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SCOI Report: Aadhaar opponents urge speedy setting up of privacy Constitution Bench

The power (and danger) of biometrics (brought to you by Gattaca   and other dystopian sci-fi)
The power (and danger) of biometrics (brought to you by Gattaca and other dystopian sci-fi)

Opponents of the Aadhaar scheme have stepped up their campaign to expose instances of contempt of court in the Aadhaar case, which is pending for a resolution by the yet-to-be constituted Supreme Court’s Constitution bench.

The question whether the right to privacy is a fundamental right, which was argued before a three-Judge bench in August, was referred to a five-Judge Constitution bench.

Yesterday (18 September), a press conference was held in New Delhi to highlight what some activists called “blatant” violations of Supreme Court’s August 11 order in the Aadhaar case. Aruna Roy, a petitioner in the case, said that there was no legal basis for the existence of the UID project. Since September 2013, the Supreme Court has passed orders five times, directing that Aadhaar is not mandatory for accessing entitlements, and no one can be denied any service because they do not have an Aadhaar number; yet people continue to be excluded from services on the grounds that they do not have an Aadhaar card.

Reetika Khera, economist, said that the stated assumption that the UID project will greatly benefit the poor has been repeatedly proven to be wrong. “Rather than being a tool of inclusion, it is fast becoming a tool of exclusion”, she said. Further, in a reply to an RTI query it is learnt that only 0.03% of people enrolled had no form of identification before. Those with an ID remain untouched by the project (or the numbers were very small).

“In the ration system in Delhi, the UID project has been used as a tool of exclusion,” said Anjali Bhardwaj of Satark Nagrik Sangathan. Voices from the field spoke of how aadhaar has emerged as a barrier to the poor, especially women and children, from accessing their entitlements. For instance, Guddu from Yamuna Khadar, Delhi, speaking at the press conference spoke of the denial of emergency services in two public hospitals in Delhi because of the lack of an aadhaar card.

Ramlalli from Lal Gumbad, Delhi had applied for a new ration card, under national food security act (NFSA). She explained that her children’s names were not added to the ration card. She was told at the ration office that this was because their Aadhaar cards were not submitted with the application. Under the NFSA, entitlements have become individual, and due to the exclusion of her children, Ramlalli’s family now does not receive adequate foodgrain. “The reality is that Aadhaar is not necessary for ending corruption. What we require is greater transparency and effective systems of grievance redressal,” said Anjali Bhardwaj.

Usha Ramanathan, law researcher, explained the latest order of the Supreme Court dated 11th August which states that the UID number cannot be used at all except for the purpose of the Public Distribution System and in LPG “So, the CBSE or the UGC or banks or anyone else cannot ask for the number at all. This is because the court recognised that voluntariness was being used as a means of imposing compulsion to enroll on people,” she said.

“If they ask for the number, they will be in contempt of the orders of the Supreme Court,” she added.

Gopal Krishna of the Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL) explained that the status of the data collected through the UID project has been suspect from the very start. It is being held by companies of dubious provenance, with companies such as L1 Identity Solutions, Ernst and Young and Safran Morpho having our data handed over to them. A contract has been signed between our government and large private companies which says they will hold the collected data for a period of seven years. “Everyone knows that if data is stored for even seven seconds, it can last forever,” he said, “this is a breach of trust on the part of the state to which people have been submitting their data.”

Aruna Roy added that by taking this issue lightly we are tacitly surrendering our economic and social rights.

On the issue of biometrics, Usha Ramanathan explained that the use of biometrics in the Indian context is now admittedly experimental.

“A Unique Biometrics Competence Center (UBCC) was announced on the UID website on August 13th where it is said that the Indian working population poses challenges to the use of biometrics, and so the UBCC was being set up to do research on biometrics”, she said.

“This is as a statement as we can expect to hear that biometrics is not only uncertain technology but also untested technology. It seems they only admitted to this weakness because of the Supreme Court’s order that they may have to share the information that is with them with law enforcing agencies. If an outsider to the project were to see the database, it seems the unreliability of the biometric database would get exposed, and this is a preemptive declaration” she added.

A report of the World Bank also stated that the rate of exclusion might be about 40% if identity systems were to be made the basis of access to entitlements; “but the report was soon removed from the World Bank website,” she said.

Ramanathan highlighted that only one government agency had acted promptly on the Supreme Court orders – the Election Commission – which released a statement the next day and ensured that there would be no linking of voter ID numbers and the UID

According to the activists, the governmental agencies continue in blatant violation of the court’s orders, possibly bolstered by a confidence that the court has not taken any action in contempt so far. The panel appealed for the swift constitution of a bench to hear the matter and wide reportage on the continued problems faced by people due to the project.

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