The confusing communications from the Union government on Aadhaar or the unique identification number, and the angst and disquiet these caused to the people, are the result of the ad hoc approach it has taken to the implementation of the whole project since its very inception.
Recently, it withdrew a notification asking Aadhaar card holders not to share the number in full while still insisting on the exercise of “normal prudence”, but not before crores have been plunged into anxiety about the possible misuse of the data that they have already shared.
The notification makes it plain that the government has been aware of the chinks in the data protection mechanism of Aadhaar and of the dangers involved. Yet it has chosen not to share its fears with the public.
Worse, in all these years, the government has encouraged the use of Aadhaar with as many agencies as possible — be they telecom companies or banking institutions — even hotels were insisting on the production of Aadhaar in some parts of India. Those who opted for vaccination in private hospitals were also made to share their Aadhaar data.
The bottomline is — the government which used every trick in the book to make people subscribe to the number has failed them miserably when it came to data protection.
Neither the United Progressive Alliance which started working on the idea of a unique number nor the National Democratic Alliance government which followed up on the project has ever bothered to take a comprehensive approach to such an important issue. The UPA government whose baby it is did not even bother to make it a legitimate child by seeking the authorisation of Parliament. The BJP, which did give it some legitimacy, also took the short cut — it got it passed as a money bill.
Whenever a citizen goes to court questioning the right of the government to ask them to link Aadhaar to one document or the other, the government goes on the back foot. Today, a government agency can ask for the production of the Aadhaar card only if the citizen receives some form of financial assistance from the government. In essence, the UID has ceased to be a mandatory identification document which it was once touted to be.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often talked about the role data will play in the new economy but the government he heads appears to have little clue about the need to protect citizen’s data. Laughably, the attorney-general of India has told the Supreme Court that the data is safe inside the centre which has a 13-foot high and five-foot thick wall.
Since the issue is related to the protection of the personal data of citizens, the government must make a clean breast of the whole project, its shortcomings and its plans. It must also go back to Parliament with a piece of legislation that lists the uses of the data, authorises the agencies that can access it, ensures data privacy, fixes responsibility in case of breach and forms a body which an aggrieved citizen can go to if that occurs. Aadhaar is too important a topic to be addressed with quick fixes.