The Union Cabinet approved the bill it had earlier sent to Parliament with just a few amendments
On Aadhaar, the UPA has decided to take on the Supreme Court as well as the Opposition. The government on Tuesday defended Aadhaar before the Supreme Court asking for relief from the interim orders. It has decided to argue that the judiciary has encroached upon its executive decision-making space with the order. In parallel, the Union Cabinet cleared the National Identification Authority of India Bill on Tuesday, rejecting all key reservations of the Parliament Standing Committee which had studied the original 2010 version of the bill.
The standing committee had made scathing comments on the bill as well as the functioning of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) without a parliamentary mandate.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court decided not to alter its interim orders on Aadhaar as pleaded by the government and oil PSUs. The order had put critical restrictions against the use and distribution of the unique identity numbers. But the government has prepared a brief to fight it out aggressively in the court claiming that the court orders are impinging on the powers of the executive, which includes the right to make the identity numbers mandatory for the government’s targeted social schemes, if it so wishes.
In a move that is designed to also provide more solid grounds for the government to continue with its policy on Aadhaar, the Union Cabinet approved the bill it had earlier sent to Parliament with just a few amendments even as it endorsed the position that the current model, policy and processes of the UID are foolproof, adequate and legally sound.
If the two-pronged attack works and the government is able to get a nod for the bill in the winter session of Parliament, it could secure a legal mandate of the UIDAI that has been lacking so far and quell dissent and litigation.
With the court agreeing to hold an early final hearing in the case on October 22, the government plans to make the case that there is no credible proof of a wide-scale denial of benefits to people without Aadhaar numbers. The government will claim there are only some aberrations at worst and that the government is ensuring that those without cards do not get left out while the distribution of cards is not complete. At the same time the government will defend its right to make the cards mandatory for its social security schemes. It will equate the Aadhaar card to a ration card or a driving license arguing that the government can choose what measures it takes to identify beneficiaries. It will distinguish between government schemes and other programmes or services that do not require to be targeted, such as opening of bank accounts or telephone connections.
It will also argue in detail that it is not the UIDAI’s job to identify illegal migrants and block any chances of these individuals of securing Aadhaar cards. It will claim that work is done by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Aadhaar will act as proof of identity and residence. Again its line of argument would be that there may be stray cases and aberrations but there is no hard proof of systematic leakage in their ‘robust’ verification methods.
With the UPA still keen to push the cash transfer scheme through Aadhaar, calling it Direct Benefit Transfer, the government also has taken the position that LPG connections are not linked to the UID cards.
While clearing the bill in the cabinet too the UPA has decided to reinforce its power to make the aadhaar cards mandatory when it so desires. It has rejected the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s observations on the matter along with all other recommendations. The background note for the cabinet on the bill records the government’s assertion that once the UIDAI programme is fully rolled out it “would only be logical to make it a necessary condition for availing public benefits and services. Without this linkage, the total investment in the UIDAI project would be infructuous.”
The amendments the cabinet affirmed on Tuesday include an explicit mention right up front in the title of the bill that the UID shall act as proof of identity and residence proof.
Through a second amendment the bill made provision for people to use the identity number through electronic channels as well for confirming identity and residence.
Another amendment permits the UIDAI to share data with authorities without explicit consent of those holding the aadhaar numbers if the Central government so mandates it under specific directions or if another law requires data sharing. The government has contended that issues of data leakage can be handled under general laws such as the Information Technology Act, 2010.
There are several other amendments but most of them are technical and legal corrections and do not alter the provisions substantially.
In fact the government has summarily rejected all the objections of the standing committee. It has backed the UID system as being robust against criticism that it did not account for leakages.
Defending its operations even as the bill remained pending in the Parliament, the government has cited a legal opinion of the Attorney General to claim that UIDAI could work through executive orders without falling foul of the Constitution.