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Aadhaar: Privacy is a concern for all, not just MS Dhoni, but exclusion of poor is a bigger worry

The controversy (read here) over the disclosure of cricketer Mahindra Singh Dhoni’s Personal data while he was updating the Aadhaar details at Ranchi is most likely the outcome of ignorance of an officer regarding Aadhaar privacy laws. As per the Aadhaar Act, even the Unique Identification Authority of India cannot share the personal information available under Aadhaar records with any agency unless there is an order from a District Judge. On issues of national security, only a joint secretary level officer can authorise access of personal data, that too after getting an order from the central government.

Of course, privacy concerns should be addressed. But, this shouldn’t be the primary subject of the Aadhaar debate, for the simple reason that much of the personal information of every citizen is already accessible to the government (and even various private service providers) through various means. As many experts have pointed out, the government doesn’t really need an Aadhaar number to secure someone’s personal information. This is not to say that Aadhaar holder doesn’t require a right by law to keep his information secret from the government/ public access. But, let’s remember that most of us willingly give away the personal information to mobile phone service providers, e-commerce firms and online shopping portals that are often shared with other entities for business purposes.

 Aadhaar: Privacy is a concern for all, not just MS Dhoni, but exclusion of poor is a bigger worry

Representational image. Reuters

The bigger concern should be the likely exclusion of the poor in the whole process. Aadhaar was conceptualised and legalised with the idea that it will act as an enabler for all citizens, especially for the poor and deprived, to access government benefits/subsidies directly to his/her bank account. Under what is called the direct benefit transfer the government can ensure that the money reaches the beneficiaries and do not get diverted by corrupt officials and middleman. The idea is noble and successfully experimented in most developed countries.

But, the problem arises when biometric authentication is required to avail basic entitlements and welfare schemes, for instance food grains under PDS. There have been reports (read a study here) of Aadhhar holders failing to avail entitlements after failing during biometric authentication. Such cases have been reported despite the assurance of the government (read here) that Aadhaar isn't mandatory for the poor to get welfare scheme benefits. It is the duty of the government that this assurance is practiced on ground.

Such exclusions could be either due to poor quality finger prints, technical issues or even more simply, the officer doesn’t know how to use the biometric authentication machine. But, in the process, the entitlements for poor will be either denied (if the officer purely goes by the rule book) or delayed, which is not acceptable. There is a likelihood of poor workers failing the Aadhaar test since their finger prints are more prone to show mismatches.

Here’s where the Supreme Court’s repeated reminders to the government asking it not to make Aadhaar the only record to avail social welfare schemes assume significance. Early this week, the apex court yet again reminded (read here) the government about this. As per this Firstpost report the legal experts have questioned the government’s total disregard of the Supreme Court interim order on expanding the ambit of Aadhaar from an enabler to distribute government benefits to the point of making it mandatory even to file tax returns.

This lack of connect between the judiciary and the government on vital issue deserves serious debate. Aaadhar’s ambit can be widened at a later stage when privacy/ authentication concerns are fully addressed to satisfaction but, for now, it should stick to its original purpose of subsidy/ benefit transfer. There is validity in the argument that PAN card is enough for filing tax returns.

Aadhaar-linked bank account benefit transfer is a great idea that has already helped to plug the subsidy leakages to a great extent. But exclusion of poor for technical reasons shouldn’t happen for any reason. Also, there have been cases of Aadhaar deactivation post biometric identity mismatches, yet again a serious problem.

Aadhaar Act entitles the right to every citizen to have an Aadhaar card and it shouldn’t be left to the discretion of an officer to take back that right. The Narendra Modi-government will do well ensuring a back-up mechanism for the poor works everytime when he fails to pass the Aadhaar biometric authentication test, at least when availing fundamental subsidy benefits such as availing food grains. The government's determination to plug subsidy loopholes is indeed laudable but this shouldn’t be a reason to deprive the poor of what is rightfully his share.

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Updated Date: Mar 29, 2017 13:17:16 IST