An avoidable move

The government is planning to pass legislation that would link the Aadhaar unique ID with the voter ID card. The government’s motivation for such a decision is easy to understand. The Aadhaar database has been used for de-duplicating beneficiaries across a wide variety of government programmes and it is easy to see how bureaucrats would see the linking of Aadhaar and the voter ID card as just the next step in an ongoing process of creating a complete list of Indians eligible for government programmes and, indeed, to vote. But there are many consequences of a linkage between Aadhaar and the voter ID that need to be taken into account. Certainly the use of Aadhaar could aid the relocation of voters from one constituency to another. This would allow individuals who have for some reason, perhaps economic, moved from their home town to nevertheless retain their ability to exercise their franchise.

Once again, the question that must be asked is this: Why is the government seeking to make mandatory something that was originally supposed to be supplementary? If Aadhaar is imagined as a method by which those who have no other form of identification prove their identity to the electoral machinery, then it cannot be faulted. But if it is seen instead as an additional hoop a prospective voter must jump through, then it is quite another matter. In that case the purpose of widening the franchise is not served. The question of how and why the government can access citizen data occupies centre stage here. If there is proper legislation controlling how the government accesses and uses citizen data, then voters will not feel disempowered or threatened. The use of blockchain technology has been discussed in this context. Indeed, whatever form of technology is used, if citizen data is retained in encrypted form, then objections will certainly be fewer. 

Further, any use of Aadhaar in such a sensitive arena should be carefully piloted. It should not be rolled out across the entire country or even an entire state without having been tested in advance on a more limited scale. It should be clear by now that the adoption of Aadhaar authentication at scale is not an uncomplicated endeavour. Sensitive matters like the electoral roll revision should not be subordinated to the errors of the Aadhaar process without a sense of who is being excluded — such as is provided by a gradual rollout or pilot programmes.

More broadly, such uses of Aadhaar will continue to be suggested by bureaucrats unless there is a clear law governing the use of citizens’ private data that has been collected by government. A comprehensive data privacy law would do the trick. But this appears to be a futile hope. So it is highly unlikely that another piece of legislation to limit state powers when it comes to the use of citizen data is on the agenda. But, even so, the government and the Election Commission must recognise the dangers of too swiftly expanding reliance on Aadhaar as a form of sole authentication.

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