The most important result of the BJP’s landslide victory in the elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly last month was not the installation of Hindutva diehard Adityanath Yogi as the chief minister. Within a few days of the stunning result, the finance minister introduced the Budget with 33 new unannounced clauses in various bills that immediately became law. This was done by passing them as “money” bills that does not require the Rajya Sabha’s approval. This means that these amendments were passed without debate in a day. The government “cleverly let MPs from major parties give their speeches before they dropped the amendment bomb” — tweeted Meghnad, a BJD MP. The important changes to Indian law included making it compulsory for all taxpayers to submit an Aadhaar identity card by July 2017, their PAN card being no longer enough, and in none of the donations by cheque to political parties need the identities of the donors be revealed.
These were startling changes to the law with far-reaching implications. The Supreme Court had made it clear in October 2015 that Aadhaar was voluntary and could not be made mandatory. The court had repeated this position in September last year and made the Narendra Modi government remove a condition making it compulsory for students to give their Aadhaar numbers for various scholarship schemes. By allowing political parties to not disclose the names of large donors, the government was tightening the grip of big business over politics and giving a ready advantage to a ruling dispensation such as itself to corner most of the money. The Modi government was taking advantage of its strong win in UP to take steps that weakened the democratic nature of our polity. Its appointment of Adityanath Yogi — with several criminal cases of murder, intimidation and rioting against him — showed its confidence in pursuing a divisive right-wing path. It further showed its confidence in forming governments in Goa and Manipur despite not having the required majority.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley made a fantastic claim that the permanent account number (PAN), which is essential for all tax returns, is not reliable since many people have multiple PAN, which are used to evade tax. As an example, he said, though there are over 240 million PANs in the country, less than a million are linked to Aadhaar cards. This is the first time the government has made such a claim without bothering to verify it. The numbers are unbelievable, around 250 PAN cards for every card linked to Aadhaar, indicating that by giving his PAN card is enough for the taxpayer without the need for an Aadhaar card. Nevertheless, the government maintained that an advantage of linking Aadhaar to PAN will “be a big source to gather banking transaction information, which can be an important indication of a person’s income profile”. It is part of the government tightening its surveillance of citizens. Nandan Nilekani, the first chairman of the scheme, succeeded in creating the world’s biggest surveillance engine, monitoring 1,200 million people, several times more than in any other country.
It ensures that any government will have complete access to all the data of the citizen and can use it to manipulate any one at will. Control of citizens is increasing by the day. Initially, people only had to get an Aadhaar card if they wanted subsidised LPG or kerosene, but the list expanded. Now, proof of enrollment in Aadhaar is necessary for several vulnerable groups — including women rescued from trafficking, workers engaged in forced labour, schoolchildren between six and 14 years of age and people with disabilities — to continue to receive government benefits. Schoolchildren, for instance, will not be served mid-day meals from June if they are unable to present their Aadhaar credentials. Now, since most people pay tax in one form or another, replacing the tried and tested PAN card with the superfluous Aadhaar will mean that surveillance will extend to increasing parts of life. It’s becoming reminiscent of Nazi Germany, when a similar system was used to identify and isolate Jews and other minorities.
Much has been made between Aadhaar and the US social security number. But the differences are greater than any similarities. Aadhaar uses fingerprints and eye biometrics to identify the person uniquely. The social security number originated in the years of the Great Depression, when it was used to track the earnings of workers and compute the amount of social security benefits to be credited to their accounts. The US government decided not to collect fingerprints, since “the use of fingerprints was associated in the public mind with criminal activity, making this approach undesirable”, notes the Social Security Administration, And its website states: “The card was never intended to serve as a personal identification document.” Aadhaar is being used as an identifier to link databases, which makes it easy for government officials to gain access to personal user information, such as bank records, education data, health records, and for surveillance of phone calls and data usage. This data was not linked; under Aadhaar it is. Taking this further, the government is thinking of linking the Aadhaar number to mobile phone numbers.
The present government’s rush to push for Aadhaar despite the Supreme Court’s many objections and the misgivings of many critics is in line with its eagerness to push digital money transactions. It is not just an attempt at modernisation, but having greater control and surveillance. As the demonetisation experiment proved it could bring great inconvenience to the public but not necessarily affect the government’s ability to put a spin on it to sway voters. Even more than demonetisation, Aadhaar could be sold as being good for the country since it gives greater control to the government. Government control is one thing. Private profit is another. Nandan Nilekani, in a foreword to a report by investment banker Credit-Suisse, noted that the use of Aadhaar by the financial sector could open up a $600 billion business opportunity. No wonder private companies are rushing to get their hands on the Aadhaar numbers....