New Delhi: The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government on Thursday set the ball rolling on its plans to reset the subsidies regime by making Aadhaar the central pillar.
It introduced Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, in the Lok Sabha, which seeks to make the use of Aadhaar mandatory for availing of government subsidies but at the same time tries to address concerns regarding privacy and protection of personal information.
Violation of privacy and protection of biometric data has been one of the main criticisms of Aadhaar, which has enrolled almost a billion citizens in the unique identity scheme.
The bill, which has been tabled as a money bill in the Lok Sabha, will provide statutory backing to Aadhaar. Consequently, its fate will not be decided, like in the case of other key legislation, by the inability of the NDA to muster a majority in the Rajya Sabha.
The proposed legislation will also address the uncertainty surrounding the project after the Supreme Court restricted the use of the Aadhaar number until a constitution bench delivers its verdict on a number of cases challenging the mandatory use of Aadhaar in government schemes and rules on the issue of privacy violation.
The bill has sought to address many provisions related to privacy and security of the biometric information provided by citizens. The bill provides that the information will be an electronic record and will be classified as “sensitive personal data or information” as per the provisions of the Information Technology Act.
The bill prohibits the sharing of the core biometric information in any form. However, information about the identity of an individual, other than core biometric information, can be shared subject to certain conditions. The bill also mandates the enrolling agency to inform the individual undergoing enrolment on how the data will be used and with whom it will be shared and the fact that the individual can also access such information.
The first reactions to the bill from legal experts were largely welcoming.
“From an overall perspective, this statute has the strongest privacy protection among any statute I have seen. It has extensive provisions regarding purpose limitation, which is the cornerstone of modern privacy jurisprudence,” said Rahul Matthan, partner, technology, media and telecom practice at Trilegal, a law firm.
“No other statute has this kind purpose limitation, and that is one big takeaway. The other takeaway is the extremely powerful provisions regarding collection of biometric information. No one can reveal core biometric information to anybody from the central database, even the Aadhaar number holder. There is an absolute obligation to protect confidentiality. The protection of information provisions look pretty good,” he added.
Rahul Singh, a research scholar at Oxford University who has worked with several regulatory authorities in India, agreed that the bill was far reaching and broad in its ambit.
“It is also aware of the data protection and privacy issues. But my primary concerns are twofold—in theory when a bill says it’s important to maintain confidentiality, it sounds very fancy. But it’s very difficult in practice. There should have been some special provision making the officials of the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) more responsible so that no data is leaked by them,” he said.
The bill also provides provisions wherein institutions, after paying a fee, can authenticate the identity of a person. But for this, the institution should have the consent of the Aadhaar number holder.
It directs UIDAI to have sufficient security of identity information and authentication record of individuals. It also directs UIDAI to ensure that agencies, consultants and its employees are bound by confidentiality and do not leak any information.
To ensure that the number of people excluded from Aadhaar’s fold is minimum, the bill also talks about special measures that will be undertaken by the Authority to issue numbers to women, nomadic tribes, street dwellers, senior citizens, persons with disability and unskilled and unorganized workers. It also says the Aadhaar number by itself will not be considered proof of citizenship or domicile.
It also provides for penalties for impersonation, unauthorized access and tampering of data in the Central Identities data repository that stores all such information.
To be sure, the government has retained the right to use and access such information sought “in the interest of national security.”
Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a member of the Rajya Sabha, pointed out that Aadhaar by itself cannot help in efficient targeting of subsidiaries.
“It is good that there will be a debate and scrutiny of the bill. The move to address privacy concerns is also welcome. But Aadhaar by itself cannot help in identifying beneficiaries. It has the name, age, address and biometrics of a particular individual and can help in his identification. But it cannot tell you if this person should be receiving government subsidies. For this, Aadhaar has to be linked to some other proof like a BPL (below poverty line) card,” he said.
Most of the government’s social security schemes and digital initiatives are critically dependent on the use of Aadhaar. This unique identity number will also form the cornerstone of India’s move towards a cashless economy along with the opening of bank accounts as part of the Jan Dhan scheme.
By introducing the bill as a money bill, the government will not be handicapped by its numerical weakness in the Rajya Sabha. This is because money bills can be introduced only in the Lok Sabha, where the NDA has a sizeable majority. The Rajya Sabha cannot make amendments to a money bill passed by the Lok Sabha and can only make recommendations. It also has to return money bills to the Lok Sabha within 14 days from the date of their receipt, thus ensuring a time-bound process. Such bills also cannot be referred to a joint committee of Parliament, as per details available on the Parliament’s website.
Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha, objected to the bill being introduced as a money bill. “We are ready to cooperate on the bill but it should not come as a money bill. They are doing this to avoid Rajya Sabha. You (government) have made your intention clear.”
“This bill is substantially different from what the colleagues are talking about. The substance of the bill is that whoever gets subsidies, will have to produce Aadhar. This is in accordance with Article 110. It is up to the Speaker now to decide whether it is accordance or not,” finance minister Arun Jaitley said in response to Congress reactions.
The bill will provide for “good governance, efficient, transparent, and targeted delivery of subsidies, benefits and services, the expenditure for which is incurred from the Consolidated Fund of India, to individuals residing in India through assigning of unique identity numbers to such individuals..,” a brief summary of the bill said.