The government's mandatory biometric identification project Aadhaar could lead to millions of people being denied access to essential services and benefits in violation of their human rights while also raising serious concerns about violations of the right to privacy, Amnesty International India and Human Rights Watch said on Saturday.
They said the government should order an independent investigation of the concerns raised about Aadhaar, and cease targeting journalists and researchers who expose vulnerabilities in security, privacy, and protection of data.
Last week, the Tribune newspaper reported that unrestricted access to the personal details of people enrolled in Aadhaar could be purchased for Rs 500 from racketeers. The UIDAI responded by filing a criminal complaint, naming the reporter and the newspaper, prompting widespread condemnation by civil society groups.
In a joint statement, the two organisations said that according to the August 2017 Supreme Court ruling, right to privacy was part of the constitutional right to life and personal liberty and is also protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is party.
"The government's push for mandatory enrolment and its efforts to link the Aadhaar number to a wide range of services raises grave concerns that it could disproportionately interfere with the right to privacy for millions of people.
"It has also prompted fears of increased state surveillance, with the convergence of various databases making it easier for the government to track all information about specific individuals, and to target dissent.
"These fears are heightened by the absence of laws to protect privacy and data protection in India, and the lack of adequate judicial or parliamentary oversight over the activities of intelligence agencies," it added.
Amnesty International India's executive director Aakar Patel said: "Making an Aadhaar card a prerequisite to access essential services and benefits can obstruct access to several constitutional rights, including the rights of people to food, health care, education and social security."
"The government has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that nobody is denied their rights simply because they don't have an Aadhaar card," he added.
The Aadhaar project is run by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) which collects personal and biometric data such as fingerprints, facial photographs, and iris scans, and issues 12-digit individualized identity numbers. Aadhaar was initially meant to be voluntary, aimed at eliminating fraud in government welfare programs and giving people a form of identification.
However, the Aadhaar Act of 2016 and subsequent notifications and licensing agreements increased the scope of the project, making Aadhaar enrolment mandatory for people to access a range of essential services and benefits including government subsidies, pensions and scholarships. It has also been linked to services such as banking, insurance, telephone, and the Internet.
Amnesty and HRW said that shops providing subsidized food grains as part of the government's public distribution system to poor people have denied supplies to eligible families because they did not have an Aadhaar number, or because they had not linked it to their ration cards, or because the authentication of their biometrics such as fingerprints failed, citing cases in Rajasthan and other places.
"In some states, children without Aadhaar cards have been denied free meals in government schools, while others have been denied enrollment in government schools despite the Right to Education Act guaranteeing free and compulsory education to all children ages 6 to 14," it said.
"It is ironic that a 12-digit number aimed to end corruption and help the poor has become the very reason many have been deprived of fundamental rights," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"There are legitimate concerns about privacy, surveillance, or just misuse of personal information, and the government should address these problems instead of coercing people to enrol and link existing services to Aadhaar," she said.