Accusing the Congress of painting Aadhaar as a curse, the government today asserted that no poor person would be deprived of the subsidy benefits by making the Aadhaar mandatory and that privacy of individuals will be protected.
Minister of IT and Law Ravi Shankar Prasad stated this in the Rajya Sabha while replying to a discussion on Aadhaar against the backdrop of concerns expressed by the opposition over making the biometric-based identification system mandatory for availing of government subsidies.
"I want to make it very clear on the behalf of the govermment that no poor shall be denied his subsidy rights at all. Be very clear about that. Whether it is, a mid day meal or any other benefit, we have said that you come on Aadhaar but no denial will be there," he assured the House.
"The right of privacy of individual must be respected... The question to be considered is, are we invading privacy through the Aadhaar law, the answer is 'No'," he said.
Observing that at present, over 113 crore residents in India have Aadhaar, Prasad said that "Aadhaar is safe, let me say proudly that the data is secure".
He said that in the last six years, the government has cancelled and blacklisted 34,000 operators who tried to pollute the system or tried to make fake Aadhaar cards.
"Since December 2016, we have taken action against 1,000 operators. We have a proper oversight system available which we do at all the authority at our command," he said.
Accusing the Congress of trying to paint Aadhaar as a curse, Prasad outlined several benefits associated with it.
"You need to come on Aadhaar but the benefits will not be denied to you, you can come with alternative identity proof be it ration card, MNREGA Card, driving licnse or others. But please apply for Aadhaar, that is the whole essence," he said.
"Fake bank accounts is a known phenomena. We cannot wish away that poor people have lost their savings. So these realities are known," Prasad said.
To back his assertion of Aadhaar data being secure, the Law Minister reasoned that minimum data is collected by the authorities, and information related to an individual's religion, caste, language, medical history or ethinicity is not profiled.
"Let me outline minimum data is being taken for preparation of Aadhaar card, the authorities are under strict instructions to maintain that secrecy and if they flout they can also suffer three years of imprisonment and prosecution," the Law Minister argued.
Pointing out that national security is important, he said that even in cases of national security, a high-level mechanism has been put in place whereby a designated officer of the Home Ministry shall for reasons to be recorded in writing certify disclosure of a person's Aadhaar data.
Further, he said that a committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary will ascertain and confirm that a person's Aadhaar data needs to be disclosed in such cases.
"This is the kind of safeguards we have given that the biometrics of an ordinary person even in case of national security cannot be opened unless certified by this level of higher authorities," Prasad said.
The Law Minister categorically denied claims of the NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid) being linked to Aadhaar.
Referring to the two interim orders passed by the Supreme Court on August 11, 2015 and October 15, 2015, permitting a set of subsidies to be given through Aadhaar, Prasad outlined that there was no Aadhaar legislation in place at the time.
"Legally speaking, the law is well settled that Parliament can remove the lacuna which the court points out and if one of the arguments in the court is that there is no legal framework available, the Parliament has come up with the Aadhar Act," he said.
Referring to a recent CAG report which had found that 92 per cent of the savings in LPG subsidy was due to fall in global crude oil prices and not due to Aadhaar seeding, Prasad termed it a "sketchy report".
"I very seriously respect the institution of CAG but the CAG has got no mechanism to make a comment that this saving is only due to the lowering of the international crude oil prices. This is too judgemental, not factual," the minister said.
Prasad said the government saved about Rs 50,000 crore LPG subsidy due to the linking of Aadhaar card with Jhan Dhan accounts.
"The World Bank and a UN body have clearly stated that the extraordinary technological innovation of India needs to be followed by the world. Surely they (UPA government) started it, but after improvements, it is showing results and the benefits have to be considered objectively," he said.
The Aadhaar scheme was started by the UPA government.
"Now there is a robust legisation that has laid down the entire format of how the biometric data will be collected, processed, stored and under what terms and conditions will it be used," Prasad said.
If there is unauthorised use of Aadhaar card details, the law provides for prosecution and punishment for up to 3 years, he added.
Congress leader Jairam Ramesh attacked the government for making Aadhaar mandatory, saying it is gross violation of the Supreme Court orders.
Making Aadhaar mandatory for availing subsidies was resulting in exclusion of beneficiaries and the government cannot claim to have saved huge subsidies by this, he said.
Elaborating on implementation issues, Ramesh said the government claims to have saved Rs 49,000 crore LPG subsidies by linking with Aadhaar but a CAG report has debunked this in a recent report.
The CAG has found that 92 per cent of the savings in LPG subsidy was due to fall in global crude oil prices and not due to Aadhaar seeding, he said, adding that similar was the case with food subidy, old-age pension and MNREGA.
Initiating the debate, Rajeev Chandrashekar (Ind) expressed concern over fake aadhaar cards, data integrity and privacy issues and also exclusion of subsidies by making it mandatory.
He said he was not against the Aadhaar system but the risks and problems need to be addressed by the government. The government should not take a "rigid position".
On fake Aadhaar cards, Chandrashekar said the government has inherited "100 crore unverified database" created prior to bringing the law in 2016.
When there is "clear evidence" of fake Aadhaar, he sought to know what safeguards the UIDAI had taken before permitting Aadhaar for use as an identification beyond delivering subsidies. "This needs to be answered," he said.
During his reply, Prasad, the IT Minister, said while the past government added optical network of 358 km in three years starting 2011, the present government in the past 2.5 years has added 1.78 lakh kilometers.
He said curently 80,000 villages have been covered in the country and more would be added. "In the past government, only Rs 11,000 crore investment came in the electronics sector. In our government there has been an investment of over Rs 1.27 lakh crore," he said.
"In their time there used to be a Nokia company which shut down. We in the last two years manufactured 12 crore mobiles through 72 factories across the country," he added.
"We never said they (previous government) did not used to do good work. They used to begin good work but it is our duty to make it better. That is why the people have brought us to power," Prasad said.
To improve infrastructure will be the governmt's priority, he added.
Trinamool Congress leader Derek O'Brien said demographic data of 5 lakh minors was leaked and government should look into the matter.
"If you protect MS Dhoni, it is good but at the same time, you should also protect small people," he said. V Vijaysai Reddy (YSRCP) said the linkage of Aadhaar Card with Pan card is very much required because many people have multiple PAN (Permanent Account Number) cards and thus open several bank accounts to deposit blackmoney.
He said linking of Aaadhar with voter ID is "very much possible to remove duplicate or ghost voter ID cards".
Ripun Bora of the Congress said he fully supported Aadhaar but would like to bring certain implementational constraints to the government's notice.
He also referred to the Supreme Court's earlier observation that the government cannot make Aadhaar mandatory to access benefits and welfare schemes.
Pointing towards concerns raised on privacy, particularly in light of a recent incident involving leakage of Aadhaar related information of Dhoni, Shiv Pratap Shukla of the BJP referred to a World Bank report, which he claimed had said that the Aadhaar framework in place in India was even better than the American Social Security Act.
Referring to the issue of protection of privacy, Tiruchi Siva of the DMK said that Aadhaar has now become a "tool of surveillance".
He said the government of India does not have a policy on privacy at present.