she remarked, “Officials are pressurizing us to get an Aadhaar number for getting benefits under any scheme. Because of their pressure, everyone in our village is rushing to enroll in Aadhaar after paying bribes, even though Aadhaar is a voluntary scheme and enrollment is free of cost.”

Villagers from Halhaliya and Sharanpur panchayat in Bihar’s Araria district said that panchayat and rural development department officials had informed them they would not get paid wages under MNREGA after August if they fail to enrol for Aadhaar.

In the ongoing case in the Supreme Court, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi has responded to assertions that Aadhaar, based on collection of personal biometrics data, violates the right to privacy. He told a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court that the Constitution does not make the right to privacy a fundamental right.

Officials of the Unique Identity Authority of India, the agency implementing Aadhaar, say 72% of India’s population now has an Aadhaar number. The Court has so far observed that without right to privacy, there can be no right to liberty. It will deliver its verdict on this question later this week.

* Names have been changed to protect identities.