March 2, 2013, proved to be a day of symbolic victory for the critics of Unique Identification Number (UID) as the Chandigarh Administration decided to revoke its order making the number compulsory for vehicle registration and issuance of driving licence. Involving collection of biometric information of the residents, UID (also known as Aadhaar) is being hailed as a platform to transfer government subsidies directly to the poor and hence stop leakages in the system.
Though the Union government and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) had earlier announced that the enrolment is voluntary, it has gradually being made mandatory across several states. Nobody is being physically forced to queue up, but making it a necessity for essential services is an indirect way of saying “enrol or perish” leaving no freedom of choice for the people.
Making UID/Aadhaar a necessity for essential services is an indirect way of saying “enrol or perish” leaving no freedom of choice for the people.
A public interest litigation filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court objected to the Chandigarh Administration's order issued on December 5, 2012, citing that it violated the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 and Central Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989, which already prescribe a host of documents, including voter I-card and Passport, as proofs of address and age. Though the administration has now decided not to insist on UID for driving licences and vehicle registration, it does not say anything about other public services. This also underscores the fact that unless we have laws which already define the way a public service can be accessed, UID will have its way.
Several states have already made UID compulsory for marriage registration, availing pensions, scholarships, salary for government employees, besides subsidies in food, cooking gas and housing. Besides having UID number on driving licences, Maharashtra government has even made it mandatory for students and teachers of schools getting government aid. With such orders it's evident that the objective is not limited to plugging the leakages. While authorities claim this will check fake registrations and increase school attendance, critics feel the motive is to forcibly scan and tag each and every individual for easy monitoring. In fact, it's being widely believed that once coverage is substantial, UID will be made essential for checking into hotels or booking airline and railway tickets thus making it easy for the government to track down and subdue its opponents.
While authorities claim this will check fake registrations and increase school attendance, critics feel the motive is to forcibly scan and tag each and every individual for easy monitoring.
The biggest argument in favour of naysayers is that the whole project is being implemented on the basis of an executive order i.e order by bureaucrats without any public debate. The draft National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010, which would make the whole process legal, is still pending before the Parliament. In December 2011, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance rejected the bill citing security implications, exorbitant cost and possibility of theft of the data collected, the objections raised by critics from time to time. Even the draft bill does not say that an agency can refuse services to a person who is not enrolled.
There are two public interest litigations currently pending in different courts challenging the Constitutional validity of UIDAI. Acting on one of these petitions, the Supreme Court had issued a notice to the Centre on November 30, 2012. Clearly, the debate over UID is far from over but the haste with which people are being coerced to get tagged, we will have little reason left to carry on with the arguments. Though the development in Chandigarh is positive, it's still a very small step in the bigger battle on privacy issues. And with the shadow of National Population Register (NPR) now looming large, the going will be a lot tougher.