Making Aadhaar Mandatory: Benefits and Drawbacks

This piece originally appeared in Daily O.

Aadhaar is a 12 digit number that serves as a unique identifier for Indian citizens and residents. It was introduced by the UPA government in 2010, with the intentions of making subsidy and benefit deliverance more effective and eliminate leakages in the process. Aadhaar has been ever prevalent in the news ever since.

In February, various ministries of the federal government announced in February that for people to avail government benefits and subsidies, they would be required to hold an Aadhaar card (and Unique ID). The subsidies affected by these announcements include food grain and horticultural subsidies, crop insurance schemes and benefits offered under Federal government programs such as the National Rural Livelihood Mission and National Career Services. And on Thursday, the Lok Sabha also passed the Finance Bill of 2017, which makes holding and using one’s Aadhaar card mandatory for the filing of income tax returns as well as obtaining and keeping a PAN card.

The various issued notifications allow for a period of time until which beneficiaries can apply for the Aadhar card before not being allowed their subsidies and benefits. In the interim, in the absence of an Aadhar card, beneficiaries can use their application slip for an Aadhaar card or continue using other identification documents to avail their subsidies. The duration until which beneficiaries can wait before mandatorily requiring an Aadhar card differs from scheme to scheme. All of these notifications have been issued in accordance of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, benefits and services) Act of 2016.

The biggest impact will be on people who rely on food subsidies. To be more specific, any government benefits or subsidies related to food grains under the National Food Security Act of 2013 will now require the beneficiary to hold an Aadhaar card. An estimated 67% of India’s population relies on the food subsidies and benefits available for cereals due to the National Food Security Act of 2013.

One major point of contention over these decisions is that the passage of these ministry notifications contradict the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2015 on Aadhaar. The Supreme Court reaffirmed an earlier ruling from 2013, stating that Aadhaar can only be a voluntary decision of the individual and that as long as a person is eligible to avail benefits and subsidies, the government cannot deny them those benefits and subsidies because on the basis that they do not have an Aadhaar card. Despite this ruling, the federal government decided to push through with these moves.

Furthermore, the manner in which the Aadhaar Act was passed through the Parliament was contentious as well. The Aadhaar Bill would be introduced as a money bill in the Lok Sabha. Classifying it as a money bill meant that the Rajya Sabha would not be able to vote on it, merely make suggestions and that passage through the Lok Sabha itself would turn the bill into an Act. There was an outcry over classifying the bill as a money bill and the matter was taken to the Supreme Court, which is currently still holding hearings over the matter.

This is also not something new. The federal government has also previously pushed for the same moves numerous times after the Supreme Court ruling. For instance, making holding an Aadhaar card to avail the cooking gas subsidy being mandatory. Furthermore, the federal government has also been pushing bank accounts to be linked to Aadhaar cards, regardless of whether or not an individual takes government benefits or subsidies.

The main argument that the federal government, and indeed, the reason why the previous UPA  government kickstarted the Aadhaar system, was to facilitate direct and transparent delivery of benefits and subsidies to the Indian citizens that required them. The system of payments making their way to people’s bank accounts directly was pursued with the goal of preventing fraud and corruption that otherwise took place and the World Bank too has praised the Aadhaar system for this reason.

According to The Economist, Nandan Nilekani, the creator of the Aadhaar system, argues that trust and verifiability are important for any business. Hence, the Aadhaar system’s positives will not only be limited to the government, but spread to the private business sector too as with an Aadhaar backed identity, banks will be more confident in giving out loans and businesses, both big and small more secure in knowing who they’re working with.

In fact, given the size of India’s population, something like the Aadhaar system might seem like easiest and most effective way to organize the payments of subsidies and benefits while keeping a check on administrative costs as well.

However, it is the sheer size of the Aadhar database wherein its issues lie as well. For starters, at least for now, the Aadhar system doesn’t have the strongest track records when it comes to the deliverance of subsidies and benefits. For instance, according to a report in the Economic and Political Weekly based on data made released by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) itself, the probability of the identities of two different people matching was 1/112 for India’s 1.3 billion population. Furthermore, a survey conducted by Andhra Pradesh’s government itself saw 48% respondents citing Aadhaar issues as a reason for them missing out on subsidies and benefits. Yet, the government wants to force through Aadhaar cards for every Indian citizen.   

The other issue with binding so much information of a citizen, including their bank accounts, to their Aadhaar card is if another country were to hack to Aadhaar database. India deals with frequent cyber attacks from China and Pakistan. Hacking the Aadhaar database would be an easy way for other countries to create disruption within India. Even Google and Apple have been wary about taking to Aadhaar due to security concerns.

Furthermore, there is the question of whether or not the government’s bureaucracy is equipped to handle something like the Aadhaar database and this is pertinent as the incapability to do so will only make it easier for hackers to target the Aadhaar system. Just recently, internet users reported how easy it was to access Aadhaar card information from government websites, by simply running a google search. Examples like that would suggest that the forcing through of Aadhaar indicates that the bureaucracy is not well equipped to handle the Aadhaar system currently.

This example also demonstrates the folly in the government making the Aadhaar system mandatory for a wide range of things, as in case of identity theft related to Aadhaar. A person reliant on Aadhaar for their benefits or subsidies, and, if permitted, having their bank account linked with the Aadhaar system, would be left toothless to carry out daily activities until the matter was sorted out.

There is the issue of the legal framework and privacy when it comes to Aadhaar cards. While there are safeguards in place in the Aadhaar Act itself, critics have argued that they do not go as far as they should to ensure the protection of privacy of citizens. More specifically, the fact that there is a lack of proper informed consent and wording of the Aadhaar Act allowing for the possible sharing of Aadhaar data with law enforcement are the two major worries expressed by critics.

While there are many positives that a system like the Aadhaar system will have for India, the limitations and flaws should also be kept in mind rather than a forced push for it. Aadhaar does make managing benefits easier for India but making it mandatory to avail benefit makes the Aadhaar database a prime target for exploitation, increasing the security risk behind it. Furthermore, forcing Aadhaar to be mandatory to file taxes opens up an argument on privacy rights. And the government’s argument of privacy not being fundamental does not help assuage any of them. Given the drawbacks, it is a must that there is more debate and discourse on the scope of Aadhaar as well as the development of proper training for relevant government workers before forcing through Aadhaar any more.

Modi government must protect right to dissent

The essential ideals of democracy are being debated upon in India. A national debate has been urged by students, writers, and the intelligentsia community that intolerance towards any dissent is being crushed while it should be allowed to flourish, questioned, and contested. India’s independence movement was based on the ideals of secularism, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and the freedom of thought. However, India is surging with protests across the country that are continuing to fight for those very fundamental rights.

On February 9, a group of students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) gathered to commemorate the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru. Afzal Guru was convicted for his role in the attack on India’s parliament in 2001. The group of students was heard shouting “anti-national” slogans such as “We will fight until India’s destruction.” Members of another student group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), at JNU protested in opposition to the “anti-national” slogans. ABVP, while an independent organisation, is known to be the students’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu extremist group. As Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was initiated as the political wing of RSS in 1951, ABVP is often affiliated with the BJP.

Kanhaiya Kumar, the leader of JNU Students’ Union was arrested on allegations of sedition after the protests on February 9th. At the time of his arrest it was not clear whether Kumar or the JNU Students’ Union was involved in the protest. However, he was arrested on grounds of complaints filed by BJP Member of Parliament Maheish Girri and ABVP. Many scholars including Former Attorney General, Soli Sorabjee, have come out since, to expose the lack of ground on which the arrest was made. Sorabjee went on to call the arrest on grounds of anti-national sentiments as “deplorable” as Kumar retains the right to free speech.

The situation escalated on February 15 outside the Patiala House Courts where Kanhaiya Kumar’s case was to be heard. BJP MLA, Om Prakash Sharma, openly attacked a member of the Communist Party of India, Ameeque Jamai who was their in protest to the arrest of Kumar. Sharma’s reaction seemed to have incited his supporters and around 40 lawyers in the crowd to attack members of the media and student protesters while the police half-heartedly attempted to protect them.

Sharma claims he was simply trying to stop a man from screaming “pro-Pakistan” slogans and not actually beating Jamai. However, pictures and videos of the scene clearly show otherwise. This kind of behavior does not behoove an elected member of parliament, especially one in the largest democracy in the world. Mr. Sorabjee also mentioned that “no individual can become a law enforcer” referring to the MLA leader. Sorabjee’s words could easily be referring to the lawyers beating up JNU students. The lawyers had actually communicated the day before the incident to gather in front of the court and “peacefully” teach the protesters what it “takes to be a patriot.” The controversy has since raised questions around “patriotism” and “constitutional rights.”

After the arrest, security agencies revealed to the Home Ministry that Kanhaiya Kumar might not have raised any anti-national slogans and that the sedition charge could be “over enthusiasm” on the part of police officers present at the scene. In fact the speech that he was arrested for condemned violence, and rallied “to strengthen democracy.”  In his speech Kanhaiya Kumar said:

"We have full faith in our country’s Constitution. And we want to firmly assert that if anyone lifts a finger against this country’s Constitution — whether the Sanghis or anyone else — we won’t tolerate it..."Then why are they (ABVP and RSS) so uncomfortable? They have a problem when the people of this country talk about democracy.”

This incident is similar to the recent Hyderabad Central University incident where a PhD student, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide. His suicide seems to have stemmed from a disciplinary action by the university and expulsion from hostel against 5 students including Vemula. Letters from Union Minister Badera Dattreya and Smriti Irani seem to have influenced the decision for expulsion.

The disciplinary action was taken due to his involvement in protests by the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) in August of 2015 in which the student group protested against the ABVP chapter’s actions to disrupt the screening of the documentary “Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai.” It was based on the 2013 anti-Muslim massacre in Western Uttar Pradesh. It is believed that his suicide is in protest of the way Dalits are being treated in India.

Vemula’s letter to the University vice-chancellor, his suicide letter and the protests that followed brought to light that casteism in India was still a reality overlooked and often dismissed by many. He had asked the chancellor to make “ropes available to rooms of all Dalit students” and “to give poison to them at admission” instead of the humiliation that Dalits faced in the community. In his suicide letter he wrote:

“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing.”

His words expose how his identity was reduced to a single thing, being a Dalit, and not that he wanted to be like Carl Sagan and explore nature. These incidents have just added more questions to the debate: of “lack of pluralism,” “nationalism” and “treatment of minorities.”

In both cases chapters of ABVP, a BJP affiliated student group, opposed the rights of other student groups to voice their opinions, to gather and to demonstrate peacefully. These are rights protected by the Indian constitution and are crucial to the functioning of a democracy so large and diverse.

Additionally, in both incidents local members of the BJP party supported the ABVP in its protests. These incidents showcase right-wing Hindutva elements within the BJP and student groups allied to it that have often tried to silence opinions that differ from their own. Their tactics aim to ambush and stifle opposing views that include farcical police cases, private complaints, social intimidation and legal petitions.

This is evidenced in the case of the arrest of GN Saibaba, Professor at Delhi University, who was arrested due to alleged maoists links. In support of Mr. G.N. Saibaba, Ms. Arundhati Roy, a renowned author and activists, faced criminal charges for writing an article in Outlook Magazine that interfered with the administration of justice. Many including former Chairman of the Press Council of India, Markandey Katju, failed to “see how it (Roy’s Article) could be regarded as contempt of court in a democratic country.” The intolerance towards dissent or freedom of expression are not just through formal criminal charges like in the case of Ms. Roy but also through an intolerant rhetoric by elected representatives.

Several members of BJP reacted with hostile comments towards actor Aamir Khan when he spoke out against rising intolerance in India at Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards ceremony. BJP MP Yogi Adityanath declared that "If Aamir Khan wants to leave the country he can go. The population of the country will come down." Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Vice President of BJP and Minister of State Parliamentary Affair disregarded Khan’s opinion by saying, "neither is he going anywhere nor will we let him go." Naqvi continued to dismiss Khan’s comments by assuming that Khan was “under someone else’s influence.” These comments were followed by Khan being berated on Twitter. Some claimed his comments were spreading communal behavior and fear in India. It is not the first time that a public figure has been shut down for speaking out.

A leading Indian thinker and president of Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, Pratap Bhanu Mehta has been very vocal about his discontent with the current government being the primary institution responsible for “threatening democracy.” Mehta argues that in the case of the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, essentially on the terms of being anti-national, is a trend by the state to create an atmosphere of “patriotism” that requires no tolerance to any dissenting thought.

Mehta is not just criticising the role of the state in the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar in violating the law of sedition, but, also the use of power by the state “to crush thinking.” He called it “malign” and “politically stupid.”

Mehta is not alone in calling out the government in this case or previous ones. Soli Sorabjee, in an article in the Hindu, wrote that the “right to dissent and tolerance of dissent are sine qua non of a liberal democratic society,” a couple of years ago and has been steadfast in that belief with these current incidents. Mr. Mehta differs slightly in his analysis that there is no room for speculation in this case as there was no “immediate instigation to violence” that is part of the IPC 124A referred to as the law of sedition. The real threat to democracy is the government’s suppression of free speech and to gather peacefully.

The “immediate instigation to violence” is actually coming from the opposition to the JNU students protest. A video taken by Jagat Sohail, student at Delhi School of Economics, shows a group of students chanting threat of murder to students of JNU who gathered on the anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru. The Indian government under the leadership of Mr. Modi has tried to promote economic optimism, growth and development as its primary agenda, however, in the past two years the national debate has reverted back to social issues of freedom of expression, freedom of religion and some have said even the “freedom of thought” is under siege.

Elements within the RSS, VHP, ABVP allied with the BJP have been at the front and center of what Sorabjee terms as “the menace of intolerance.” A poll taken by Times of India revealed that 62 per cent of the country believes that the “Sangh Parivar hotheads are adversely affecting the development agenda.” This intolerance may prove to be quite abrasive to the movement towards economic growth for India that Modi intends to be the champion of.

The national debate surrounding the recent JNU and Hyderabad University incidents are around the intolerance towards dissent and what it means to be Indian. Kanhaiya Kumar urges in his speech that the Sangh Parivar and groups like ABVP should not be the ones to justify patriotism or certify nationalism in India. He spoke up against “institutional violence” and appealed for the preservation of “constitutional rights” for the citizens of India. This surge of debate around these concepts are not new in the national arena and definitely not new since Narendra Modi took office.

There has been a constant battle between secularists and the government, from the beef ban to the “Award Wapsi” by the intelligentsia in India. This has now reached the doorstep of educational institutions where debate is not only necessary, it should be encouraged even if it is to debate the “hanging of Afzal Guru.” Being the world’s largest democracy and having had a national movement not 70 years ago must live up to the ideals of secularism, pluralism and inclusivity on which it was built upon.

Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Modi government to challenge fringe, extremist elements in society in order to uphold the rights of its citizens to dissent that will only strengthen democracy, not weaken it.

This article was first published through Daily O.

India and Pakistan Talk, Yet Again!

When Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi and his counterpart from Pakistan, Mr. Nawaz Sharif met on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in Russia in July 2015, one of the agendas they agreed upon was that the NSAs of their respective countries would meet in New Delhi “to discuss all issues connected to terrorism.” While the NSAs were all set to meet, India did not see eye-to-eye with Pakistan’s precondition to meet Hurriyat leaders while in New Delhi. After a lot of back and forth, and unwelcome additions to the talks, to discuss the “K-word” (referring to Kashmir) and about LoC violations, they were cancelled or how Ms. Sushma Swaraj put it, “Toh baat-chit nahin hogi”. The possibility of a re-start of dialogue between the two nuclear powers seemed bleak at best.

However, when the two leaders met again, this time on the sidelines of COP21, it seemed like a step in a positive direction. It was within a week after their handshake at COP21 that the NSAs from India and Pakistan met in Bangkok for a four-hour meeting on December 6th. It was held away from the scrutiny of the media in both countries. The purpose, agenda and the very existence of the meeting was revealed only after the meeting had concluded. This is unusual for the two countries as Pakistan has repeatedly insisted on including the dispute over Kashmir as a precondition for any dialogue with India. Dr. Aparna Pande, Research fellow at the Hudson Institute, mapped out a threefold trend in India-Pakistan dialogues. It begins with Pakistan iterating the importance of Kashmir, followed by Pakistan’s request for assistance by the United States on the issue, concluding with the United States asking the two countries to work it out. The NSA meetings earlier this year were cancelled following a similar trend. Given this round of the beginning of talks, Jammu and Kashmir is being discussed in terms of terrorism, according to the Joint statement issued after the meeting was held. In addition, ceasefire violations will also be discussed to establish “tranquility along the LoC.” This is the first step of the established trend. The “constructive engagement” moving forward might be the breaking of this trend. It may even take a more fluid path in order to achieve some realistic goals rather than India or Pakistan being stubborn about the agendas of their respective policies towards each other. The United States has welcomed the talks with optimism. While the BJP contends that the talks were in accordance to the Ufa Joint Statement as well as the Simla Agreement, Congress party has a bone to pick with the location of the meeting. Congress Spokesperson, Mr. Abhishek Singhvi, while welcoming the prospect of talking with Pakistan, demanded that the policy towards Pakistan be clearly “coherent, consistent and known.” Mr. Manish Tiwari, a Congress leader, criticized the NDA government calling the NSA talks on the soil of a third country a “grand betrayal.” This is what he had to say-

“If you look at the track record of this government over the past 18 months, their Pakistan policy has been an extravaganza, a somersault, flip-flops and 180-degree U-turns and this [the Bangkok meeting] is absolutely the crowning glory.”

Although these criticisms continue to be played out on national media platforms, the talks between India and Pakistan have officially begun. India and Pakistan continue to undertake this long-sought after process. This could very well fall into the specter of the same trend that has been observed over and over again. Or this shift, to talks that are private, untouched by the media or by external pressures, and off-the-soil of both nations to avoid domestic influences, could become the new template of how India and Pakistan interact to discuss and possibly resolve issues.

India-US Relationship: A help or a hinderance to COP21?

The Paris Climate Change summit (COP21) is being hailed as a significant milestone, in a concerted journey to unify over a single cause - to mitigate the challenges that have arisen due to climate change. It is also a milestone to explore new goals, limits and agreements; not only for developing but also developed countries. Only two weeks since the terror attacks in Paris, “leaders of 150 leaders, along with 40,000 delegates from 195 countries” are in Paris for the 21st annual meeting-- Conference of Parties-- of nations under the United Nations Framework for Climate Change. While there have been annual meetings since 1995, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon deems COP21 as a “great opportunity” with conviction that “a political moment like this may not come again.”

The objective of COP21 is to hopefully “agree on legally binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions meant to hold global average temperatures short of a 2 degree Celsius increase over preindustrial global temperature.” This two-week long summit, from November 30 to December 11, is expected to be a testament to a political collaboration of nearly 200 countries. The need for this is urgent as the previous commitment on greenhouse gas emissions expires in 2020. The anticipated challenges to the success of these talks can be boxed in four packages. One, the simple logistics of an agreement that is unanimously agreed upon by all the parties is, in fact, quite complex. Second, for any legally binding agreement, domestic pressures might play a significant role in the implementation of the goals of the agreement. This would in fact question the legitimacy of any agreed upon terms. Third, an ideational challenge that is likely to occur could be in terms of limitations imposed on developing countries that lack the resources or funds to invest in cleaner energy for growth and development. And lastly, the implementation structure and the consequences of not adhering to the agreement is always difficult as is evidenced by the fact that “none of the countries that failed to meet their commitments under Kyoto have been sanctioned.

The United States, being the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, intends to play a big role in helping this agreement come through. President of the US, Mr. Obama, quite candidly accepted America’s responsibility in “creating the problem” of climate change, which is quite typical of Mr. Obama. His opening remarks at the First Session of COP21 at Le Bourget were a combination of a rhetoric in favor of an agreement, America’s on-going and future commitments and a promise that growth and clean environment can go hand in hand. However, his urgency in combating climate change has met a lot of criticism, most recently, by Presidential Candidate Ms. Carly Fiorina. During a segment on Fox News, Ms. Fiorina claimed that Mr. Obama’s declaration and emphasis on the issue-- climate change “poses a greater threat to future generations” than any other-- is “delusional.” While Forbes deemed Mr. Obama’s proposed Climate Action Plan “uninspiring,” there are harsher criticisms to his climate policy. Climate Researcher and Expert, James Hanson considers his policy “practically worthless.” In the same article by MSNBC that covered Mr. Hanson’s critique, Mr. Obama’s outlook towards mitigating climate change was summarized as “meek and dangerously self-congratulatory, sapping the movement of urgency while doing almost nothing to maintain the future habitability of the earth.” A final issue that Mr. Obama might face in terms of an overarching agreement is it not being ratified by Congress as exemplified in the absence of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. Fellow and Climate Policy Expert at the Hudson Institute, Mr. Lee Lane, has also been known to criticize Mr. Obama’s leftist and extremely expensive climate policy. In an article in the New Atlantis, Mr Lane proposes a conservative viewpoint in establishing a more sustainable, long-term and effective climate change policy for the United States. While these criticisms emerge, Mr. Obama is still committed to bringing home a deal of cooperation.

While these criticisms are directed at Mr. Obama, there are rallies and protests around the world, and in Paris, criticizing that not enough is being done and urging world leaders to make bolder decisions. At one of the protests in Paris, there are lines of pairs of shoes on the streets with messages like “taking action against climate change and stopping pollution.” This was a unique, and creatively silent protest as mass demonstration are not allowed in the city in light of the November 13 terror Attacks. However, there have been demonstrations where the police has had to use force-- water cannons, batons, and shields -- to disperse the protesters.

In a New York Times article, another problem to COP21 was identified that converges the ideational and structural challenges mentioned earlier--

“The greatest threat to reaching a binding climate accord may be a loose coalition of developing nations, led by India, who argue that they should not be asked to limit their economic growth as a way of fixing a problem that was largely created by the others.”

While this may turn in to a significant problem in finalizing a larger agreement, India certainly intends to play a pivotal role in the Climate Talks. Right at the beginning of the Paris Summit, Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Modi and French President, Mr. Francois Hollande launched the ‘International Agency for Solar Technologies & Applications (INSTA)’ or as it is being popularly called the “solar alliance.” India played a key role in bringing together over 120 solar-rich countries in order to “create collaborative platforms for increased deployment of solar technologies to improve access to energy and create opportunities for better livelihoods, especially in rural and remote areas.” India has already promised a commitment of $90 million dollars to house the headquarters in India and is building a network of investments in order to push the project off the ground. Mr. Modi has taken a more direct narrative to establish that “advanced nations” must take the lead. His words while strict were not new that “the prosperous still have a strong carbon footprint. And, the world's billions at the bottom of the development ladder are seeking space to grow.” This remains another possible point of contention or cooperation between Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi who have shown the possibility of an actual relationship between the United States and India. While the opposition party to Mr. Modi’s BJP in India seems to be reluctant in recognizing the “warm rapport” that Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi share, the White House continues to support India’s role in helping achieve an agreement, that does not curb the growth of countries like India. However, there continues to be a lot of back and forth on what role India is likely to play during the process of the Paris agreement. While a New York Times article said that “Narendra Modi could make or break Obama’s Climate Legacy,” only time will tell whether the relationship between Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama can help create a global political collaboration to mitigate the effects of climate change, that scientists have warned, if not taken care of, will be “catastrophic and irreversible.”