Have crores of beneficiaries of the government’s welfare schemes given the state their informed consent for the use of their biometrics-based Aadhaar details to avail of benefits under these schemes?

Eight months after the Centre said in the Supreme Court that it would use Aadhaar only on a voluntary basis in its welfare schemes, the government has started a concerted drive to secure the informed consent of beneficiaries for the use of their biometrics like fingerprints and iris scans to establish and authenticate their identity.

Several states have made payments through bank accounts linked with Aadhaar numbers mandatory. And like enrolment in Aadhaar, giving consent too has effectively become mandatory for beneficiaries of government schemes who want to continue to be paid.

Last year, while the Supreme Court was hearing petitions challenging the validity of the Aadhaar project, the Modi government argued in favour of the biometrics database saying that Aadhaar was already being used to pay 1 crore Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme beneficiaries and over 30 lakh pensioners.

But ministry of rural development data shows that till June, only 4.1 lakh, or less than 1% of 10.7 crore workers under this rural employment scheme, had consented to Aadhaar-based payments.

Consent camps

On June 10, JS Mathur, secretary, ministry of rural development, wrote to chief secretaries of states asking for all the details of workers under the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme to be connected to their Aadhaar-linked bank accounts.

The letters note that in 13 of 35 states and union territories, including Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Assam, not even 1% of over 4.8 crore active rural employment scheme workers had given their consent for Aadhaar-based payments.

The Union ministry has asked the states to organise camps to obtain the workers’ signatures to this end. This request comes years after the government started using the Aadhaar biometrics database while making payments to such workers.

Informed consent

The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies Benefits and Services) Act, which was passed in March, also requires requesting agencies, government and private entities, to obtain informed consent of residents before using their Aadhaar data for authenticating purposes.

“We have asked states to get workers' consent for seeding their Aadhaar numbers in the MNREGA database at the block level, and for banks to do the same for linking bank accounts to Aadhaar numbers,” said Amarjeet Sinha, additional secretary in the ministry of rural development.

Sinha said the ministry was doing so following last October’s Supreme Court order that Aadhaar may be used to make Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme payments on a voluntary basis, or only for those who opt for it.

However, in October 2015, when the orders came, the Aadhaar details of 2.36 crore workers had already been seeded (linked) to their bank accounts even though not even a fraction of them had given their informed consent. It is this that is retrospectively being corrected through consent camps. In the last two months, state governments have obtained the consent of 1.7 crore workers.

In states

For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, there are over 80.1 lakh active workers under the rural employment scheme, none of whom had given consent for Aadhaar payments till June. In the last two months, the government has obtained consent from 1.2 lakh workers.

“We have been making Aadhaar-based payments to MNREGA workers since three years, and are now taking their consent,” said an official in Andhra Pradesh’s rural development department.

The official added: “Right now, workers get paid through both bank and post office accounts, but after August, they will only be paid through Aadhaar-linked bank accounts, so if they do not sign these forms, they will not be able to get wages easily.”

Ministry of rural development officials say they have not made Aadhaar mandatory for people to get paid for work done under the central government’s jobs scheme.

But on the ground, rural workers say that they are unable to apply for work under the scheme unless they they enrol and link their details to their Aadhaar numbers.

James Herenj, a social worker at the Narega Sahayata Kendra in Latehar in Jharkhand, spoke of the reality on the ground.

“The Centre is pressuring block level officials to show higher levels of ‘seeding’, or linking of beneficiaries bank accounts to Aadhaar,” said Herenj. “District officials threaten block officials with penalties if they do not show this as cent percent, so they delete the MNREGA jobcards of workers who don't have Aadhaar number.”

Herenj said they were other complications too. “In some cases, even if a worker has Aadhaar, if her Aadhaar number has been ‘seeded’ into her parents' job card, if she marries or makes a separate jobcard later, the computer rejects them as a duplicate entry.”

The social worker added that in some instances workers with more than one bank account were finding it difficult to find out in which bank accounts their payments were going into, and complained that banks turned them away when they tried to enquire from them.