The >Aadhaar Bill , which the government introduced in the Lok Sabha last week, has not come a day too soon. More than six years have passed since the first attempt was made to give legal validity to Aadhaar, an ambitious project that seeks to provide unique identification numbers to each individual in a country of over a billion people, collecting demographic and biometric information in the process. And through these years, amid many legal and political challenges and a change in government, over 98 crore numbers have been issued. The stated idea of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, is to provide for “efficient, transparent, and targeted delivery of subsidies, benefits and services”. This, along with a clause that says the unique numbers will not be considered as proof of citizenship, is welcome. And yet, the process of legislating for Aadhaar has not been wholly reassuring. The Bill has attracted immediate criticism for being introduced as a money bill, by virtue of which it does not require approval of the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP-led government does not have the numbers to ensure its passage. Bypassing the Upper House’s vote does give the Bill an easy route to becoming law. The question is, given that >Aadhaar was a signature project of the Congress-led UPA, could not the government have made the effort to reach out to lawmakers across the board on such a crucial, bipartisan issue?
Wider political consensus and scrutiny are vital. Section 7 of the Bill, for instance, makes proof of Aadhaar necessary for “receipt of certain subsidies, benefits and services”. This must be read in the backdrop of a Supreme Court ruling that said >Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory . A key concern over the collection of personal information on this scale is data protection. There are provisions in this Bill that seem to address the concern, including one that prohibits any official from revealing information in the data repository to anyone. But the exceptions cause unease. Two provisions are particularly troubling. The first is Section 29(4), by which no Aadhaar number or biometric information will be made public “except for the purposes as may be specified by regulations”. The second, which experts have already flagged, is Section(33), under which the inbuilt confidentiality clauses will not stand when it concerns national security. The only reassurance could be that in such cases the direction has to come from an official who is not below the rank of a Joint Secretary to the government. Nonetheless, without robust laws to protect their data, citizens would be rendered vulnerable. It is not about just snooping. It is also being said that in order to be useful and effective, Aadhaar data might have to be used alongside other databases. That could trigger further privacy questions. There is little doubt that India needs to streamline the way it delivers benefits, and to empower citizens with a basic identification document. But this cannot be done without ensuring the strictest protection of privacy.