Big Aadhaar debate: What are the issues, concerns and why some experts, Supreme Court are against making it mandatory

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‘Mandatory Aadhaar’: While most Indians want to embrace and adapt to the change, experts have questioned the process of evolution of Aadhaar from an ‘unverified’ biometric database to an authentic and robust national identification. (Image: PTI)

While a debate on Aadhaar is on in the country, support and criticisms have been flowing in from all sides. In Budget 2017, the government inserted a provision making it mandatory to quote Aadhaar number while applying for PAN card as well as when filing Income Tax returns. The main objective of this exercise is to link the PAN with Aadhaar and thereby, also identify tax evaders. Critics have questioned the rigid position of the Modi government on this matter and accused it of not initiating a discussion on whether Aadhaar should be made mandatory in India. Some experts have also claimed that there is no discussion on the legal accountability of the database nor is there any debate inside or outside the Parliament.

Digitisation and technology cannot be ignored in the current world. But then, there are several risks that need to be addressed. While most Indians want to embrace and adapt to the change, experts have questioned the process of evolution of Aadhaar from an ‘unverified’ biometric database to an authentic and robust national identification. Meanwhile, there have been accusations against the present government of denying Supreme Court’s concerns. The apex court judges are currently looking into a number of petitions seeking a stop to the process of Aadhaar being made mandatory. The top court had itself asserted in 2013 that Aadhaar should be voluntary, not mandatory.

What does the SC say?

The Supreme Court on Friday questioned the Central government for making Aadhaar mandatory for procuring Permanent Account Number (PAN) card. A bench, headed by Justice A K Sikri, said it would hear arguments on the plea challenging the government’s move making Aadhaar mandatory for PAN cards on April 25.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for the Central government reportedly argued that they had found that people were providing details of PAN cards which were procured on fake documents. He said there were several instances when a person owned many PAN cards which were eventually used to divert funds to shell companies.

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What experts say

Rajeev Chandrashekhar, an independent member of Rajya Sabha, who has been a constant critic of Aaadhar, wrote in an opinion piece in The Financial Express on April 14: “(Government) spent thousands of crores of rupees on Aadhaar with no debate inside or outside Parliament, no legislative backing and, most importantly, no legal accountability for the authenticity of this biometric database. As a result, all that money was spent on creating a poorly verified biometric database with no details on citizenship.”

The MP questioned the use of Aadhaar as a wider identification instrument, while in itself it is an unverified database. He said that until 2016, 100 crore entries were formed with almost no verification.

Meanwhile, Nandan Nilekani, the brain behind Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), recently in an interview to HT told Hindustan Times, that the Modi government is right in making Aadhar mandatory. He said that the move will streamline the system and identify fraudulent practices in the country.

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In an article opposing the government’s decision to make Aadhaar mandatory, The Economist recently criticised the Modi government, saying its move “does not always inspire confidence” that it respects the rights of citizens. Many such articles, even in international media, claim that since the Modi government is contradicting the Supreme Court, there is a danger that several government schemes might find themselves stuck, in the future.

Chandrashekhar asked the government, “How such poorly verified entries, that can be forged for Rs 40 at Palika Bazar, can be used to access airports and as KYC for opening non-JDY bank accounts?” He said that as of now no audit has been conducted to showcase the steps taken by the UIDAI to ensure the verification of all entries.

Meanwhile, former Finance Minister, in 2016 wrote that the government depends on its number strength instead of the power of its arguments. He had added that that law could have been struck down on violation of fundamental rights and privacy invasion. He also brought forward the arguments placed by the opposition during UPA rule, by saying, “Meenakshi Lekhi called Aadhaar ‘a fraud’, Mr Prakash Javadekar described it as ‘a game played on the poor’, and Mr Ananth Kumar said it was ‘something to be ashamed of’. Recently, according to an NDTV report, Chidambaram and current Finance Minister Arun Jaitley battled it out in the Parliament, when the former asked, “If Pentagon can be hacked, what is the guarantee that bank accounts and IT details will not be hacked via Aadhaar?”

In an article in IE in 2015, Chandrashekhar had claimed that the Aadhaar was marketed as a “transformational” scheme but concerns remained on its privacy, security, data integrity and design. He had maintained that not many people really understood Aadhaar due to the PR that was built around it.

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The Economist questioned the intent of the current government, saying it sneaked the Aadhaar-tax link in the middle of a Budget bill. The article titled “Do you trust Modi with your data? India’s biometric identity scheme should not be compulsory”, asked whether the government would snoop on user data?