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Delhi: The Supreme Court’s interim order on August 11, 2015, regarding the Aadhaar project, had far-reaching ramifications on the National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP), a project to link voter ID cards with Aadhaar. Launched on March 3, 2015, the linking process came to a halt just five months later.

Following this, two petitions in favour of linking were filed — one in the Supreme Court and the other in the Madras High Court.Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, BJP spokesperson and the lawyer who petitioned the Supreme Court, told India Legal “Aadhaar linking would help identify bogus voters and purify the voting process.” However, asked about privacy concerns and exclusion, he gave a rhetorical answer, saying there had been no leak in Aadhaar data.

The petition was filed in April 2018, after which the Supreme Court said it would settle the case after deciding on a batch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar. That decision came in September. The ruling did not specifically bar voter IDs from being linked to Aadhaar. The next hearing on the linking case is expected to be heard in November end. 

Issue of bogus voters

HS Brahma, former chief election commissioner, had alleged in 2015 that 10%-12% of the total number of voters is fake. This figure indicates the gravity of the bogus voter problem in India. When citizens shift from one state to another, they usually don’t send a request to delete their previous voter card, but just register for a new one.

All India Congress Committee member Naresh Kumar had, in 2014, filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, alleging the presence of a large number of bogus voters in the capital. “A large number of people in the city have numerous voter ID cards in their name, but with different addresses,” said Kumar.

Last November, during the dramatic RK Nagar by-elections in Chennai, the EC made a bold move and removed 45,000 voters just one month before polling date. “Most of the 45,000 voters removed were actually not fake, they resided in the same area. So the situation of bogus voters in India is actually harming the citizens’ right to vote. There are millions of bogus voters in India and they can be identified correctly only when they are linked to Aadhaar,” said M L Ravi, the lawyer who has petitioned in favour of Aadhaar linking, in the Madras High Court. 

On its part, the Election Commission has already developed a software tool based on SQL server and Python to identify bogus voters, and distributed it to all the states. The software identifies duplicate names in the rolls, It alerts officials after which they cross check and delete them.

“The most effective way of solving the problem of bogus voters is through field visits. It is evident that the software tool has not helped the EC,” said Srinivas Kodali, an independent digital rights researcher. 

Linking of voter ID cards with Aadhaar raises a number of doubts. According to a reply to a slew of RTIs which India Legal accessed, the chief election commissioner in a meeting in May 2015 raised concerns regarding complaints they received, stating that names of a number of voters were deleted from the electoral rolls for not furnishing Aadhaar. 

Prasanna S, a lawyer involved in the Aadhaar litigation, said, “The whole process of linking voter ID with Aadhaar is illegal. There is no legal mention of that exercise. The EC cannot choose a process to eliminate voters without any constitutional backing of a law.”

The exclusion caused by Aadhaar is well recorded. In September 2017, the death of 11-year old Santoshi, a resident of Simdega district of Jharkhand, due to starvation after her family stopped receiving foodgrains under the National Food Security Act as their ration card was not linked to Aadhaar, shook up the nation. Jharkhand Food Minister Saryu Rai admitted that the government’s ‘No Aadhaar, no ration’ policy was flawed, and had led to exclusion of the poor and vulnerable.

In fact, getting Aadhaar itself is a herculean task for the poor. Often, they have to pay at least Rs 500 to get their Aadhaar cards made, or even to update their addresses, so most poor people just skip it. The point the petitioners make, that residents change their state of residence, but don’t have their previous voter cards deleted, and that Aadhaar will solve that problem, is not justified.

After September 2017, UIDAI banned enrolment for Aadhaar at private premises and asked states to ensure that they shift to government premises. Arvind Kumar, an Aadhaar card operator, said, “Many customers complain to us about other authorised centres which are not enrolling people. Operators stationed to sit at banks are not found there, instead they go to private shops to earn more money.” There have been clear indications that Aadhaar has caused exclusion of the poor and vulnerable sections of society. Therefore, linking to voter IDs could hamper citizens’ most fundamental right — the right to vote.

Privacy concerns

During NERPAP’s tenure of just five months, it was able to link 31 crore voter IDs with Aadhaar. This may be the fastest and most successful programme to link two services started by the government, if voters’ consent is taken. However, many lawyers and activists say that the linking process was unconstitutional as voters’ consent was not considered.

Kodali says, “The Election Commission took data from the government without citizens’ consent. Many reports suggest that citizens’ consent was not even considered.” 

The RTI replies also reveal that the Election Commission used the controversial DBT Seeding Viewer through which the service provider could see demographic details and photographs of the citizen. The service provider would match details with data present in his database, and if it matched, Aadhaar got seeded in the service provider’s database.

“The data, taken from citizens to give them a unique identity, was used to link it with voter cards. Which is totally against the law,” Prasanna added.

Kodali, an independent researcher on Aadhaar, recently filed a petition against the Election Commission and asked it to disclose the algorithm and source code being used to de-duplicate voters and delete them. He says, “The whole election process should be transparent. There is no information regarding the algorithm and source code of the software. And it is actually deleting our voters.”

– India Legal Bureau

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