The story so far: Both Houses of Parliament have passed a Bill that seeks to amend the law relating to elections. It amends both The Representation of the People Acts of 1950 and 1951. A key amendment relates to the introduction of a provision to link the electoral rolls with the Aadhaar ecosystem. This measure has attracted considerable criticism from the Opposition as well as sections of civil society.
What are the key clauses in the Bill?
The Bill enables the voter registration officer to require applicants for inclusion of their names in the voters’ list, as well as those already enrolled in it, to submit their Aadhaar numbers. The idea is to verify the identity of voters by linking the Aadhaar database, which contains the unique identification numbers of every resident in the country, with the details contained in the electoral rolls. The government says this will help weed out bogus voters, non-citizens being wrongfully included as voters, and those who figure in the electoral rolls in more than one constituency.
The Bill also increases the number of qualifying dates for the revision of electoral rolls from one per year to four. At present, January 1 of each year is the qualifying date. Every year, those turning 18 on or before that day is eligible to be a voter. This has been amended to include April 1, July 1 and October 1 so that one need not wait for the end of the year to apply for inclusion.
The Bill replaces the word ‘wife’ to ‘spouse’ to make the laws gender-neutral.
Another clause allows for the requisition of any premises for the storage of election material, accommodation for security forces and election personnel.
Is Aadhaar-voter ID link mandatory?
The step is voluntary in nature to the extent that it says that no person can be denied inclusion in the electoral roll or any entry deleted because of the inability of an individual to furnish or intimate Aadhaar number.
However, such inability or non-submission must have “sufficient cause as may be prescribed”. This means that a separate rule will be prescribed to list the possible reasons that may constitute “sufficient cause” for an applicant or voter not to submit their Aadhaar number.
What are the objections to the Bill?
Opposition parties and activists object to the Bill broadly on the following grounds: (a) that it violates individual privacy by mandating the linking of Aadhaar details with voter identity cards; (b) that it goes against the Supreme Court judgment that limits the use of Aadhaar to the financial and welfare benefits given by the government, and bars the unnecessary expansion of the scope of Aadhaar to other areas of life; (c) it may lead to large-scale deletion of names either inadvertently or deliberate targeting; (d) that it is not really voluntary, as only a set of reasons to be prescribed later can be given for those who cannot or do not wish to give their Aadhaar number; and (e) that it may help political parties to profile voters as favourable or unfavourable.
What has been the experience of this linking in some States?
In 2018, the data used by the Election Commission to curate electoral rolls in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh was provided by the State Resident Data Hub (SRDH) - which is provided data by the UIDAI and curated further by State Governments. Activists claimed that lakhs of voters were deleted from the list of voters in Telangana in 2018, following this exercise. Anecdotally, several residents found that their names were deleted from the list of voters because of using the Aadhaar-related database to construct the electoral rolls.
An RTI response also found that no door-to-door verification exercise was carried out to vet the database. Activists claim that the Aadhaar database is strewn with errors and therefore linking it to the voters’ list will result in severe omission errors if the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh examples bear out elsewhere too.
(With inputs from Srinivasan Ramani)