Take A Look At My Hard-Working Hands - Too Coarse For The Fingerprint Machine!

Raman Swamy

Civil Writ Petition No. 372 0f 2017.   That is the case filed under Article 32 of the Constitution challenging the validity of the Aadhaar Act on the grounds that it violates the Fundamental Rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 10 and 21. 

Whatever the verdict, it will be historic.  It will profoundly impact the future of governance in the country.  It will determine whether India will remain a land of individual freedom or become a police state where the government will have powers of super-surveillance.

The final hearings began on Wednesday in an atmosphere very different from last summer when the original petition was filed by two women - Shanta Singh (a Magsaysay Award winner) and Kalyani Sen Menon (a feminist researcher).   

Since then, numerous other petitions have been filed and accepted by the Supreme Court as “intervention applications” in the case of “Shanta Singh and Another versus Union of India and Another”.   

The latest is a petition filed by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) which raises many grassroots issues that had not been spelt out in detail till now.  In a sense it is a challenge to Aadhaar from the standpoint of the poorest and most needy citizens of what is often called ‘Asli Bharat’, the vast sea of humanity in struggling for survival in the agricultural sector. 

A striking problem flagged by AIKS petition, which was accepted as recently as January 15, is that fingerprint identification is proving to be an absurdity in rural India - “due to the rough exterior of fingers caused by constant hard work, a large majority of manual labourers and farmers have bad quality of finger prints and hence cannot get an Aadhar number, even if they wish for it”, says the petition. 

The educated elite in the big cities, mainly engaged in white-collar occupations and blessed with well-preserved patterns of ridges, whorls and arches that are easily mapped by biometric scanners, would undoubtedly scoff at this ludicrous excuse by the unwashed masses with gnarled hands.  

But it is a serious petition that highlights the grave implications of being excluded from essential welfare schemes if Aadhaar identification is declared as obligatory and mandatory.   In all the sound and fury of the political, legal and intellectual debate that is raging over the pros and cons of a centralized repository of biometric data of all citizens, the original purpose of Aadhaar has virtually been drowned out – it is for the Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services. 

What are these financial subsidies and services?  They include soil health card, crop insurance including Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana and fertilizer subsidies.  No fingerprint, no Aadhaar card.  No Aadhar, no PDS, no MNREGA work.  The result is that many needy sections like farmers, labourers and Adivasis are denied these essential subsidies, benefits and services due to non-linking of Aadhar.

This has already created untold misery and hardship for the poor and impoverished who need access to the host of farm sector welfare schemes and programs.

The petition highlights cases of farm labourers with poor quality of finger prints being denied an Aadhar number, and therefore access to benefits.  This is despite the proviso to Section 7 of Chapter III of the Aadhar Act -- which mandates that if Aadhar number is not assigned to an individual he/she will be offered alternate and viable means of identification. 

There is another dimension to the ground reality which is typical of the poor execution of gigantic programmes in India.  There is pervasive mismatch of numbers with land records, bank accounts and biometrics with Aadhar.  Also, in badly electrified rural areas with sporadic Internet connectivity, the time taken for authentication per person is a both a nightmare and a farce. 

Will the five-judge Constitutional Bench, after the process of hearings, dismiss and reject all the petitions and uphold the validity of Aadhaar?  In the light of the unprecedented upheavals that is currently taking place inside the hallowed portals of the Supreme Court, the odds seem to have swung in favour of a judgment allowing the State to go ahead with mandatory Aadhaar.   The progressive elite will be unhappy at the invasion of their privacy.  The poor will bemoan their washed-out fingerprints.

Jan 18, 2018

Raman Swamy [email protected]

Your Comment if any