Identity Project

By limiting Aadhaar, Supreme Court may have given government a way to expand its reach

The biometrics-based identity project has been permitted for the public distribution system and LPG subsidy. These alone could be used for near full enrollment.

By now the contours of the events are known. On Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court referred to a Constitution Bench the question of whether Indians have a fundamental right to privacy. The same afternoon, when the judges reconvened, they restricted the use of the government’s biometrics-based identity project Aadhaar to only the public distribution system for food grains, kerosene and LPG.

These orders are unmistakably significant. But what do they mean for the public and the ambitious Aadhaar programme? Why is the Aadhaar project, which seeks to do no more than assign a unique number to all Indians, getting snared in questions of privacy?

To comprehend these issues, it’s important to first understand how we got here.

The rise of a controversy

The Aadhaar project has been dogged by controversy from the very start.

In its early days, it was touted as a magic bullet for reducing all leakages in India’s welfare programmes such as the Public Distribution System, pensions and LPG subsidy. These schemes, said the government were being manipulated to siphon off money. Village heads or sarpanches, for instance, were inserting fake names into the lists of beneficiaries – in government parlance, ghosts – and pocketing the pensions. Others, meanwhile, contrived to get their names repeated multiple times in the lists.

Aadhaar could fix this, said the Unique Identification Authority of India, the body created to issue 12-digit unique identity Aadhaar numbers.

A person’s biometrics – fingerprints, iris scans – would be used to generate a unique number, which would then be added to, say, the pension database. This would plug leakages in two ways. One, ghosts not having biometrics would get eliminated. And two, people claiming pension would have to identify themselves through their fingerprints. This, we were told, would enable the government to confirm that the money was reaching the targeted person.

Out in the field, however, the programme struggled to live up to its billing. Biometric devices struggled to read the fingerprints of manual workers, with their weathered palms, and the aged. As experiences in Jharkhand’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act programme showed, while Aadhaar caught ghosts and duplicates, it couldn’t catch other forms of corruption in these schemes.

However, even as the debate on whether Aadhaar is useful or not played out, the United Progressive Alliance government – and then, the National Democratic Alliance government – kept pushing the project. When more government departments embraced Aadhaar, enrolment in it increased. Several of these acceding departments weren’t even tasked with welfare spending. For instance, the Election Commission mooted plans to link voter identity cards and Aadhaar numbers. Some departments linked staff attendance and salaries to the Aadhaar database.

At no point, though, any work was done on creating a legal framework governing the use, storage and protection of the collected biometric data and the metadata emerging from its use.

See it like this. To identify a beneficiary, her fingerprints would have to be sent to the servers of the Unique Identification Authority. This creates an outcome where, as legal researcher Usha Ramanathan puts it, “The authority has a record of all the authentication requests which can be used to profile people.” These possibilities – with attendant implications – have never been adequately discussed.

Similarly, Ramanathan adds, once people give their biometrics, they have no say in how that gets used. This concern got highlighted last year when the Central Bureau of Investigation, tasked with investigating a rape in Goa, asked the Unique Identification Authority to share the fingerprints of all people in the state.

There are other worries too. As Ramanathan again notes, there is no possibility of opting out of this database. A unique number attached to every individual makes it easier to merge diverse databases – such as an insurance company and a hospital chain – enabling more detailed profiling of individuals.

Such concerns, some arising out of fears for privacy, others out of denial of government services for those without Aadhaar numbers, resulted in the Supreme Court hearings.

What do the rulings mean?

On Tuesday, India’s apex court provided partial clarity.

It referred to a constitutional bench the question of whether Indians have a fundamental right to privacy when the NDA government argued that they don’t. On reconvening, they issued an interim ruling directing the government to publicise the fact that Aadhaar is neither mandatory nor a precondition for receiving any benefits due to a citizen.

It restricted the use of Aadhaar to only the public distribution system for food grains, kerosene and LPG. Further, it declared that the data collected by the Unique Identification Authority, while generating these unique numbers, cannot be used for any other purpose, except as directed by the court for criminal proceedings.

So what do these orders portend?

The interim order clamps down on the government’s plans to continue using Aadhaar till the larger question on privacy is settled. According to Ramanathan, by prohibiting the use of Aadhaar data for any purpose but the delivery of food grains and fuel, the Supreme Court has widened the list of proscribed activities.

This is echoed by a senior governmental official, who has been closely involved with the project and who spoke to Scroll on condition of anonymity.

He too felt that the apex court has greatly weakened the Aadhaar project. “Passports, pensions, driving licences, NREGA, they were all getting connected to Aadhaar,” he said. “We wanted to link every SIM, every bank account to Aadhaar. The income tax department had just started using Aadhaar for people filing their IT returns. Digital lockers were being started. Pensioners were able to collect their pensions from anywhere. All that is now negated by this order.”

According to the official, the order is a catalytic moment. Till now, he said, neither the UPA nor the NDA government had gone the whole hog on Aadhaar. The National Identification Authority of India Bill, which could have made Aadhaar mandatory, has not been passed. Nor has been the Right to Privacy Bill, which seeks to impose punishment for intrusion into a citizen’s privacy.

Instead, both governments were simply “linking Aadhaar to everything”, says Abhijit Sen, a former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission. Whenever challenged, both governments told courts that enrolment was optional even though they told the people learnt something very different.

Now, the senior government official says, the “game is to the finish”. “You look at all the programmes of the government and Aadhaar features in them. This government will now have to work on the bill if only to protect Aadhaar from the Supreme Court.” In which case, he said, this might become an executive-versus-judiciary fight.

Abhijit Sen agrees: “This might become like Right to Food, which came about because of a set of sympathetic judges.”

How are things poised?

Privacy advocates fear another possible outcome. The longer the Supreme Court takes to settle the question of privacy, the stronger the government’s case gets. This showed in the government’s defence even now.

In his arguments, the Attorney General argued that Aadhaar had already enrolled 91% of the adult population in the country.

Ramanathan shares this concern. “Till now, neither the UPA nor the NDA have been bothered by the Supreme Court’s orders telling them to not make Aadhaar mandatory,” she said. “That is the fear. That they will keep violating and then present the court with a fait accompli.”

That is how, she says, an exemption was won in the court for food grains, kerosene and LPG – by pointing at all the work done. Indeed, some fear that this exemption itself will help the government create a fait accompli.

It gives the government what it wanted – near 100% coverage of Aadhaar, says Himanshu, an assistant professor of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “PDS covers 75% of the households in rural areas – the poorer ones. And LPG covers the remaining 25% there. In urban areas, the lower 50% get PDS, while the upper 50% get LPG.”

With the Supreme Court order, Himanshu said, these two programmes alone will help the government link bank accounts and Aadhaar numbers of almost all Indians.

For now, civil society groups are planning to file an application in the Supreme Court asking it to quickly settle the privacy question. One of their lawyers said: “This is just one of the continuing battles we will have to fight. Aadhaar is just one battle. These are calls that have to be made by society.”

Indeed. As technology changes, as the state becomes more intrusive, what is the balance we want to strike between science, security, convenience and privacy?

India urgently needs a more informed debate.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.