A bill to give statutory backing to the unique identity number scheme for better targeting of subsidies was on Wednesday returned by the Rajya Sabha to the Lok Sabha with several amendments, with Opposition parties also objecting strongly to treating it as a money bill.
The amendments to the Aadhar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other subsidies, benefits and services) Bill, 2016, moved by Congress leader and former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, were passed with a majority voting in favour.
The ruling BJP-led NDA does not have majority in the House.
Members of the BSP, the Trinamool Congress and the BJD also walked out of the House raising objections on several issues concerning the measure.
The process of return of the Bill saw an animated debate over why it was brought as a money bill, with a number of Opposition members also raising concern over privacy and national security on the biometric data of Indians so collected through the scheme.
Brushing aside the objections by the Opposition, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the Aadhar Bill was a money bill as it dealt with the way public money or subsidy will be distributed among the needy under various government schemes.
Moving the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Jaitley said Parliament cannot abdicate its right to legislate just because the issue is pending in the Supreme Court.
The Minister also emphasised that the present Bill was different from the one brought by the UPA government as it had further tightened the privacy provisions with regard to sharing of information of individuals collected by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).
Several Opposition members including Sitaram Yechury (CPI(M)), Mr. Ramesh (Congress), Naresh Agrawal (SP) and K.C. Tyagi (JD(U)) among others, opposed the government’s decision to label the Aadhar Bill as a money bill.
Refuting the objections in a debate marred by acrimony, Mr. Jaitley said the Lok Sabha Speaker had the final authority under the Constitution to declare a bill as money bill and nobody can question that. The >Lok Sabha has passed the Bill on March 11, 2016.
“One, the purpose of this Bill is distribution of government money by subsidies and the rest is incidental, so it is a money bill. Two, merely because the executive action is challenged and pending in the Supreme Court the powers of Parliament cannot suspend the right to legislate. Three, learning from UPA’s experience, we have further tightened privacy laws much more than the UPA had in its bill,” he said.
Mr. Jaitley asserted that Parliament cannot abdicate its right to legislate just because the issue was pending in the Supreme Court.
Replying to Opposition queries on privacy, he said privacy laws have been tighened to an extent that the data of individuals would be shared only on grounds of national security and sought to explain the difference between ’national security’ and ‘public safety’
Mr. Yechury asked the government to define the term ’national security’, reminding Jaitley that, like many others, he too had been arrested in the past under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA).
Observing that he was “not satisfied” with Mr. Jaitley’s reply, he referred to the recent slapping of sedition charges on university students and “we have great doubts” as the ruling dispensation of the day would decide on what the term ’national security’ meant.
Accusing Mr. Yechury of “giving a running commentary”, Mr. Jaitley said he was indulging in an “intellectual arrogance” and quoted an anonymous comment to buttress his point — “If you criticise me, it is your freedom of expression. If I criticise you, it is my intolerance.”
An irked Mr. Yechury retorted by saying “you are displaying authoritarian arrogance“.
Replying to concerns over sharing of core biometric data under Aadhaar in case of national security, Mr. Jaitley said over the years ‘national security’ has become a “narrower phrase”, while other phrases like ‘public order’ or ‘public safety’ ar“vague phrases”. He also cited examples from U.S. laws.
Amid continued interruption, Mr. Jaitley accused Mr. Ramesh of objecting to the bill, which was originally conceived by the UPA government. “I think the stand of Jairam depends on where he sits,” Mr. Jaitley added.
Opposition members had raised concerns on privacy of individuals following enactment of the law.
The bill provides that core biometric data could be shared in case of national security. The decision to share the data must be taken by an officer of rank of over Joint Secretary and reviewed by a committee headed by Cabinet Secretary, Jaitley said.
He, however, did not agree with suggestions that the committee could have independent representation like CAG or CVC and said the present bill has “improved” upon the bill brought by UPA in 2010.
To Opposition concerns that further changes in the legislation would be made by regulations, Mr. Jaitley said it has been done keeping in mind that scientific evaluation would continue to happen and returning to Parliament for every future change would become a cumbersome process.