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State governments must apply their legal minds to abandon biometric data collection the way it has been done in UK, US, France, China and Australia before being compelled by the Court to do so
The Supreme Court has listed 26 November 2013 as the next of hearing in the matter of 12 digit biometric unique identification (UID)/ Aadhaar number project. The Court in its order dated 23 September 2013 directed, “In the meanwhile, 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”. But in manifest contempt of court, states like Jharkhand, Mizoram and others are making it mandatory. After Court’s order, Jharkhand Government issued an appeal in all the newspapers in October 2013 making Aadhaar number mandatory for all the students in the state. The appeal is attached. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will take these states to task.
A Dalit activist who was one of the first 17 eminent citizens who issued the Statement of Concern against UID at a Press Conference at Press Club of India in New Delhi on 28 September 2010 said, "This project wants to fix our identities through time. Even after that we are dead. The information held about us will be fixed to us by the UID number. Changing an identity will become impossible. We are working for the eradication of the practice of manual scavenging, for rehabilitation of those who have been engaged in manual scavenging, and then leaving behind that tag of manual scavenger. How can we accept a system that does not allow us to shed that identity and move on? How can a number that links up databases be good for us?" But be it Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), or Samajwadi Party (SP) or Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) or Janata Dal (United) (JD-U), they are busy endorsing or implementing the questionable project.
In a late but significant development, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on 1 November 2013 urged the central government to "seriously reconsider" its decision to make Aadhaar compulsory for getting subsidised cooking gas (LPG). She said, "There is a Supreme Court verdict that Aadhaar cannot be made compulsory for getting benefits of government schemes. The government appealed against it, but the SC rejected it. Even then, how can the petroleum ministry decide that without Aadhaar people won't get the subsidy of nine cylinders?"
"I request the prime minister to take care or our party workers will lay siege to the Indian Oil Corporation office. It is an ‘attempt to cheat the people’…I am shocked to see this attitude. People are not beggars, why are they the sufferers?” she added.
She also criticised central government agencies for ‘harassing people’. Memorandum of understanding (MoU) to implement UID/Aadhaar was signed with Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) when Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M) was in power in West Bengal. In effect, both Trinamool Congress (TMC) of Mamata Banerjee and CPI (M) seem to have similar position on Aadhaar.
Earlier, on 29 September 2013, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to stop the linking of cooking gas subsidy to the Aadhaar number. The chief minister highlighted the need for the states to be consulted before launch of any ambitious scheme if the central government’s intention is to ensure efficient delivery. She said, “The State government is strongly opposed to the proposed rollout”. She argued that LPG, an essential commodity, is to be made available to the users in a timely and need-based manner. Replacing the subsidy with a direct cash transfer is not appropriate.
Sadly, legal minds in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have not informed these chief ministers that it is not a question of being voluntary or mandatory. It is a question of the grave ramifications of illegal and illegitimate biometric Aadhaar number which is quite well documented.
Kerala’s leader of the opposition VS Achuthanandan from CPI (M) has asked the government to drop the ‘Aadhaar' project on 26 August 2011. He noted that fingerprints and other biometric information of citizens were being collected under the project violated provisions of the Citizenship Act of 1955 and Citizenship Rules of 2003, neither of which permitted collection of biometric information of Indian citizens.
The state government, which was pushing ahead with the project in Kerala, appeared little worried about the serious concerns being expressed the world over about the implications of the UID project for citizen's right to privacy and security. It must be noted that Achuthanandan as the chief minister of Kerala, launched the unique identification number project, Aadhaar in the State on 24 February 2011. In his inaugural speech he has said that Aadhaar project has elicited mixed feelings within the minds of people. “As we launch this project in the State, we will take necessary measures to spread awareness of the pros and cons of enrolling into this scheme before people enrol themselves,” Achuthanandan had said. But enrolment for the UID/Aadhaar had begun with immediate effect during his tenure. Wisdom seems to dawn when politicians are in opposition, now he has rightly demanded scrapping of Aadhaar.
But in Tripura, where CPI (M) rules, this belated wisdom seems to await the time when chief minister Manik Sarkar will be in opposition. Tripura was the first state in the northeast and the eighth in India where the Aadhaar scheme was launched on 2 December 2010. Tripura secured top position in the country in implementing Aadhaar project. But this performance is shrouded with allegations of irregularities in spending of Rs15 crore meant for Aadhaar. Bowing to the Congress party's persistent demands, chief minister Sarkar announced in the state assembly on 1 March 2012 that the state government would request the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate alleged irregularities in implementation of the 12-digit number being issued by the UIDAI for all Indian residents.
"We would take up the matter with the CBI and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) to examine whether any misdeeds occurred in spending the central funds meant for 'Aadhaar' scheme," he said.
Tripura’s rural development minister Jitendra Chowdhury quoted a communiqué of the union rural development ministry in the state assembly saying, "The central government, at a function in New Delhi recently awarded Tripura and other well performing states in implementation of the Aadhaar scheme." One does not know whether the demand for CBI probe has been pursued.
After receiving the award from the Indian National Congress led government, under the title “Aaadhar Illegal”, on 25 September 2013, the CPI (M) issued a statement saying, “The Polit Bureau welcomes the judgement of the Supreme Court that the Aadhaar Unique Identity cannot be made mandatory for receiving social benefit schemes. The government has been illegally instituting the cash transfer schemes and identification of beneficiaries of social welfare schemes based on the Aadhar identity.” (Source: http://cpim.org/content/judgement-welcomed)
CPI (M)’s position on Aadhaar/UID that has been articulated so far appears to be exactly the same which has been voiced by TMC and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) despite their sharp differences on the issue of illegal immigrants. It merits rigorous attention as to how ‘migrant workers’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ are beginning to be mischievously used interchangeably.
When the MoU by National Coalition of Organisations for Security of Migrant Workers (NCOSMW) with UIDAI was criticized, the proceedings of the first general body summit of the NCOSMW convened in Bhopal on 26th and 27 November 2010 hosted by Samarthan-Centre for Development Support admitted "One of the triggers for creation of the coalition was the UID project. There was a good overlap between the mandate of the coalition which sought a mobile identity for migrant workers and the work of the UID. However, the recent roll-out of the UID project has been ridden with controversies. In view of the recent developments, the Coalition felt the need for critical engagement with the UID Authority and not a blind endorsement of the project." Campaigners against UID project had written to them and some of their resource persons withdrew from it.
Not only them even Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has revealed his position by launching biometric e-Shakti initiative in Bihar. It is turning Biharis into guinea pigs for biometric technology companies. In the name of ‘Financial Inclusion’, what is unfolding is surveillance of transactions, mobility and every aspect of life. The biometric data collection faces legal challenge in Supreme Court. The e-Shakti project was launched under National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) Bihar on 24 February 2009 in Paliganj Block of Patna. More than 5 years and 7 months have passed since the project was launched. It is noteworthy that e-Shakti project was launched within a month of the creation of UIDAI, which was brought into its controversial existence on 28 January 2009 by a notification of the Planning Commission. While presenting the Union Budget 2009-10, the then Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee had announced the setting up of UIDAI to “establish an online data base with identity and biometric details of Indian residence and provide enrolment and verification services across the country” in paragraph no. 64 of his speech. It is this notification meant for biometric data collection which faces robust legal challenge in the Supreme Court.
State governments must apply their legal minds to abandon biometric data collection the way it has been done in UK, USA, France, China and Australia before it is compelled by the Court to do so. There is a compelling logic to reject those parties which implicitly or explicitly support tracking, profiling, databasing and mortgaging of citizens’ rights and their sovereignty under the dictates of their donors and non-state actors.
Under the e-Shakti project, a biometric smart card, which contains particulars of the individuals as textual and biometric data (photograph and fingerprints) in electronic form is used to establish identity of the individual. The project has been started in Patna districts of Bihar as pilot project and proposes to cover approximately 331 Gram Panchayats of 23 blocks. It has disclosed, “After successful completion of the pilot phase, the project would cover entire state of Bihar in phased manner.”
The 48 page Report of Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on Finance submitted to both the Houses of Parliament in December 2011 reads (in the section on Observations/Recommendations): “The collection of biometric information and its linkage with personal information without amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955 as well as the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003, appears to be beyond the scope of subordinate legislation, which needs to be examined in detail by Parliament.”
It is clear that Bihar being taken in that non-democratic route through such biometric identification. The multi-party Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on Finance comprised of Yashwant Sinha, Shivkumar Udasi Chanabasappa, Jayant Chaudhary, Harishchandra Deoram Chavan, Bhakta Charan Das, Gurudas Dasgupta, Nishikant Dubey, Chandrakant Khaire, Bhartruhari Mahtab, Anjan Kumar Yadav M, Prem Das Rai, Dr Kavuru Sambasiva Rao, Rayapati S Rao, Magunta Sreenivasulu Reddy, Sarvey Sathyanarayana, GM Siddeswara, N Dharam Singh, Yashvir Singh, Manicka Tagore, R Thamaraiselvan, Dr M Thambidurai, SS Ahluwalia, Vijay Jawaharlal Darda, Piyush Goyal, Raashid Alvi, Moinul Hassan, Satish Chandra Misra, Mahendra Mohan, Dr Mahendra Prasad, Dr KVP Ramachandra Rao and Yogendra P Trivedi.
Under the influence of biometric technology companies, Bihar Government is creating a situation where if you do not have the biometric smart card you may not get the right to have rights. The project in questions is being implemented by a consortium consisting of Smaarftech Technologies Pvt Ltd. Partners in the e-Shakti project include Bihar’s rural development department as the principal force behind the e-Shakti project, Bihar State Electronics Development Corp Ltd (BELTRON), a government of Bihar undertaking which is engaged in business related to Electronics and Computer technologies and services, and Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Ltd (IL&FS), a infrastructure development and finance company. Beltron and IL&FS have together formed a joint venture company, Bihar e-Governance Services and Technology (BeST), which is monitoring the e- Shakti project, which is being implemented by the service provider consortium. Smaarftech Technologies, a special purpose vehicle (SPV) of Glodyne Technoserve Ltd is implementing, managing & maintaining the NREGS-Bihar (e-Shakti Project) over a period of five years for the department of rural development, Bihar. Smaarftech Technologies is a subsidiary of Glodyne Technoserve Ltd. Glodyne Technoserve is a leading IT Services company, having a pan India and US presence, which has been partnering with various e-governance initiatives by providing its competencies in the IT Project Management Space. Dr Mahendra Prasad from JD-U is/was a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance that rejected the Aadhaar project. Hence, the motivation for e-Shakti Project which is duplication of Aadhaar is inexplicable.
On 22 October 2013, BJP vice president Smriti Irani said, “The reality is that the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010, which gives sanction to this particular card, was rejected by the Standing Committee on Finance”.
Quite like CPI (M), TMC and JD (U), she failed to announce that since Aadhaar violates constitutional rights and has been rejected by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, BJP ruled states will not implement it and if her party comes to power it will scrap it.
All claims of benefits from biometric identification are highly suspect. How can the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance that questioned government’s right to collect biometric data be ignored in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and in all the other states. The collection of sensitive biometric information is an assault on democratic rights of citizens. It is high time state governments desisted from doing so the way Barack Obama and 25 states of US opposed the REAL ID Act, 2005 and UK, Australia, China, France and European Court of Human Rights rejected indiscriminate collection of biometric data.
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(Gopal Krishna is member of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL), which is campaigning against surveillance technologies since 2010)