– By Jairam Ramesh, Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha
Blog Mantri Shri Arun Jaitley yesterday hailed the purported “decisiveness” of Prime Minister Modi for implementing the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) through Aadhaar. Then he went to claim that the Congress party and it’s lawyers challenged it in Court and appeared as “the anti-technology, anti-Aadhaar faces”. As usual, Mr. Jaitley’s blog is peppered with lies, concocted facts and simply bogus claims.
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To set the record straight, Shri Blog Mantri, the Congress party is not “anti-Aadhaar”. The Congress party stands for an empowering Aadhaar rather than the BJP’s mangled, totalitarian version, which not only wants to establish an Orwelian state through Aadhaar, but also excludes the most marginalised of Indian citizens by making Aadhaar mandatory.
I was forced to petition the Supreme Court, on the specific matter of passing the Aadhaar Bill as a Money Bill, as a last resort. The BJP government bludgeoned all Parliamentary processes to pass Aadhaar in Parliament in five days flat without any substantive or constructive discussion. At the time of the passage of the Bill, Mr. Jaitley blatantly lied on the floor of the house by claiming that the Congress itself had a history of passing legislations as “money bills” and cited examples of two such bills. However, as I revealed later in the Rajya Sabha, neither of the two bills referred by the Finance Minister were in fact passed as money bills, reflecting the NDA Government’s habit of misleading the Parliament and the people of India.
As for the SC verdict, the citizens must know that one of the most respected judges of the court, Justice DY Chandrachud referred to the NDA’s Aadhaar Bill as “a fraud on the constitution” and cautioned the government against arbitrary use of power. It is a dissent that is not just legal in nature, but a commentary on the undermining of Constitutional institutions that has become a habit with this government.
Moreover, the verdict also vindicated the UPA government’s vision of Aadhaar, which was supposed to be voluntary and transparent. By quashing section 57, the SC put an end to Modi Government’s sinister attempt to build a surveillance state and compromise the privacy of millions of Indians by handing their meta-data to PM’s private cronies.
The DBT through the Aadhaar network was envisaged as means to plug Okun’s proverbial leaky bucket and deliver to citizens maximum welfare at minimum cost. This was the dream of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that every citizen should get what is rightfully theirs, as delivered by the government. It was in pursuit of this objective and to tackle corruption and pilferage in the government’s subsidy delivery mechanism that the UPA set up the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).
The UPA’s vision of Aadhaar was to empower every citizen by conferring a unique ID against which she/he would receive her/his entitlement. Transparency, efficiency and privacy were the core tenets of Aadhaar envisioned under the UPA government with the sole objective of empowering the poor and marginalised sections of the society.
As for its implementation, it was not the decisive nature of PM Modi but the visionary leadership of the UPA Government under which 60 crore Aadhaar cards had been issued until 2014 and DBT-based Aadhaar had already been announced for 26 schemes across 43 identified districts during the Union Budget in February 2013. The UPA took a measured, phased approach towards the implementation of DBT, so as to minimise exclusion errors from the system. However, the scope of Aadhaar has since been modified and the subsidy delivery by the current ruling dispensation is rife with massive exclusion and other inefficiencies, far from the vision that UPA had.
The UPA’s Aadhaar stood for a symbol of empowerment, the NDA today has turned it into a tool for exclusion. Be it the beneficiaries of the social security pension schemes or the National Food Security Act 2013, exclusions on account of Aadhaar related issues have been rising by the day.
The unnecessary haste of the government to bulldoze Aadhaar into public schemes was visible when it was made mandatory for availing mid-day meals in schools. The purpose of Aadhaar in a scheme like that is baseless since there is no evidence of a stark inflation in attendance that can point towards irregularities in the scheme. Moreover, the move is also illogical as the UIDAI itself admits that the biometrics of children change till the age of 15.
Another facet of the exclusionary nature of the NDA government’s approach towards DBT is the lack of empathy for disabled and marginalised. There has been no clear direction on alternative arrangements for the visually challenged or those with deformed hands. Similarly, construction and agrarian labourers who work for long hours often have rough hands that has also led to authentication errors and thus exclusion.
To add insult to grievous injury to the most marginalised Indians, Blog Mantri goes on to claim that, “Rs. 90,000 crore have been saved in the last few years till March, 2018 by the use of the Aadhaar”. He slips in a widely panned and debunked figure sourced from the Digital Dividend Report of the World Bank, to buttress this outright lie. Independent analysts both in India and abroad have established that the savings estimates do not pertain to Aadhaar but to the use of digital technology in subsidy transfers, which includes for eg. the use of smart cards. Most importantly, the estimate is way off the mark because it inflated the welfare expenditure budget of Government of India by a factor of ten!
However, this is not the first time that Government is presenting misleading facts to make boastful claims on Aadhaar-based DBT savings, which was also used as a justification for its passage as a money bill in Parliament. I had debunked a similar lie peddled by the Blog Mantri (on the floor of the Rajya Sabha during the debate on the Aadhaar bill) about Rs. 14,672 crores of savings in LPG subsidy due to the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme. As I had pointed out at the time, most of the savings in the LPG subsidy were on account of a “fall in the global LPG prices” and a minuscule amount could be attributed to Aadhaar.
My fact-check had forced a clarification from the then Chief Economic Advisor who stated that the government expected that there could be an annual saving of Rs.12,700 crores in the LPG subsidy in future, in a vain attempt to safeguard the intellectual sanctity of the dubious claims made by his boss. My position at the time has also been vindicated by a CAG audit of the PAHAL scheme (from April-December 2015) that concluded that 92% of the overall savings were on account of the fall in global LPG prices. Nonetheless, the government continued to deceive the nation and even filed a bogus affidavit in the SC in June, 2017 claiming that Aadhaar linking had saved the exchequer over Rs. 26,000 crores upto December 2016.
Lastly, let me quote my successor in Rural Development Ministry in the NDA government to a question raised by BJP MP, Dr. Udit Raj on 19th July, 2017 in the Lok Sabha. To a question on whether more than 87 lakh beneficiaries cancelled under the MGNREGS were based on Aadhaar-based verification, and details of such savings, the Minister bluntly replied “No. Does not arise.” To further buttress that, the same Minister has replied to a Starred Question on 7th January, 2019, in the Rajya Sabha saying, "No such study to evaluate benefits of Aadhaar linking in respect of MGNREGA, has been conducted by the Ministry." It has now been proved beyond doubt that the Blog Mantri and the government are lying to the nation.