On the day of the Assembly election in Telangana in December 2018, lakhs of voters found their names missing from the electoral rolls. The Opposition claimed as many as 27 lakh names had been struck off, a huge number for a state with about 2.8 crore voters. Telangana’s chief electoral officer apologised for the missing names but offered little in the way of explanation for why it happened.

One theory pointed to Aadhaar. More than 31 crore Indian voter identity cards have been linked to the biometric-based unique identity number, according to the government. Activists have warned about the dangers of using Aadhaar linking as a way of weeding out names from voter lists considering the huge mismatch in the two databases.

After months of stalling, the election commission has finally revealed what went wrong in Telangana. In response to a query under the Right to Information Act, it admitted that voters names had not been verified during the linking of voter identity cards and Aadhaar. The state’s experience has raised concerns about similar deletions and mismatches in the electoral rolls ahead of the general election.

But how did 31 crore voter IDs get linked to Aadhaar in the first place?

The answer lies in a project launched by the Election Commission of India across the country in March 2015, after having run a pilot run of the project in Telangana in the previous month. The National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme aimed to use Aadhaar linking to remove duplicate names from voter lists. The project stopped abruptly around five months later when the Supreme Court, in response to a petition filed by KS Puttaswami, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court, specified what Aadhaar could be used for. It listed four specific purposes and voter ID was not one of them.

But in those five months in 2015, documents accessed by Scroll.in show, state election commissions used multiple, often dubious means to speed up the process of linking voter IDs with Aadhaar – from engaging booth officers who were themselves confused about whether the process was optional or mandatory to the harnessing of data collected for other schemes and programmes without consent. One document even references complaints received by the Election Commission of India about the possibility of deletion of the names of voters from electoral rolls for not furnishing Aadhaar.

The documents include minutes of meetings, circulars and correspondence between the Election Commission of India, state election commissions, Unique Identification Authority of India, which administers Aadhaar, and government agencies both at the Centre and in the states. They raise serious concerns about the linking of voter cards to Aadhaar without citizens even knowing this was happening – and what that might mean for their right to vote.

In 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Aadhaar but ruled that it could not be linked to bank accounts and mobile numbers. But the court did not explicitly settle the question of linking Aadhaar to voter cards. The matter is still pending in the Supreme Court, the Election Commission of India said in an email to Scroll.in. The court’s verdict will decide whether one of the most important rights of an Indian citizen – the right to vote – will be dependent on technology that has been repeatedly shown to be flawed. That too without them having consented to it.

The backstory

Three former Chief Election Commissioners, including HS Brahma, who spearheaded the Aadhaar and electoral roll linking exercise in 2015, have emphasised three aspects of the National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme.

  • The purpose was to weed out bogus voters. 
  • It was always optional.
  • For every linking, Aadhaar numbers were acquired with the consent of the voter concerned.

The first claim has been under scrutiny for sometime now. AK Joti, a former chief election commissioner, previously told Scroll.in the poll body had a software of its own to weed out bogus voters and Aadhaar linking was meant to strengthen this system. The mass deletion of names from Telangana’s electoral rolls, however, raised questions about the robustness of the process and whether it will lead to the deletion of genuine voters’ names.

Meanwhile, the Madras High Court is looking into a batch of petitions seeking the revival of the Aadhaar-voter ID linking exercise. The Election Commission of India is reportedly going to pitch for making the process mandatory by amending existing laws.

This begs the question: how optional was the exercise when it was conducted in 2015? And was the consent of voters taken?

As the documents show, the commission deployed four strategies for Aadhaar linking – each of them left the citizen with no say in the matter.

Strategy 1: Using booth officers to collect Aadhaar data

On February 7, 2015, the Election Commission of India wrote to chief electoral officers of all states and Union Territories informing them about the launch of a project called Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Drive in Telangana from February 15 and that it could be used as a model for the National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme, which was slated to be rolled out on March 3 that year. The states were allowed to come up with their own models, however, and there was a provision for engaging booth officers in data collection drives. Booth officers are local government and semi-government workers who are roped in to help update electoral rolls and other election-related work.

By February 27, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Gujarat had told the commission they would be using booth officers to go door to door for collecting Aadhaar numbers, which the commission eventually allowed, the documents show. Booth level officers were similarly engaged in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Sikkim and few states in the North East.

On May 21, the Election Commission of India organised a meeting on “issues and challenges in linking Aadhaar with ER [electoral roll] data” that was attended by top officials of the Unique Identification Authority of India, Registrar General and Census Commissioner, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, Common Services Center and National Informatics Centre.

The minutes of the meeting show the Election Commission of India had acknowledged having received complaints from several states that booth officers presumed acquiring Aadhaar numbers from the voters they visited was mandatory. It had also received complaints that “deletion of names of voters from electoral rolls may take place on the basis of non-furnishing of Aadhaar by the voters”.

After the meeting, state election commissions were instructed to make booth officers aware that the furnishing of Aadhaar was optional and in its absence they could seek five other documents. What impact this messy exercise exactly had remains unclear.

In a letter on August 8, 2015, Telangana’s chief electoral officer informed the Election Commission of India that Aadhaar numbers of only about 35% of the voters had been linked to the electoral rolls in areas under the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, which account for 24 of the state’s 119 Assembly seats, as against the state average of around 85%. Moreover, the number of voters shown on the rolls as being ineligible or dead or having moved houses was very high. He also referred to a complaint about booth officers not even visiting homes, let alone asking for Aadhaar.

Strategy 2: Asking for Voter IDs at the time of Aadhaar enrolment

In a letter on March 16, 2015, the Election Commission of India asked the Unique Identification Authority of India if they could add a field in the application form for Aadhaar for disclosing voter ID number. “For 18+ population [the legal age for voting in India], instead of voluntary part, it should be integral part of the application,” the letter said.

Currently, however, the voter ID number is not mandatory for Aadhaar enrolment though it can be used as one of the documents for proof of address. While senior Election Commission of India officials said they cannot comment on whether they would float a similar proposal in the future, a senior UIDAI official said they have received no such proposal since the Aadhaar-voter ID linking was stopped by the interim Supreme Court order in August 2015.

Strategy 3: Sourcing data from the National Population Register

In 2013, the Congress-led government floated the idea of a National Population Register. The proposal was to issue identity cards bearing demographic details, biometrics and photograph to every resident of India. A parallel concept to Aadhaar, the register was supposed to be mandatory and enrolment duly began despite the proposal never getting cabinet approval. In 2014, after the Bharatiya Janata Party government took over, it pushed the Aadhaar project more aggressively and sought to merge the databases of Aadhaar and the NPR.

In July 2015, the government told Parliament about having recorded the details of around 27 crore people for the register, integrating it with Aadhaar and providing around Rs 921 crore for the merger by March 2016. By July 2015, thus, the Indian government had demographic and biometric details of around 75 crore residents, around 48 crore covered under Aadhaar and 27 crore under the National Population Register.

In a letter on March 16, 2015, the Election Commission of India asked the office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, which comes under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, to share data collected for the National Population Register, including Aadhaar, with state election commissions for linking Aadhaar to voter IDs.

On April 8, the records show, C Chandramouli, then the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, assured H S Brahma, then the Chief Election Commissioner of India, that the National Population Register database with Aadhaar and voter IDs would be made available to chief electoral officers of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, apparently the first three states to seek it.

Strategy 4: Pooling data from other sources

Governments already hold reams of data on citizens so why not just pool it all, even if data from different sources do not exactly match and voters are not told what is going on?

In a letter on March 13, 2015, Jharkhand’s chief electoral officer told the Election Commission of India that booth officers going door to door had collected 83 lakh Aadhaar numbers for linking with voter IDs, the documents show.

This was not enough, apparently. So the chief electoral officer asked if Aadhaar data collected by state and central governments for disbursing welfare benefits could be shared with the state election commission. The officer also requested the commission to get government and private companies in Jharkhand to share Aadhaar numbers of their staff, if already collected, with the poll body.

There is no clarity on whether the Election Commission of India entertained this request. Scroll.in asked the poll body about it but did not receive a response.

States had also pooled data from state residential data hubs and Andhra Pradesh was one of them, shows a recent letter, dated April 25, 2018, sent from the office of the chief electoral officer of the state to a deputy commissioner in Election Commission of India.

Between 2009 and 2016, Aadhaar enrolment took place without any legal backing. According to Unique Identification Authority of India, all states collected demographic information (name, date of birth, address and voter details in some cases among other information) and biometrics (photograph, fingerprint and iris scan) of individuals, acting on behalf of the authority during the said period. The states kept a copy of this data and sent another copy to the authority. The state’s copy was kept in a state resident data hub.

Government departments have always maintained lists of residents and other information about them in order to be able to disburse welfare benefits such as subsidy on cooking gas cylinders and distribution of essential food items through the public distribution system. With the emergence of the state resident data hubs during the early stage of Aadhaar enrolment, several states such as Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat decided to merge all separate data sets into one and there was no legal prohibition on the same, said experts and activists.

Question of consent

There were two problems with this. First, the proposal for the National Population Register didn’t envision linking it to voter IDs. It was meant to only prove residency in India. Indeed, the register was brought under the mandate of the Citizenship Act, but not the Representation of the People Act. Second, there was possible violation of consent. A person, for example, could have consented to their Aadhaar being linked to the National Population Register but not to electoral rolls. So, taking their Aadhaar from the register for linking it to the voter ID clearly amounted to violating consent. That applies to all programmes, including the ones in relation to which data was fed into the state residential data hubs.

A letter from the Gujarat government to Chandramouli’s office, sent on July 16, 2015, mentions that the National Population Register had around 10 lakh entries from the state and seeks access to the database. The minutes of the meeting held by the Election Commission of India on July 13, meanwhile, show the poll body acknowledging that:

  1. It had asked chief electoral officers of all states and Union Territories to approach the registrar general for access to the National Population Register database.  
  2. The registrar general had provided access to the National Population Register database and Aadhaar numbers to the states which sought it.    
  3. The chief electoral officers of Bengal and Tamil Nadu had received this data from the registrar general.  
  4. Bengal had Aadhaar coverage of around 80% at the time but had linked only 30% of voter IDs by engaging booth officers. 

On August 11, 2015, the Supreme Court prohibited the use of Aadhaar for “any purpose” other than the distribution of subsidised food grain and cooking fuel.

While the central government ignored the interim order and made Aadhaar mandatory for availing a range of welfare benefits and services, the Election Commission of India halted its drive to link voter IDs to Aadhaar on August 13.

Senior UIDAI officials argued that since Aadhaar-voter ID linking was the domain of the Election Commission of India, they could not comment on the matter.

Scroll.in sent detailed questions to the poll body about the exercise. It chose not to respond to the questions but said, “The programme was stopped in August 2015 in pursuance of the interim direction of the Hon’ble Supreme Court. No further decision has been taken in this regard as the matter is still pending before the Hon’ble Supreme Court.”

Also read: Linking voter IDs with Aadhaar: Plea in Madras High Court revives concerns about privacy, consent

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