India’s supreme court has come down heavily on the mandatory linking of Aadhaar for almost everything.
In a much-anticipated ruling today (Sept. 26), a five-judge bench struck down section 57 of the Aadhaar Act, which allowed corporate entities or even individuals to demand an Aadhaar card in exchange for goods or services. As a result, now no school, office, or company can force anyone to reveal the unique 12-digit number. Neither is it mandatory for opening bank accounts or for mobile connections.
However, the Aadhaar number must still be quoted to file income tax returns and apply for a personal account number (PAN).
Introduced in 2009 by the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government, the scheme has grown to become the world’s largest biometric ID programme.
The initial mandate for the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which administers the project, was to mitigate corrupt practices and bring transparency to systems and processes, both in the public and private sectors. For instance, the 12-digit unique identification number was touted as a remedy to India’s leaky public distribution system (PDS), where rampant impersonation denied benefits to the genuinely needy.
However, the programme later expanded in scale and reach from the original directive and, in the process, ran into challenges and controversies.
Under the Narendra Modi-led government, which came to power in 2014, Aadhaar has become a requirement for at least 22 welfare programmes. That’s despite an August 2015 supreme court order (pdf) restraining the government from expanding it beyond the public distribution system for food grains and cooking fuel.
In fact, in 2013 itself, the apex court had said, “No person should suffer for not getting an Aadhaar card.” A bench at the apex court had instructed that the state must refrain from making Aadhaar mandatory for gas connections, vehicle registration, scholarships, marriage registration, salaries, provident funds, etc.
Court rulings have ensured that the programme—at least on paper—is voluntary. That, however, has not stopped it from becoming entrenched in daily life. From pension schemes to nutrition programmes for kids, and women’s empowerment scholarships to insurance payouts, the government and many businesses, including banks and cell phone operators, have been pushing for it, at times even arm-twisting citizens to sign up for an Aadhaar number.
Denial of services
Since last year, several banks had been refusing to open new accounts without an Aadhaar. This was even before the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) March 31 deadline to link bank accounts with the 12-digit ID kicked in.
For their part, lenders claim they were putting an early barrier to avoid a last-minute rush. The story was no different at insurance firms where claims were being blatantly denied or pushed if Aadhaar numbers were not linked.
Weeks before the March 31 cut-off date, the supreme court indefinitely extended the deadline to link Aadhaar with all private and non-subsidised government services, which includes bank accounts.
The lack of clarity around the rules created chaos across organisations and there have been instances where banks were caught forcing customers to link their Aadhaar numbers and bank accounts, despite the verdict. “There have been changes in deadlines and regulations. A lot of times, some of the junior officers are not aware of that and that is why you hear these instances of banks insisting (on Aadhaar numbers),” said a public sector banker, requesting anonymity. “Sometimes, there is also confusion on who should one be listening to: the RBI, which is the banking regulator, or the supreme court. And that is why an official may ask for the submissions to be made.”
The extension of the March 31 deadline also applied to linking Aadhaar with cell phone services, but until a few months ago, mobile phone operators were also hounding customers with calls and texts, asking them to link their Aadhaar and mobile numbers. Non-resident Indians and foreign travellers were especially perturbed since they don’t have Aadhaar cards.
Fearing disconnection, even resident Indians got the linking done. By the end of last year, 712 million of India’s one billion mobile subscribers had done so, and now they have no option of opting out.
Often, even relatively mundane tasks like sending a parcel abroad need Aadhaar validation.
This kind of coercion has extended to e-commerce services, too.
Proactive corporations and individuals
India’s largest e-commerce payment system and digital wallet, Paytm, has been accused of insisting on Aadhaar for verification. Even though the company denied it, customers have narrated instances where no other government-approved identity card was being accepted for verification at its KYC (know-your-customer) centres.
In certain cases, if not corporations, individuals forced customers. For instance, an Amazon India executive was recently called out for seeking a customer’s Aadhaar details just to track lost packages.
Then there are the home-owners who insist on it for renting their properties.
Even young children aren’t spared. In New Delhi, government schools ask parents to get their kids enrolled to be granted admission. This despite a notification from the directorate of education against the practice.
Things are worse in neighbouring Haryana, where new parents aren’t issued even birth certificates unless their new-born gets an Aadhaar.
“Almost everywhere with the direct benefits transfer (DBT) programme, de facto, you have to give Aadhaar,” said Reetika Khera, a professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, who has extensively studied the impact of Aadhaar on welfare programmes. “In some cases, you might still get your money. In other cases, they say you’re a ghost entry and knock you off.”
There is no clarity whether any alternative to Aadhaar exists, Khera said.
To worsen matters, the programme is far from hiccup-free.
For instance, wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which entitles rural households to 100 days of gainful employment per year, have sometimes been transferred to the wrong person’s account due to Aadhaar mix-ups.
Children have been denied mid-day meals for not having an Aadhaar number. Several deaths by starvation have been reported due to glitches in this system.
The disabled, people with tuberculosis, those being rescued from prostitution, rehabilitated after manual scavenging, and even victims of the infamous Bhopal gas tragedy have complained of not being able to avail of benefits without Aadhaar, Usha Ramanathan, an independent law researcher who has steadfastly opposed Aadhaar, told Quartz last year.
Though the supreme court extended the deadline to connect bank accounts and mobile numbers indefinitely, the same did not extend to welfare programmes. “With banks and mobile numbers, it’s a hassle and then we might worry about our data,” Khera said. “But welfare is the place it’s causing the most damage. For poor people, it’s life and death.”
Several times, due to fingerprint mismatch, customers have been unable to verify their identities. This problem arises particularly for older people with fading fingerprints or others with medical conditions. “There are people who come to the centre claiming there is a problem with the fingerprint on the Aadhaar card because their biometrics are not recognised and they are unable to get their pension, food, etc.,” said a Mumbai-based Aadhaar agent, requesting anonymity.
“However, the problem is not with what is being made at camps. It is a systemic issue that keeps coming up and it is the reason why people keep losing faith in the system.”