Aadhar: No Primacy to Privacy

Published: March 17, 2016 - 17:37

Editorial Hardnews Delhi

Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi does not pull punches. Late last year, while arguing before the Supreme Court, he stated categorically that if the poor of our country want to receive benefits, they should be prepared to surrender their right to privacy.

Quite clearly, the AG made light of the privacy concerns of the poor since he had arrived at the safe conclusion that those who are economically challenged and need to look up at the State for succour, should have no concern for such esoteric issues. It was this mindset that pushed with vigour the Aadhar or Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services Bill in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday. Attempts by MPs of the Rajya Sabha to introduce amendments failed to make any impression as the government cleverly brought this bill as a ‘money bill’ which meant that after the Lok Sabha passed it, the Rajya Sabha could do little.

As aggressively defended by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Aadhar is the BJP-led NDA government’s silver bullet to provide subsidies and other benefits to the poor that were earlier allegedly stolen away by the ‘rapaciously corrupt’ intermediaries. It does not really mean that the government, while piloting the Aadhar bill, did not really dwell on privacy issue. According to the former chairman of the Unique Identity Authority of India (UADAI), Nandan Nilekani, this bill is more conscious of privacy issues than the one conceived by the earlier UPA government. This is small comfort. What really troubles those who have been opposing the statutory status granted to Aadhar is -- what do you do when you have a rogue regime that has little regard for such ‘glamorous’ issues as privacy or the security of data? This problem gets severely compounded when institutions are fragile; they can wilt under pressure of a regime that is obsessed about ‘national security’.

This is no laughing matter at a time when terror is defining how citizens should conduct themselves. After the Paris terror attack, for instance, the French government has severely compromised citizens’ rights. Their surveillance laws are so intrusive that they can pick up any person based on the interpretation of algorithms about how he would behave in the next six months or a year. Even in the US, behemoths like Apple are under pressure to unlock the IPhone to allow FBI to pore over the phone data of the terror accused in San Bernardino. In these crazy times, it seems difficult that large corporations can stand up to pressure that is being brought up in the name of national security.

In India, this issue gets aggravated further as several institutions are fragile. As an Aadhar official, while detailing the security of the system, stated, that ultimately the protection to the individual has to come from the courts. And, we know so well, that the government merely pays lip service to the independence of judiciary and often chooses to find ways to subvert it -- whenever they get an opportunity. Money power and an aggressive and polarising nationalist ideology exponentially multiplies these threats to the judicial system. Aadhar authorities claim that the software has been jigged in a manner that the threat to privacy has been minimised. To boost their argument they claim that after the rape and murder of a woman in Goa, the local police had sent fingerprints of a possible accused to the Aadhar authorities that had a 60 crore data base. They refused, stating that their data base did not have the provision to do a search for fingerprints. Though the lower court and the high court in Goa had ordered the Aadhar authorities to cooperate, the Supreme Court had interjected and instructed the lower courts not to get into it. The Supreme Court, to its credit, has been categorical that the Aadhar number is not really needed for government benefits, or, in other words, it is not mandatory. By giving it a statutory status, the BJP-led government proposes to make Aadhar the hub around which it will unpack its Jan Dhan Yojana -- or parcel out more subsidies. They are hoping that they will be able to save more funds once this regime is in place.

However, there are elements that view this meta data differently. Some stray voice that did not get much space in the mainstream media stated categorically that through such data the government will actually come to know the concentration of minority population and figure out how to deal with them electorally and otherwise.  Indeed, that is an uncanny prediction. Surely, in this age of surveillance, as Edward Snowden discovered, the nation-state, henceforth, has to keep its eyes wide open.