Aadhaar card restricts fundamental rights, argue critics, limiting access to free school meals and exposing 1 billion people to privacy risks.
Hundreds of thousands of people in India could be left without essential government services and benefits – including free school meals and uniforms, food subsidies and pensions – under new rules that make access to more than three dozen state-funded schemes conditional on showing identification.
Over the past month, citizens have been notified that they have to prove their identity with a biometric ID, known as an Aadhaar card, to be eligible to use various services. Booking railway tickets online, applying for some jobs, and getting fuel subsidies will also be dependent on showing the card.
Aadhaar cards were introduced by the Indian government in 2009, and rolled out by prime minister Narendra Modi in 2014. They record personal biometric data, including fingerprints and eye scans, which the government says allows it to ensure that welfare services are being delivered to those who really need them, and saving billions of rupees by reducing welfare fraud.
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which oversees the Aadhaar programme, says that more than 1.13 billion people have been enrolled on an official database. But activists say that hundreds of thousands of Indians and migrants are still undocumented and could miss out on their fundamental rights because of the new rules.
“What if a Facebook account was necessary to log in to the internet, and what if Facebook was owned by the government of the US?” asked Sumandro Chattapadhyay, research director at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a thinktank with offices in Bangalore and Delhi. “We are building a system that will decide whether a child will eat or not on an afternoon based on [the] quality of internet connectivity and cleanliness of the child’s thumbprint.”
Chattapadhyay argued that Aadhaar, which is effectively being forced upon Indians, and which is used increasingly by private companies, exposed more than a billion people to huge privacy risks.
“The Aadhaar ID is being connected to digital communications via sim card registration, it is being connected to financial transactions via bank accounts, and all Indian citizens are being forced to enroll for it against the threat of losing out from welfare services,” he said.
“The potential of unmonitored and unregulated use of such linked data by the private sector is massive. It does not matter if the Indian state will finally go ahead with implementing this system or not. The fact that [it] is considering such a system is scary enough.”
Nanu Bhasin, spokesperson at the ministry of women and child development, confirmed that the order to link Aadhaar to government schemes had come directly from the Modi government. “There are leakages in the system,” she said. “This will plug leakages.”
Bhasin said Aadhaar was now mandatory: “You have to take it, it is necessary. You cannot take the right to a benefit if you don’t have the Aadhaar card.”
She said she did not know if those who did not want to enroll in the scheme because of potential privacy risks would still be able to receive benefits. “You have bank accounts, there you give all your details, everything. Why make a fuss [about privacy] for Aadhaar?” she said.
One of the most contentious new rules introduced this month, and coming into force in July, requires children to show Aadhaar cards to get free school meals. The notice led to a media storm in India, where malnutrition rates are high and nearly 60 million children are underweight.
On 7 March the government said alternative forms of ID would be accepted for free school meals where people did not yet have Aadhaar cards, and urged schools and childcare centres to enroll all attendees.