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Aadhaar is voluntary—but millions of Indians are already

trapped
qz.com/india/1351263/supreme-court-verdict-how-indias-aadhaar-id-became-mandatory

Ananya Bhattacharya, Nupur Anand

Reuters/Saumya Khandelwal

Unclear.

NO ESCAPE

By Ananya Bhattacharya & Nupur Anand3 hours ago


India’s supreme court has come down heavily on the mandatory linking of Aadhaar for
almost everything.

In a much-anticipated ruling today (Sept. 26), a five-judge bench struck down section 57 of
the Aadhaar Act, which allowed corporate entities or even individuals to demand an
Aadhaar card in exchange for goods or services. As a result, now no school, office, or
company can force anyone to reveal the unique 12-digit number. Neither is it mandatory for
opening bank accounts or for mobile connections.

However, the Aadhaar number must still be quoted to file income tax returns and apply for
a personal account number (PAN).

Introduced in 2009 by the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government,


the scheme has grown to become the world’s largest biometric ID programme.

The initial mandate for the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which
administers the project, was to mitigate corrupt practices and bring transparency to
systems and processes, both in the public and private sectors. For instance, the 12-digit
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unique identification number was touted as a remedy to India’s leaky public distribution
system (PDS), where rampant impersonation denied benefits to the genuinely needy.

However, the programme later expanded in scale and reach from the original directive and,
in the process, ran into challenges and controversies.

Under the Narendra Modi-led government, which came to power in 2014, Aadhaar has
become a requirement for at least 22 welfare programmes. That’s despite an August 2015
supreme court order (pdf) restraining the government from expanding it beyond the public
distribution system for food grains and cooking fuel.

In fact, in 2013 itself, the apex court had said, “No person should suffer for not getting an
Aadhaar card.” A bench at the apex court had instructed that the state must refrain from
making Aadhaar mandatory for gas connections, vehicle registration, scholarships,
marriage registration, salaries, provident funds, etc.

Court rulings have ensured that the programme—at least on paper—is voluntary. That,
however, has not stopped it from becoming entrenched in daily life.From pension schemes
to nutrition programmes for kids, and women’s empowerment scholarships to insurance
payouts, the government and many businesses, including banks and cell phone operators,
have been pushing for it, at times even arm-twisting citizens to sign up for an Aadhaar
number.

Denial of services
Since last year, several banks had been refusing to open new accounts without an
Aadhaar. This was even before the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) March 31 deadline to link
bank accounts with the 12-digit ID kicked in.

For their part, lenders claim they were putting an early barrier to avoid a last-minute rush.
The story was no different at insurance firms where claims were being blatantly denied or
pushed if Aadhaar numbers were not linked.

Weeks before the March 31 cut-off date, the supreme court indefinitely extended the
deadline to link Aadhaar with all private and non-subsidised government services, which
includes bank accounts.

The lack of clarity around the rules created chaos across organisations and there have
been instances where banks were caught forcing customers to link their Aadhaar numbers
and bank accounts, despite the verdict. “There have been changes in deadlines and
regulations. A lot of times, some of the junior officers are not aware of that and that is why
you hear these instances of banks insisting (on Aadhaar numbers),” said a public sector
banker, requesting anonymity. “Sometimes, there is also confusion on who should one be
listening to: the RBI, which is the banking regulator, or the supreme court. And that is why
an official may ask for the submissions to be made.”

The extension of the March 31 deadline also applied to linking Aadhaar with cell phone
services, but until a few months ago, mobile phone operators were also hounding
customers with calls and texts, asking them to link their Aadhaar and mobile numbers. Non-
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resident Indians and foreign travellers were especially perturbed since they don’t have
Aadhaar cards.

Fearing disconnection, even resident Indians got the linking done. By the end of last year,
712 million of India’s one billion mobile subscribers had done so, and now they have no
option of opting out.

Often, even relatively mundane tasks like sending a parcel abroad need Aadhaar
validation.

This kind of coercion has extended to e-commerce services, too.

Proactive corporations and individuals


India’s largest e-commerce payment system and digital wallet, Paytm, has been accused of
insisting on Aadhaar for verification. Even though the company denied it, customers have
narrated instances where no other government-approved identity card was being accepted
for verification at its KYC (know-your-customer) centres.

In certain cases, if not corporations, individuals forced customers. For instance, an Amazon
India executive was recently called out for seeking a customer’s Aadhaar details just to
track lost packages.

Then there are the home-owners who insist on it for renting their properties.

Even young children aren’t spared. In New Delhi, government schools ask parents toget
their kids enrolled to be granted admission. This despite a notification from the directorate
of education against the practice.

Things are worse in neighbouring Haryana, where new parents aren’t issued even birth
certificates unless their new-born gets an Aadhaar.

“Almost everywhere with the direct benefits transfer (DBT) programme, de facto, you have
to give Aadhaar,” said Reetika Khera, a professor of economics at the Indian Institute of
Technology (IIT) Delhi, who has extensively studied the impact of Aadhaar on welfare
programmes. “In some cases, you might still get your money. In other cases, they say
you’re a ghost entry and knock you off.”

There is no clarity whether any alternative to Aadhaar exists, Khera said.

Problems persist
To worsen matters, the programme is far from hiccup-free.

For instance, wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee
Act (MGNREGA), which entitles rural households to 100 days of gainful employment per
year, have sometimes been transferred to the wrong person’s account due to Aadhaar mix-
ups.

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Children have been denied mid-day meals for not having an Aadhaar number. Several
deaths by starvation have been reported due to glitches in this system.

The disabled, people with tuberculosis, those being rescued from prostitution, rehabilitated
after manual scavenging, and even victims of the infamous Bhopal gas tragedy have
complained of not being able to avail of benefits without Aadhaar, Usha Ramanathan, an
independent law researcher who has steadfastly opposed Aadhaar, told Quartz last year.

Though the supreme court extended the deadline to connect bank accounts and mobile
numbers indefinitely, the same did not extend to welfare programmes. “With banks and
mobile numbers, it’s a hassle and then we might worry about our data,” Khera said. “But
welfare is the place it’s causing the most damage. For poor people, it’s life and death.”

Several times, due to fingerprint mismatch, customers have been unable to verify their
identities. This problem arises particularly for older people with fading fingerprints or
others with medical conditions. “There are people who come to the centre claiming there is
a problem with the fingerprint on the Aadhaar card because their biometrics are not
recognised and they are unable to get their pension, food, etc.,” said a Mumbai-based
Aadhaar agent, requesting anonymity.

“However, the problem is not with what is being made at camps. It is a systemic issue that
keeps coming up and it is the reason why people keep losing faith in the system.”

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