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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 17 New Delhi April 14, 2018

Aadhaar and Welfare: A Sceptical Note

Saturday 14 April 2018, by Arup Kumar Sen

In the Supreme Court hearing on Aadhaar, before a two-judge Bench, in May 2017, the then Attorney General, Mukul Rohatgi, while countering the petitioners’ objections to the government’s move, said that their “arguments on so-called privacy and bodily intrusions are bogus”. He also offered pro-welfare, anti-corruption and anti-terrorist arguments in favour of Aadhaar: “It is an effective tool to check terror financing and black money. It ensures that money meant for poor people reaches them.”

The present Attorney General, K.K. Venugopal, said, before a five-judge Constitution Bench in the final hearings on the Aadhaar project, in March 2018, that there was a need to balance the right of 300 million poor people to live with dignity and without starvation as against the privacy rights of others. But, Justice Chandrachud stated that this argument would go against the spirit of the Supreme Court’s privacy judgement. He clarified: “It is not that privacy is for one section of population and economic right for another.”

In his recent interview carried in India Today (April 9), the Union Minister for Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, offered his arguments in defence of Aadhaar: “There is a lot of misconception about Aadhaar. Its biggest opponents are those who introduced the Right to Information. The poor have no objection... Privacy cannot and should not become the shield of the corrupt and the terrorists.”

We are fortunate that the Supreme Court was not convinced by the argument that the right to privacy is an elitist affair, and that the poor people are not concerned about it. In July 2017, a nine-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court declared the Right to Privacy to be a fundamental right. Not accepting Attorney General Venugopal’s characterisation of the right to privacy as an “elitist” argument, the Bench reportedly told him: “Your argument that the Right to Privacy applies to the elite alone is wrong, it applies to the poor people as well.”

The government’s contention that Aadhaar is an “effective tool” of delivering welfare benefits to people has been contested by activist scholars. To put it in the words of one such scholar, Reetika Khera: “Aadhaar is a direct assault on the ‘right to life’ of many in the sense that pre-existing benefits (rations, pensions etc.) have now become contingent upon Aadhaar. Our research and government data suggest that the number of affected people is in hundreds of thousands... It is bizarre that while Aadhaar in fact harms the poor, it is positioned by the government as a tool that ‘empowers’ them.”

We are seriously concerned about the possibility that Aadhaar information, rather than empowering the poor, maybe used as an additional weapon of social control at the micro and macro levels in our “strange times”.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62