The new rules notified under the Aadhaar Act to widen its scope were an attempt to “cross the red lines” drawn by the Supreme Court limiting its use to subsidies and benefits, said Rethink Aadhaar and Article 21 Trust on Friday. The new rules state that Aadhaar authentication by entities is allowed “in the interest of good governance, preventing leakage of public funds, promoting ease of living of residents and enabling better access to services for them”.
In its September 2018 judgement, the Supreme Court had upheld the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar scheme, and upheld most of the provisions of the Act. However, the court said that phone numbers and bank accounts do not need to be linked with Aadhaar. “It follows that authentication under Section 7 would be required as a condition for receipt of a subsidy, benefit or service only when such a subsidy, benefit or service is taken care of by Consolidated Fund of India,” the top court had said.
Maansi Verma and Ria Singh Sawhney who are associated with Rethink Aadhaar and the Article 21 Trust, activist groups that focus on the impact of Aadhaar on human rights, said on Friday that justifications for the Aadhaar Authentication for Good Governance (Social Welfare, Innovation, Knowledge) Rules, 2020, were vague and “old wine in new bottle”. They said it was ironic that these rules were being touted as “good governance” when the Aadhaar project has been pushed “with total disregard for the norms underlying this concept: respect for the rights of citizens, respect for democratic processes, and accountability to citizens”. They added that every government service can fall within the scope of “good governance”.
The rules state that such authentication is allowed for the purposes of digital platforms to ensure good governance, prevention of dissipation of social welfare benefits, and enabling innovation and spread of knowledge. It added that such uses will be voluntary.
An unidentified senior government official said there is a “real need” to expand the scope of Aadhaar, The Economic Times reported. “Earlier, Aadhaar was restricted to subsidy schemes to prevent leakage of government funds, but there is a need to allow departments to use it for other purposes, like the digital health platform being prepared,” the official said. The official added that the new rules allow Aadhaar to be used for agriculture, education and health schemes, where a unique identification can ensure smooth running of schemes by weeding out fakes and duplicates from the system.
However, Rethink Aadhaar and the Article 21 Trust said that the government has long claimed “dissipation of social benefits” without any evidence to back its claims. They alleged that Aadhaar is “based on a flawed notion of how leakages work within welfare systems, choosing to treat people who depend on these entitlements as potential defrauders, over systemic reform”. This approach has led to mass exclusions of people from their entitlements due to failures of authentication or linkage. The system of Aadhaar authentication has increased the power of middlemen, while its centralised system prevents localised grievance redress.
They said it was also not clear how the government seeks to justify Aadhaar authentication for the purpose of innovation. “This is clearly with the intent of using data and activity trails so generated for commercial exploitation,” they claimed.
The two activist groups alleged that allowing for consent and voluntary action cannot make the “unconstitutional” Aadhaar project constitutional, as it violates fundamental rights. “There can be no waiver of fundamental rights and the State cannot put its citizens in a situation where they are constrained to ‘voluntarily’ offer up these rights in exchange for an ostensibly efficient or convenient system,” they said.
Rethink Aadhaar and Article 21 Trust claimed that any linkage to Aadhaar or Aadhaar-like measures poses risks to the “safety, security and health” of the population. “Exclusions due to Aadhaar are antithetical to good governance, if the objective is to enable citizens to easily access government services,” they said.