SC ruling on Aadhar is a relief for some, but not for those who need it most

Why has the concern about privacy been privileged over exclusion, even when there is ample evidence that Aadhaar-based welfare delivery systems have neither improved government efficiencies in targeted welfare nor facilitated a more inclusive system?

The Supreme Court on Tuesday passed yet another interim order, extending the deadline for mandatory linking of Aadhaar numbers to various services, including bank accounts and mobiles, till the disposal of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar.

The ruling, which is almost identical to the interim order passed in December, is undoubtedly a huge relief for many, even if only temporary.

But the order continues to be vague about the implications for other financial services, like PAN, income tax, mutual funds, and insurance, for those who are yet to obtain an Aadhaar card. Clarity on this is urgently required — after all, improving government efficiency in the delivery of welfare services, the stated goal of Aadhaar — has little to do with individual financial information.

With previous rulings having been ignored by numerous government departments over the years, it is definitely too early for celebration. At the very least, the ruling will hopefully end the barrage of threatening messages from banks and mobile phone operators, though there are already pictures floating around on social media of continuing messages from mobile operators to link Aadhaar.

Unfortunately, the order provides little relief to those who need it the most. The order does not apply to the deadline for subsidies and benefits given by the government. In effect, the March 31 deadline still holds for accessing several crucial welfare services, including the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, the Mid-day Meal Scheme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, among others, many of which are a citizen’s legal right.

Failing to provide relief to the most vulnerable citizens of the country, the poor and marginalised, for whom access to these welfare services is a crucial lifeline, the order is ultimately a disappointment.

Aadhaar, in other words, continues to remain mandatory in places where it has caused the most grave disruptions. There is growing evidence that exclusion due to authentication errors and deactivation have led to death, starvation, denial of medical services, and public benefits such as rations and pensions.

In Jharkhand, an 11-year-old girl died of starvation in October, months after her family’s ration card was cancelled because they did not possess an Aadhaar number. Right to Food activists from Jharkhand claim that 11 lakh ration cards have been cancelled, affecting nearly 25 lakh people who are otherwise eligible for subsidies food aid.

The 2016-17 Economic Survey registers significant authentication failures across multiple states — 49 per cent failure rate for Jharkhand, six per cent for Gujarat, five per cent for Krishna District in Andhra Pradesh and 37 per cent for Rajasthan.

Moreover, while the need for Aadhaar is defended in terms of the improvements it will bring to government efficiencies in delivery of welfare services, there is little evidence in the years since implementation to back the claim. Perhaps the most bizarre part of these deliberation is the seeming disregard for the growing body of evidence that demonstrates that biometric systems can fairly easily be faked.

Many of the petitions pending in the Supreme Court contend that Aadhaar is in violation of the right to privacy, particularly in the absence of a data protection framework. While in strong support of these arguments by petitioners, the question of exclusion of the most vulnerable is an equally grave and urgent issue.

Why has the concern about privacy been privileged over that of exclusion, even when there is ample evidence that Aadhaar based welfare delivery systems have neither improved government efficiencies in targeted welfare nor facilitated a more inclusive system?

Moreover, why should the same concern about privacy not extend to the delivery of welfare services?

If the Supreme Court is yet to decide on the constitutional validity of Aadhaar, there is little legitimate justification for excluding essential government services from these deliberations.

Article first published in The Indian Express, 14 March 2018


Urvashi Aneja

Urvashi Aneja is Founding Director of Tandem Research. She works on the governance and sociology of emerging technology; southern partnerships for humanitarian and development assistance; and the power and politics of global civil society. Urvashi is also Associate Fellow at Chatham House and a columnist for the Indian Express. She has a PhD from the Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Oxford. Previously, she was Associate Professor of International Relations at the OP Jindal Global University and Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.