The UPA government’s response to questions on Aadhaar’s voluntariness continues to be marked by ‘intentional ambiguity.’ Compulsion by stealth is used to camouflage the use of Aadhaar as a neo-liberal policy tool

“This debate is … about our specific disagreement on the meaning of that one word,” i.e. “the Government now seek to persuade us that ‘voluntary’ actually means ‘compulsory’.”

That was Nick Clegg in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons in March 2006. Mr. Clegg and others were opposing the Labour government’s decision to renew passports only if the applicants possess a national ID card. The debate, apart from being hilarious, bordered on the bizarre. The government was so keenly interpreting a sentence in the Labour Party’s manifesto that at one point, Lord Phillips of Sudbury remarked: “It staggers me that we are still discussing that point. Try that argument out on anyone in the high street or in a pub and you will get an ‘are you mad?’ look.”

The Labour Party’s 2005 manifesto had said: “We will introduce ID cards, including biometric data like fingerprints, backed up by a national register and rolling out initially on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports.” In other words, while renewing passports, citizens could choose whether to apply for an ID card. However, the government decided to insist on ID cards while renewing passports. Home Secretary Charles Clarke offered the justification that “passports are voluntary documents.” When the House burst into laughter and jeers, Mr. Clarke clarified: “Well, of course they are… No one is forced to renew a passport if they choose not to do so!”

For Mr. Clarke, “voluntary” pertained to whether one wanted a passport, and not whether one wanted an ID card. Edward Garnier, a Conservative member, suggested, “The problem facing the Government is that they have as usual misused the English language.” Lord Phillips said: “I am afraid that my primary schoolteacher, Miss Lovelace, would have given Mr. Clarke 0 out of 10 for that.”

A similar drama has been unfolding in India since 2009. Is Aadhaar compulsory? If so, what is its legal basis? Without Aadhaar, can one buy subsidised cooking gas? The United Progressive Alliance government’s response to these questions is marked by “intentional ambiguity”; the phrase was originally used by Edgar Whitley and Gus Hosein in their research on the U.K. ID cards programme. The strategy of “intentional ambiguity” has had elements of obfuscation, misinterpretation, inconsistency and dishonesty.

Camouflage job

The first attempt of the government at obfuscation was on the relationship of Aadhaar with the Home Ministry’s National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC). The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was conceptualised in the mid-2000s as a technical agency attached to the Home Ministry. The UIDAI was to de-duplicate biometric data of citizens collected under the Multipurpose National Identity Card (MNIC) project and link it with NRIC. Registration into the NRIC was compulsory after the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2003 (there is no place for biometrics in NRIC under the 2003 Act, but let us defer that discussion).

However, when established in 2009, the UIDAI was attached to the Planning Commission with a proposed “developmental” objective. Yet, the National Identity Number in the NRIC and Aadhaar were nothing but the same. A strategy was then evolved with two objectives: (a) camouflage Aadhaar’s unceasing security dimension, and (b) ensure faster enrolment into the UIDAI database. Thus, officially, the government held that Aadhaar was voluntary. On its website, the UIDAI still introduces Aadhaar as “a voluntary service that every resident can avail irrespective of present documentation.”

In practice, the policy took a different trajectory. First, in the same breath that it denied that there was any security dimension to Aadhaar, the UIDAI piggybacked on the Home Ministry and designated the Census Commissioner as its Registrar. Thus, whoever enrolled into NRIC automatically received an Aadhaar number. Second, the UIDAI attempted to cajole public service providers to make service provision contingent on the submission of Aadhaar. For such public services, the UIDAI had a name: “killer applications.” In 2010, a UIDAI document argued: “Every citizen must have a strong incentive or a ‘killer application’ to go and get herself a UID, which one could think of as a demand side pull.”

Over time, leading proponents came out clearly on the government’s real intentions. At Davos in January 2011, Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia spoke most directly: “We will simply make it compulsory for those benefiting from government programmes to register for the UID number.” The same month, Mr. Nandan Nilekani made a daring attempt to sanitise the term compulsory: “Yes, [Aadhaar] is voluntary. But the service providers might make it mandatory. In the long run I wouldn’t call it compulsory. I’d rather say it will become ubiquitous.” In what was a reactionary spin on the rights-based framework, Mr. Nilekani stated in November 2012: “If you do not have the Aadhaar card, you will not get the right to rights.” Obfuscation was giving way to misinterpretation.

There was a method behind the mad hurry to force enrolment. Elections were drawing near and the government needed to showcase one application that effectively “leveraged Aadhaar.” Further, the Prime Minister was eager to expedite the use of Aadhaar in social sector schemes to further targeting and cut fiscal deficit. Thus, the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) programme in the provision of gas cylinders was chosen as the prime “killer application.” There were smaller killers too: for not having Aadhaar, post-matriculation scholarships were withheld for Dalit and Adivasi students; provident fund transactions were disallowed for salaried employees; salaries were not paid to government employees in Maharashtra; even marriage registrations were disallowed in Delhi. For the future, the option of cash transfer was kept open when the Food Security Act was passed.

Scared, people ran from pillar to post for Aadhaar. A delighted Mr. Nilekani declared that Indians had “voted with their feet” for Aadhaar. Having forced more people to enrol, the government billed the DBT programme as a “gamechanger.” However, the UPA’s ministers themselves openly differed on the utility of the scheme. On December 22, 2012, Mr. P. Chidambaram claimed that the DBT scheme was “pure magic.” Just two weeks later, Mr. Jairam Ramesh disagreed; DBT was an “experiment,” and not a single “jaadu ki chhadi [magic wand]”.

Anger and harassment

By then, however, public anger was building up. More people began to detest the imposition of indirect compulsoriness. Threats posed by the project were being discussed on a wider scale. But most importantly, enrolment of residents, the generation of Aadhaar and the seeding of Aadhaar into bank accounts were all proceeding very slowly. Gas agencies regularly harassed consumers with threats of ending subsidised provision of cylinders. Members of Parliament raised the issue in Parliament. In 2013, Planning Minister Rajiv Shukla made the assurance that, “Aadhaar card is not mandatory to avail subsidised facilities being offered by the government like LPG cylinders, admission in private aided schools, opening a savings account, etc.”

Still, there was no end to harassment by gas agencies. On August 23, 2013, a Rajya Sabha member pointed out the inconsistency in the government’s actions. Mr. Shukla replied: “It would not be made mandatory. It is not mandatory. If any public sector undertaking is doing it, we will correct it.”

The relief lasted just four days. In a shocking act of dishonesty, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas issued a notification on August 27 titled “Aadhaar mandatory to avail LPG subsidy.” Like Mr. Clarke had done, this notification literally turned the idea of voluntariness on its head. It stated that voluntariness applied only to the purchase of cylinders at subsidised prices, and not to the purchase of cylinders itself; even without Aadhaar, consumers could continue to buy cylinders at the non-subsidised price.

At this point, concerned citizens approached the Supreme Court. In an interim order on September 23, 2013, the Court directed: “No person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card in spite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory.” Yet, consumers continued to receive text messages from gas agencies demanding Aadhaar numbers.

On January 22, 2014, the Madras High Court had to intervene and restrain gas agencies from such an insistence. On January 30, Aadhaar-linkage to gas subsidy was put on hold and referred to a committee, while compulsoriness was to continue for all other schemes. Questions of voluntariness of Aadhaar remain, and “intentional ambiguity” continues.

Why this intentional ambiguity? In my view, the government sees Aadhaar as the fulcrum of a larger neo-liberal transformation of its social policy. It is the government’s commitment to neo-liberalism that has manifested in its practice of compulsion by stealth. The outcome has been a rapid erosion of public confidence in the project and the credibility of the government. It was no different in the U.K. either.

(R. Ramakumar is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)

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