Opinion: It is time for judiciary to call out the Indian government’s lie on ‘voluntary Aadhaar’

Supreme Court’s delay in hearing contempt petitions against the government for ignoring its orders on the unique ID has life and death consequences for people.

In early November, senior advocate KK Vishwanathan informed the Supreme Court of the panic created by a barrage of messages from telecom companies and banks asking customers to link their phone numbers and bank accounts to Aadhaar. In response, Attorney General KK Venugopal said the petitioners’ assertions were merely “oral arguments”, suggesting the people were not being harassed.

Unfortunately for the attorney general, these messages were also going to Supreme Court judges, and Justice AK Sikri was able to immediately catch the lie.

The government has been misguiding the Supreme Court judges, and of course the public, about Aadhaar for a while now. Contrary to all evidence, the government continues to claim that the 12-digit biometric-based unique identification number is not compulsory for availing welfare benefits. In public, the government maintains that if people don’t have Aadhaar, or have not linked it, or if their biometric authentication fails, they can get their benefits through other means, but the ground reality is otherwise. Sadly, since the judges have no direct experience of this, they have not been able to catch this lie.

It was in 2013 that the Supreme Court first ruled that lack of Aadhaar cannot be cited for denying any service. In October 2015, it allowed for Aadhaar to be used for six schemes, but only as long as it was voluntary. But the government, previously led by the Congress and now by the Bharatiya Janata Party, ignored the orders and made Aadhaar effectively mandatory for a host of schemes and services. It doesn’t seem to matter that a large number of people are suffering as a result.

Suspect system

Take the use of Aadhaar for the Public Distribution System. It is a two-step process. First is seeding, or the linking of Aadhaar to the beneficiary database. This is meant to be a simple, one-off exercise. In reality, it is anything but. People are not informed about seeding or they are unable to get it done – they may not have the money to pay the middlemen responsible for seeding. If, for whatever reason, the beneficiaries fail to seed their Aadhaar, they stop getting the benefits, often temporarily until they figure out a way to get the seeding done, and sometimes permanently like in Santoshi Kumari’s case. The 11-year-old girl in Jharkhand’s Simdega district died of starvation in October, months after her family’s ration card was cancelled because it was not linked to their Aadhaar number. If a name is struck off the beneficiary list, getting it reinstated can be a nightmare, dragging out over months. Even when the name is put back, it is never clear whether the beneficiary would get the benefits, and to what extent, that they were denied in the interim. And, mind you, people have to do this every time Aadhaar is made compulsory for a new scheme.

The second step is Aadhaar-based biometric authentication – the beneficiaries must have their biometric details, generally fingerprints saved in the Aadhaar database, verified each time they go to collect their food rations. Failure to authenticate means they won’t get the rations. In Jharkhand’s Deoghar district, the family of Ruplal Marandi was denied subsidised grain because the biometric reader at the PDS shop couldn’t read his daughter’s fingerprints. Marandi died in late October, of starvation.

When such problems are highlighted, the response of the Unique Identification Authority of India, which manages Aadhaar, is generally along these lines: Aadhaar is not compulsory; the person had Aadhaar so their exclusion has nothing to do with Aadhaar; there are alternative means of authenticating. Only when these arguments are debunked in each case does the Authority concede that these are “stray incidents”. This is another lie. The scale of exclusion brought about by Aadhaar is massive, running into lakhs of families. According to government data from Rajasthan, each month about 15% of the households entitled to subsidised grain through the PDS are unable to use the system.

Even when the system works, it leads to a lot of hardship. People are forced to make repeated trips to PDS shops; in some cases, two-three members of the family go together, unsure whose biometrics would be successfully authenticated that month. Last month, the family of a 50-year-old woman in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, claimed she had died of starvation after the PDS dealer refused to give them grain unless the woman – likely recorded as head of the household – herself came to the shop to complete the authentication. She couldn’t because she was ill. A similar case of a 71-year-old from Jharkhand’s Garhwa district last week.

Clearly, the biometric authentication is not only compulsory, it is rigidly so.

Pain worth the gain?

If a welfare programme is universal and Aadhaar seeding is compulsory, it can help detect duplicate or fake beneficiaries. But this form of fraud is a tiny part of the problem. We have been asking for evidence of it since 2010, but none has been forthcoming. What is presented as evidence of “fake ration cards”, for instance, are often cards that their owners have failed to seed with Aadhaar by the given deadline and have thus been struck off the rolls like Kumari’s family’s. Recent data from Odisha shows that only 0.3% of the ration cards in that state were found to be fake or duplicate as a result of Aadhaar seeding.

Aadhaar-based biometric authentication does not help our battle against corruption in the PDS at all. For instance, if a dealer can force me to sign the paper register for more grain than he sells me, he can do the same if the register is replaced by a biometric-based point of sale machine.

A clutch of contempt petitions against the government for ignoring the Supreme Court’s orders on Aadhaar are pending hearing. This delay has life and death consequences for people. It is time for judges to call out the government’s lie on “voluntary Aadhaar”.

Reetika Khera teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

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