Libertatem Magazine

Aadhar Bill Debacle

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The Constitution of India envisaged the role of the Parliament consisting of Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, the main function of which includes legislating crucial bills and promulgating these bills into law after several deliberations. The functions of the houses are sanctimonious because it upheld the democratic principles, and sound debates ensure inclusive governance. In this democratic institution, Members of Parliament have the right to dissent which is adequate for bringing into effect any law for the welfare of the citizens. Therefore, this parliamentary democratic structure denounces authoritarianism. But, recently the present regime has witnessed a scathing criticism from many spheres. The bulging debate on Aadhar Bill has taken a new dimension, where the Hon’ble Finance Minister attempted to subvert the role of the Upper House by introducing the Money Bill. But before understanding the implication of the Bill, it is imperative to highlight the issues which are inextricable with the introduction of the Aadhar Bill.

The Aadhar Bill was first introduced under the UPA regime whereby the issuance of Aadhar cards was  supposed to facilitate the availability of basic services such as LPG subsidies etc. Though such notion was challenged before the court of law but the Constitutional Bench headed by former Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu broadened the usage of Aadhar cards by permitting it for availing other amenities under MGNREGA, Jan Dhan Yojna etc. The bench observed that no person can be deprived of basic amenities for the want of Aadhar cards. It was completely on a voluntary basis and no person shall be compelled to its usage without his/her consent. The Aadhar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, was introduced by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in the Lok Sabha which is supposed to be a highly potential instrument for providing amenities to the citizens. The purpose of the Bill is to provide legal sanctity to Aadhar cards, which were earlier declared non-compulsory by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. The contention is to provide direct benefits to the people and with the use of Aadhar cards, chances of fraud would be minimised due to a highly centralised mechanism.

Though it is pertinent to note that before availing such services an overview of the provisions of the Bill is requisite. At the time of enrolment, the applicant is required to provide both biometric and demographic information which would be recorded with the Unique Identification Authority, the nodal institution responsible for the issuance of the Aadhar Cards. The biometric information consists of fingerprint, iris scan, photograph, whereas demographic information consist of name, date of birth and address. After verification of the provided information, the recipient would be granted the Aadhar number. The purpose of issuing the number is to verify the identity of the person availing subsidies and other services. If a person does not have an Aadhar number, then the Government will require them to apply for it, and meanwhile issue an alternative means of identification. Any public or private entity can verify the identity of the person with the help of Aadhar number, but such does not prove the citizenship or domicile of a person. But, the proposed Bill, which has been considered as a far-reaching version of the earlier Bill, comprised of many controversial provisions. The information provided cannot be shared or disclosed, but such is exempted in matters of national security and on the order of the court. The recent spate over Aadhar Bill has given rise to two critical issues. First, whether privacy of an individual can be compromised in the name of national security and second, whether the introduction of the bill as a money bill subvert the constitutional proprietary?

The parliamentary debate over the Aadhar Bill and its controversial provisions has arisen various suspicions about the mass surveillance and compromise of privacy. Although, there have been various contentions that the Right to Privacy is not an absolute right, but there has been a common voice to uphold privacy rights. The revelations by American whistleblower Edward Snowden about the mass surveillance by the National Security Agency have raised many doubts. The revelations exposed the American agency, and the propagators of   individual freedom have condemned this interference. There had been an arbitrary abuse of authority as the agency had mass metadata that made its own citizens vulnerable.

Recently, Apple Inc. refused to decode the encryption code of an iPhone that was found in the possession of a terrorist. The company contended that such would open the backdoor and the Apple manufactured phones can no longer be safe from surveillance. The American example can well be taken in the Indian context. It is true that India is too vulnerable to terrorism. The country had been a victim of several barbaric attacks, but this cannot be taken as a sound excuse to expose the privacy of its own citizens and make them vulnerable to governmental interference. The provision exempting the bar on sharing of information is highly condemnable and destroys the very fabric of democracy that upheld individual freedom. National security must be upheld, but not at the cost of compromising the liberty of its own citizens. Such exposure of information can be abused for political means and there could be suppression of dissidents which is anyway against the very nature of a democratic institution.

The parliamentary democracy in India fairly recognises the importance of both the Houses of Parliament. But, there are certain Bills that are Money Bills that outlay the authority of Lok Sabha over Rajya Sabha. The Government of India in introducing Aadhar Bill as a money bill clearly indicated an attempt to overpower the Rajya Sabha. The current regime falls short of a majority in Rajya Sabha, and to undermine their influence in the clear passage of the Bill, the Union Finance Minister has justified the Aadhar Bill as a money bill. The united opposition along with several constitutional experts and legal luminaries have condemned this move. Such a move has been a direct attack to the principles of participative democracy. If the Money Bill is not passed within 15 days by the Rajya Sabha, then on expiration of the 15th day, the Bill would be deemed to be passed. The government being in minority toppled the process of parliamentary democracy, and avoided the right to fair debate. In a general opinion, the recent bill consists of various controversial provisions such as privacy. Without sound deliberations, the passing of the Bill would result into an authoritarian move which has no relevance under the constitutional framework. Therefore, the concept of inclusiveness must bring into effect, and the Bill must be kept open to a fair and reasonable debate before promulgating it as a law.

Although, in my opinion the Bill has a far-reaching motive to achieve, but some provisions are required to be revoked. The mechanism to be implemented may have some fruitful result, but no citizen must be compelled to opt for it. The Bill can be seen as an indirect attempt to coerce citizens into it. The debate over privacy can be a never ending one, but  the government must take steps to ensure a participative parliamentary process. If such process is not undertaken, then in every likelihood, the Bill would be a debacle and privacy would be compromised in the name of “National Security”.

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