Aadhaar: India’s Identification System

As many as 50 million Indians hold a passport, close to 100 million hold a Permanent Account Number (PAN) tax card, as many as 200 million have a driving license and around 700 million have an Elector Photo Identity Card (EPIC).  Despite this, there is a huge section of the Indian population that does not have any proof of identity.   

Aadhaar – which in English means “support” – is a 12-digit Unique Identification (UID) number which the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) intends to issue to all Indian residents.  The UID number is stored in a centralized database and linked to the basic demographics and biometric information – photograph, ten fingerprints and iris – of each Indian citizen. Aadhaar is intended to provide a formal proof of identity to the millions of mostly poor residents of the country who do not have any other means of establishing their identity, as well as act as a gateway to access various services being offered by the government.  Aadhaar became a useful tool for poor people to open a bank account.  It also became a means for the authorities to check leakages in the system of provision of government benefits and services.  Citizens who did not have an Aadhaar number found themselves unable to avail themselves of many government schemes.

Supreme Court weighs in

Government agencies in some cases had made Aadhaar mandatory for citizens to avail themselves of certain benefits such as: wages under the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme; pensions and scholarships; rations under the subsidized Public Distribution System (PDS); and subsidies for liquid petroleum gas (LPG). In addition, in the case of certain services like registration of property transactions, rent agreements, marriages and wills, it was made mandatory to possess an Aadhaar number. The Supreme Court, in a ruling of March 24, 2014, put an end to this by declaring that Aadhaar was not mandatory for citizens to obtain benefits or services under any government scheme. The Supreme Court directed the government to withdraw all orders which mandated Aadhaar as a condition of obtaining benefits.

The Supreme Court has also directed the UIDAI not to share any information pertaining to an Aadhaar number holder without permission of the number holder. The judgment came in the case of a seven year-old girl that was raped. , The lower court and subsequently the Mumbai High Court directed the UIDAI to share the biometric information of all residents of Goa with Central Bureau of Investigation in order to solve the case. The UIDAI has appealed the order of the Mumbai High Court on constitutional grounds.  It relied on a 1997 judgment of the Supreme Court which held that the right to privacy is a part of the right to life as stated in the Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Controversies around Aadhaar

In its March order the Supreme Court did not question the relevance of the unique identification scheme.  Even so, UIDAI has attracted a series of controversies. These controversies range from a turf war with the National Population Register (NPR) under the powerful Ministry of Home Affairs; the rejection of the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance headed by former finance minister Yashwant Sinha; a Supreme Court order of September 2013, ruling that States must not insist on the Aadhaar card to provide essential services; a sting operation during which the required procedures for enrollment for an Aadhaar number were not followed and enrollment was done for a price; involvement of private agencies in the enrollment process; use of technology from companies based outside of India, leading to national security concerns; opposition by social activists; and lack of a data protection act.   All of these issues have contributed to opposition to the Aadhaar scheme.

Politics of Aadhaar

Nandan Nilekani, a billionaire businessman and the co-founder and former CEO of Infosys, was invited by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to become the first chairperson of the UIDAI and assumed the position, with cabinet rank, in July 2009.  Under Nilekani’s leadership the initiative advanced at a breathtaking pace, with 100 million Aadhaar numbers registered by November 2011 and 200 million by February 2012. By early 2012, however, Nilekani had run into significant bureaucratic opposition and had to compromise with then Home Minister P. Chidambaram.   Under the terms of this arrangement, UIDAI would directly enroll another 400 million people in 16 states – in addition to the 200 million it had already signed up – while the Home Ministry’s NPR would cover the remaining 600 million in the other states.  The UID and NPR were to exchange data, with each program eventually enrolling the other’s participants. 

In March 2014, Nilekani resigned from his UIDAI position, joined the Congress Party and is now contesting for a seat in the lower house of parliament or Lok Sabha from Bangalore South on a Congress ticket.  As a result, the whole Aadhaar project has taken on a political color. Subramanian Swamy, a BJP leader, has levied charges of corruption against Nilekani and has demanded action under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Multiple BJP leaders have stated that the Aadhaar project will be scrapped or completely revamped if their party comes to power. Nilekani’s opponent, the BJP candidate from Bangalore South, Ananth Kumar, has labeled the project as “Niraadhaar” (without foundation) and stated that the if BJP comes to power, it will not only scrap the project but will also undertake an investigation on spending under the project.  

With the political temperature rising, it is evident that the project is headed for major trouble. The West Bengal Assembly earlier last year passed a resolution supported by the governing Trinamool Congress and the Left Front demanding withdrawal of the linkage between Aadhaar and the LPG Subsidy.  Many members of the public complained that they were being charged the full, non-subsidized amount (over $20 for an LPG cylinder as opposed to $7.34, the subsidized price) at a time when Aadhaar cards had only been distributed to a minority of the population.  And residents who had signed up for the subsidy often found it difficult to take out $20 from their bank accounts even when the subsidy was set to be transferred. )  In November Indian Oil announced that all household LPG consumers will continue to receive the subsidy even if it was not linked to their Aadhaar card.

Left parties had opposed the Aadhaar project from its inception, based on privacy concerns and suspicions that it somehow was designed to deny benefits to certain sectors of the populace.  With Trinamool voicing objections, there are now stakeholders within the NDA, the Third Front and potentially the UPA (if Trinamool aligns itself with the UPA) which are against the project.

Another concern stems from the lack of legislation in place to back the Aadhaar project.  The UIDAI was established under an executive order of January 28, 2009. The National Identification Authority of India Bill introduced in Parliament was referred to the Standing Finance Committee, which rejected it in December 2011. The UPA government thereafter has not introduced a revised bill on the subject in the Parliament. To date there is no legislation which clarifies who can collect the UID information, who will be custodian of the data, and who will be responsible in case of leakages.

In the absence of legislation no liability is placed on any department or individual if the UID data lands in the wrong hands or is misused by the State itself.  The fact private agencies are handling the data increases concerns about possible leaks. Finally, a fundamental problem with UIDAI is that it has been established under an executive order and can be scrapped with another executive order; its establishment and authority lack the weight of law. 

The Supreme Court ruling, combined with other challenges, have jeopardized the Aadhaar project.