Chapter Twenty-Nine: Aadhaar, Elections, Exclusion and Disenfranchisement.

Controversial amendments propose large reaching changes to the country's ID project by linking them with the electoral rolls and birth/death certificates. This chapter of TypeRight looks into how this could be exclusionary and damaging to personal privacy and democracy at large.

Building an excl-UIDAI-ed India

As one after the other, controversial bills bulldozed through the winter session of 2021 parliament despite opposition protests, civil rights, privacy and inclusion keeps taking a blow. The latest in the list is the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 which cleared the Lok Sabha on the 20th of December 2021 and the Rajya Sabha the very next day. The most contentious phrase in the amendment is the provision it gives for linking the electoral roll data with Aadhaar.

Incidentally, while the bill was passed only last week, this is not the first experimental run with such an idea. All the way back in 2014 November, a pilot exercise was carried out in Telangana's Hyderabad and Nizamabad districts. Now, this is a violation of what the Aadhaar was created for, and the supreme court immediately ordered to stop this the following year. But by then, it was too late. During the 2018 assembly elections in Telangana, it was discovered that around forty lakh (4 million) names were deleted from the electoral rolls.

An RTI filed revealed that the Election Commission used only a software to delete 'duplicates' without conducting proper checks. From this one small exercise, the level of disenfranchisement such a linking of Aadhar and Voter-ID can potentially bring is evident. In 2019, an Andhra Pradesh private firm working behind the then-ruling TDP government's e-services app had allegedly used data stolen from the database to help the party in elections. This Twitter thread describes in detail how AP and Telangana faced issues with the ID/Identity linking project:

Reading these plans for an Aadhaar seeded online voting along with the One Nation One Election plans proposed by the BJP one could see how this might turn into a violation of the secret ballot, lead to voter coercion and benefit only some parties and not democracy as a whole.

A detailed statement, signed by several individuals, activists, academics, and organisations including can be found on the Rethink Aadhaar page.

Rethink Aadhaar joins almost 500 prominent individuals, including former civil servants, journalists, social activists, researchers and students to strongly oppose this proposal, and call on the Election Commission of India to withdraw its plans. The signatories to the statement include electoral reform group, Association for Democratic Reforms; civil rights groups from across the country such as the Peoples’ Union of Civil Liberties, MKSS, Adivasi Women’s Network, Chetna Andolan, and NAPM Jharkhand; and digital rights groups including Rethink Aadhaar, Article 21 Trust, the Internet Freedom Foundation, the Bachao Project, and the Free Software Movement of India.

What we would like to point out is the same - that the Aadhaar cannot be a proof to vote, such a linking will lead to disenfranchisement, potentially increase voter fraud, violate the Puttaswamy judgement, and be a huge assault on privacy.

Following the controversy, the Minister for Law, Kiren Rijiju clarified in the Rajya Sabha that the proposed linking would only be voluntary.

(From Times of India)

However, the Scroll reports this is contentious, as a clause from the new bill paves the way for the government to define a "sufficient cause" in which the Aadhaar need not be furnished:

“no application for inclusion of name in the electoral roll shall be denied and no entries in the electoral roll shall be deleted for inability of an individual to furnish or intimate Aadhaar number...”

In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been running a campaign on how Voter ID laws are depriving many Americans of the right to vote. They say that the law has discriminately affected the minority populations, and how people simply but disproportionately lack IDs in the country. Running a similar argument to a country like India with an already steep digital divide immediately shows how dangerous such a law is and who this seeks to benefit.

As @digitaldutta (Srinivas Kodali) notes in his article for The Wire, this is just one part of the larger scheme of linking the UIDAI to almost everything possible, potentially "paving the way for 360-degree profiling databases." The amendments proposed to the birth and death registry also plan to achieve linkage between the Civil Registration System of birth and death registration with the National Population Register (NPR).

The NPR, if one has forgotten, is one of three controversial agendas that sparked nationwide protests in 2019 and early 2020, along with the NRC (National Registry of Citizens) and the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act).

(Anti-CAA protests at Shaheenbagh, Image from TwoCircles.net)

Linking Aadhaar to all this data intends to create a system of 'real-time governance,' which along with the 360-degree profiling would track people in real-time across databases of birth, death, healthcare, vehicle registration, ownership of land or properties, and even policing. The line between providing government services like Google predicts your next possible search comes at a huge trade-off.

The line between a techno-utopia and a surveillance dystopia can be really thin. The pilot project run in Hyderabad is one scary example that is coming closer to reality. Our friends at IFF (Internet Freedom Foundation) and Amnesty has already done a detailed coverage on Project Panoptic, which can be read here. A news report on the same, #BanTheScan can also be found here.

Surveillance Dystopia.

Over a decade since the launch of the project, Aadhaar has come also under criticism academically as well for its exclusionary nature, like this or this. This EPW study from 2017 analyses how:

...It is found that far from being inclusive and reducing corruption, Aadhaar is becoming a tool of exclusion. The government’s estimates of savings also do not stand up to scrutiny, and whatever is termed as savings is often the result of a denial of legal entitlements. In its current form, the Aadhaar project undermines the right to life.

This means to say that the problems with Aadhaar goes beyond and deeper than the debates concerning privacy, security or data protection. It hits the fundamental level of exclusion, where millions of people are impacted immediately- the most extensive safety net in the world, India's national Public Distribution System has excluded many from access to rations due to linking issues and Aadhaar being mandatory. This has happened in Jharkhand, Karnataka and Rajasthan. And many of these are issues of access.

With India's level slipping in the global hunger index, this stands as valid cause for concern.

Meanwhile, as the new Data Protection Bill also clears the parliament, the citizen has little to expect in terms of how their data will be kept. And as reports have shown, Aadhaar data has definitely been compromised in the past.

In Other News

While the government had declared a micro-credit scheme to help street vendors in financial distress following the pandemic and the lockdown, a news report suggests that 6.75 lakh (0.675 million) applications were rejected.

After this news from 2018 of how public WiFis in railway stations actually empowers people and their access to education, the South Central Railways has announced that all stations under the zone will be connected via the railways' free wifi.

In more censorship news, however, the government has blocked more websites and youtube channels that it deemed to have 'anti-Indian content.

Updates from DEF

Our digital entrepreneurs and centre coordinators continue to contribute to the fight against the pandemic by conducting health camps and spreading awareness on vaccines.

It's the end of the year. Next time we meet, TypeRight will have a round-up of everything that has happened in 2021 on digital rights and exclusion- until then, ciao and new year wishes to our readers.

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad

TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.
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