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Aadhaar Controversy: WHY DO WE NEED IT?, By Dr.S.Saraswathi, 11 May, 2017 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 11 May 2017

Aadhaar Controversy


By Dr.S.Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The Supreme Court is hearing a petition whether the Aadhaar Card should be voluntary or mandatory. After Section 139AA was added to the Income Tax Act which mandates citizens to link Aadhaar with their PAN (Permanent Account Number).  Hence, quoting the Aadhaar number is mandatory for filing tax returns despite it being voluntary under the Aadhaar Act and repeatedly confirmed by the Apex Court.

Importantly, this section is to ensure fake PAN cards are weeded out of the system.   Already, Aadhaar is linked with gas and petrol supply and many social welfare schemes like pension, public distribution system, life insurance, mobile phone connection, etc.

As the legal and actual position of Aadhaar Card is vitally different this needs clarification. Pertinently, the Attorney-General told the Court the Government had every right to make it mandatory. Given, ever since its introduction, Aadhaar has been facing tough political and non-political opposition.  

Remember, the idea of a “multi-purpose identity card” was first considered by the NDA Government in 2003, its successor UPA took it further and launched the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) in 2009 on a grand scale which faced lot of criticism.  The Supreme Court questioned its standing when the Government wanted to link it with certain welfare schemes. 

In fact, the project was practically abandoned in 2014 when the Modi Government came to power.  Instead of Aadhaar, the National Population Project was expanded and door-to-door survey initiated.

However, Aadhaar was destined to survive and grow strong by quickly gaining the confidence and support of the NDA Government. It was promoted as a tool for improving   targeted delivery of services and a remedy for checking black money, terrorism etc.   

Further, the Centre adopted the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial & Other Subsidies, Benefits & Services) Act, 2016 as a money bill which was passed notwithstanding some MPS objecting to it being adopted as a money bill.

Undeniably, Aadhaar is intended to ensure creation of a framework for maintaining a central database of biometric information collected from citizens.  But because the data is essentially personal it has created a huge controversy and litigations over possible intrusion into the right of privacy, vital for individual freedom.  Consequently, we need to look world-wide for practices on Aadhaar-like identity cards.    

The pros-and-cons of having a national identity card system have been considered by many countries and various systems are in vogue.  Yet, only 100 countries have compulsory identity card systems. In the European Union, a national identity card fulfilling certain standards is in use for European citizens as a travel document instead of a passport.

Among our neighbours, Bangladesh has a National Identity Card for all citizens over 18 years. In Sri Lanka, citizens over 16 years must apply for the National Identity Card. Pakistan has a system of issuing Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) at age 18 which is mandatory for opening a bank account, getting passport and for all substantial transactions. 

Myanmar has a National Registration Card for nationals and Foreign Registration Card for foreigners. In Thailand, every citizen must get a National Identity Card at age 7.  Malaysia differentiates between permanent and temporary cards.  Issued at age 12, cards are updated at 18 years.

China issues Resident Identity Card at school age which is compulsory by age 16.  In Indonesia, citizens and foreign nationals with permanent residence in the country are given Resident Identity Cards, compulsory at 17 years and even earlier for married women.

In India, Voter Identity Cards and PAN Cards were introduced during the 1990s.  Under the Citizenship Act 2003, National Identity Cards were instituted and are now being promoted under the National Population Register.

Non-compulsory identity cards are in use in many western countries including USA, Switzerland, Italy, Sweden, Mexico, Finland, France, and Iceland. Countries without any identity cards system include UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway and Philippines.

In UK, compulsory National ID Cards were issued during the Second World War for security purposes and withdrawn in 1952 as its continuance in peacetime created tensions between the police and public.  But again reintroduced under the ID Cards Act by Tony Blair’s Labour Government as a counter-terrorism initiative in the wake of the 7/11 attack. 

However, in 2010 the Act was repealed by the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition Government in response to strong opposition raised over substantial intrusion into civil liberties. Replaced by a Pass Scheme which allows private companies to issue proof of age cards to UK residents primarily to the young for purchase of age- restricted goods and services. Alongside, the office of the Identity Commissioner was closed.

Also, few countries are issuing bio-metric cards like Aadhaar, which provide bio-metric details of the card-holder like age, sex, height, finger-print, iris scan, photo, etc.   Finger-print card system is in vogue in Belgium; Dutch passports and ID cards carry finger-prints and Norway issues bio-metric passports since 2005.

Electronic bio-metric ID Cards are compulsory from age 16 in Albania.  But, India has no significant social, economic, or historical factors in common with these countries to copy their practice. In UK, fingerprint scanners are used only in some schools.

Notably, USA tops the list of opponents to bio-metric identity cards whereby the proposal was once considered for passports, but rejected.  Most of its States have rejected the very idea of controversial ID Cards as a very costly matter that also presents a risk to privacy.

In 2004, the US Congress passed a law calling for a National Digital Identification System in the interest of national security. The plan to verify documents presented with applications for driving licenses and save them in electronic network was considered and rejected.

Certainly, US would be the last country to create a database of highly sensitive personal information and make it open, unprotected and accessible.  Whether it is possible to use that data in any way injurious to the concerned citizen is an irrelevant question. All private information is private to the concerned persons.

Clearly, many in India are reluctant to take Aadhaar and depend on the Supreme Court’s continued stand that it cannot be made mandatory for any purpose. Bio-metric details are normally collected for some specific purpose like national security and destroyed once the purpose is over.

Even those having no objection and willing to accept any Government initiative as in public interest find it extremely difficult to undergo the process of getting the Aadhaar Card.  The less said about this, the better.   Still, people take the trouble of getting the Card because without it, they cannot get their ration items, gas refill, etc and would lose their right to many welfare schemes.  Therefore: No other direct benefit.   

All in all endless controversies and continuous litigations over Aadhaar are unavoidable.   Complete information on the system and convincing statements on its use are necessary if people’s support and   cooperation are needed.  ---- INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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