Opinion

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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

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:

Play

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