Aadhar controversy

What explains the desperation to make Aadhaar mandatory for tax returns after July 1, 2017?

Aadhaar was missing from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto and there was no such mention in Finance Bill 2017.

How desperate is the government of India to get everyone under its Unique Identity number project, Aadhaar? What is this extreme urgency to force everyone to get an Aadhaar number, while the case on the constitutionality of Aadhaar is yet to be determined by the Supreme Court? Why the sneaky tactics?

In a move that is in violation of the Supreme Court order of not making Aadhaar mandatory, the Union government has introduced amendments to the Finance Bill 2017 at the last minute, making Aadhaar mandatory for filing taxes. The amendments state:

“Every person who is eligible for an Aadhaar number shall, on or after the 1st day of July 2017, quote Aadhaar number,

(i) in the application form for allotment of the permanent account number

(ii) in the return of income”

Failing the quoting of the Aadhaar number in the income tax filing, the government will have the right to cancel the user’s permanent account number. These amendments were not a part of the Union Budget announcement earlier this year, and were slipped in yesterday: the Finance Bill on the Indian Budget website, makes no mention of Aadhaar.

The Finance Bill is being considered today for passing in the Lok Sabha.

Why make Aadhaar mandatory for tax returns?

What is the point of a PAN number then? There isn’t.

What the government of India is trying to do is take multiple identity documents and combine them under a single identity number, so that all other historical IDs become redundant. However, as is evident in this case, the PAN number isn’t going anywhere: it will still be required for tax filings, so Aadhaar is another layer of identification mechanism added on top of an existing one.

If the idea behind Aadhaar was to make give everyone an ID, why is it being forced on people who already have an ID for filing taxes?

An opinion piece in the Financial Express last month saw this coming, and saw it as an attempt to link tax filing to information of money and transactions available in bank accounts. While highlighting that out that out of “a total of over 24 crore PANs, the latest data indicate that only 97,33,664 have been linked to Aadhaar through e-returns”, it pointed out that an advantage of linking Aadhaar to PAN will “be a big source to gather banking transaction information, which can be an important indication of a person’s income profile.”

So, to put it simply:

Forcing digital transactions forces everyone to use accounts to make payments. Linkage of Aadhaar to bank accounts gives access to bank accounts. Linkage of Aadhaar to PAN number gives government ability to compare tax filings with bank accounts and payments.

An additional benefit is that the Income Tax department will be able to profile citizens according to their spending behavior, if it is allowed to do so, unless there are provisions in law preventing this.

For that we’ll need a privacy law. But a few things need to be pointed out:

1. Violation of Supreme Court guidelines

This appears to be in violation of the Supreme Court ruling of not making Aadhaar mandatory for citizens for all but a few services, while the court determines the constitutionality of Aadhaar and whether privacy is a fundamental right or not. It’s worth noting that the Aadhaar act fails in terms of guaranteeing privacy, and allows for mass surveillance of citizens under the guise of “national security”, a term which is vague and undefined under law. Citizens have no recourse under the law, and Section 47 of the Act prescribes that only the Unique Identification Authority of India can file a criminal complaint for theft of data.

What is this but contempt of court? The Supreme Court of India appears to be turning a blind eye to the government’s violation of its order: are laws and orders only valid when the SC chooses to enforce them?

Why the hurry?

Here’s a guess: By the time the government is done with getting everyone on Aadhaar by making it mandatory, in violation of the Supreme Court order, the Supreme Court ruling will become redundant: Aadhaar will stay because it’s too big now to fail, and too much money, time, effort has been spent on piecing this together. Thus, pace is important for the government.

2. The issue of the single identifier and linked databases

Unlike the United States Social Security Number, Aadhaar is being used as an identifier to link databases, which makes it easy for government officials to gain access to personal user information, such as bank records, education data, health records, and for surveillance of phone calls and data usage. Until Aadhaar, this data was not linked, but as we are aware, schools are now mandating Aadhaar numbers, Banks are pushing customers to get one, and even the Supreme Court has asked the government to link Aadhaar to mobile numbers.

3. The BJP’s U turn on Aadhaar

Lest we forget, the PM Narendra Modi had publicly criticised Aadhaar when he wasn’t the PM:

Note that Aadhaar was missing from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto. Now it appears to have become their main focus.

4. No privacy law in India

India doesn’t have an privacy law, and the attorney general, Mukul Rohatgi, has even argued in Supreme Court, that there is no fundamental right to privacy, saying, “Violation of privacy doesn’t mean anything because privacy is not a guaranteed right”

Someone needs to file a petition in the Supreme Court, seeking a stay, or at least pause this expansion of Aadhaar’s mandate in the absence of a SC ruling on it.

A version of this article first aapeared on medianama.com

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