The Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi is collecting personal details of the beneficiaries of central welfare schemes for use in the 2019 general election campaign. The party already possesses data on nearly five lakh beneficiaries of the Skill India programme who live in the city, The Indian Express reported on December 30. It is now writing to various central departments for data on the beneficiaries of other schemes started by the Narendra Modi government.

Armed with these details, the BJP’s workers will visit the beneficiaries at their homes and canvass them for votes. They will also ask “if beneficiaries have any problems or suggestions,” said the party’s Delhi chief Manoj Tiwari. “Other parties can do the same.”

Though Tiwari said they are only collecting names and addresses of the beneficiaries, not their Aadhaar or phone numbers, legal experts contended that this violates certain aspects of the Right to Privacy ruling delivered by the Supreme Court in August 2018. Some activists, however, pointed out that such beneficiary lists are supposed to be publicly available, so political parties are free to use them.

The Right to Information Act requires beneficiary lists of welfare schemes to be made public, said Amrita Johri of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. “It is mandatory for these lists to be made public to check for the implementation of schemes,” she added. “But they are rarely disclosed and beneficiaries mostly have to file RTI applications to check if their names are on the lists or not.”

Interestingly, the BJP’s rivals don’t seem particularly bothered by the data gathering exercise. They believe the number of the beneficiaries of central schemes in Delhi is too small to have an electoral impact.

“There are not many who have benefited from these schemes in Delhi,” explained PC Chacko, who oversees the Congress’s affairs in the state. “This won’t work in terms of getting them votes. We will not be collecting any such information. We don’t consider such lists very important.”

He agreed that the exercise is not a breach of privacy.

‘Available to all’

Sunil Yadav, president of the Delhi chapter of the BJP youth wing, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, claimed they have acquired data on nearly five lakh beneficiaries of Skill India. “We requested the different centres of Skill India in Delhi to give us the data,” Yadav said. “This is not a secret. The information is available to all.”

The party’s “first priority” is to seek the beneficiaries’ feedback rather than their votes, claimed Harish Khurana, the BJP’s spokesperson in Delhi. “We have asked various gas agencies and banks to provide us lists of beneficiaries of schemes such as Ujjwala and Mudra Yojana,” he said. “There will be around 6,000 volunteers and each will visit 300 homes over two months.”

Tiwari said his party will also ask District Development Coordination and Monitoring Committees for such information. “If we don’t get the data from them, then we will write to different ministries and departments,” he added. The exercise will start in late January.

But most of Delhi’s districts do not even have a coordination committee yet, pointed out Suresh Chand Meena, additional district magistrate of West Delhi. Where they exist, they only review welfare schemes and do not maintain beneficiary lists, said MK Dwivedi, additional district magistrate of North East Delhi. “The beneficiary list is only with the department running the scheme,” he explained. “If one requires the list for, say, Ujjwala, they will have to write to the food and civil supplies department.”

Concerns for privacy?

But even though the data being gathered by the BJP is public, it cannot be “further used”, argued Apar Gupta, lawyer and director of the Internet Freedom Foundation. The principle of “purpose limitation” established by the Right to Privacy ruling does not allow for personal data to be used by private players, Gupta said. Beneficiary lists constitute personal data.

“Personal data collected and processed by data controllers should be adequate and relevant to the purposes for which it is processed,” the judgement lays down. “A data controller shall collect, process, disclose, make available, or otherwise use personal information only for the purposes as stated in the notice after taking consent of individuals.”

Citing this ruling, Gupta argued that it “means consent for identifiable purpose is limited”. “If any sharing is happening with a private body or if the government is gathering data and giving it to a private body, then consent is necessary,” he said, adding that a political party is considered a private body. “They are recognised as charitable entities that do not come under the Right to Information.”

Gupta also pointed to Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul’s opinion in the privacy judgement that all publicly available information cannot be freely used. “If the posting on social media websites is meant only for a certain audience, which is possible as per tools available, then it cannot be said all and sundry in public have a right to somehow access that information and make use of it,” Kaul ruled.

In addition, the collection of personal data in such a manner can lead to the spread of misinformation and “political propaganda”. “Such kind of data gives the name, age, gender and religion of the beneficiary by which it could also be quite easy to target them and their family members to avail votes,” he contended.

Johri differed. The BJP’s exercise is not covered by purpose limitation, she argued, since the party is only using information that is supposed to be publicly available. “This would be a case of purpose limitation if the information given is sold to another company for commercial purposes without consent,” she explained. “For instance, voter identity lists are always in the public domain for the sake of transparency. We need to draw the line when it comes to such situations. Disclosure of such lists helps us find inaccuracies or even conduct social audits to check for the implementation of government schemes.”