Hours after the Opposition, making most of the NDA’s lack of numbers in Rajya Sabha, pushed through five amendments and returned the Aadhaar Bill to Lok Sabha, the Lower House rejected the changes suggested and passed the Bill through a voice vote in its original form Wednesday.
The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, brought in by the government as a money Bill, was opposed by the Opposition over concerns that access to the biometric database in the interest of national security would compromise privacy.
Since it was a money Bill, it could not be rejected or amended by Rajya Sabha. The Upper House can only make recommendations for amendments but those have to be agreed to by Lok Sabha to become effective. The Lok Sabha can decide not to agree to any of the recommendations — and this is precisely what happened Wednesday. The Rajya Sabha has to return a money Bill within 14 days after receiving it from Lok Sabha, failing which the Bill is considered passed by the Upper House.
Participating in the debate in Rajya Sabha, Congress MP Jairam Ramesh, the author of all amendments passed by the Upper House, conceded he was probably indulging in a futile exercise but said it was his, and his party’s duty to suggest changes that he considered necessary to improve the Bill. “We all know what the end result of this debate will be,” Ramesh said, describing the labelling of the Aadhar Bill as a money Bill an attempt to “knock a nail in the coffin of the Upper House”.
Ramesh had proposed nine amendments in the Bill, but insisted on a vote only on five, each of which was approved. Two of these received 76 votes in support and 64 against, two more got 77 votes in support and 64 against, while one amendment received 76 votes in support and 65 against. Four other amendments, on which Ramesh did not insist on voting, got rejected by voice vote. The amendments by Ramesh suggested a provision to allow a person to “opt out” of the Aadhaar system, even if already enrolled, and another to ensure that if a person chooses not to be part of the Aadhaar system, he/she would be provided “alternate and viable” means of identification for purposes of delivery of government subsidy, benefit or service.
Another amendment sought to restrict the use of Aadhaar numbers only for targeting of government benefits or service and not for any other purpose. Ramesh said the government Bill seemed to make Aadhaar numbers mandatory for everyone desirous of claiming government benefits, but the Supreme Court had already ruled against this. Another of the amendments sought to change the term “national security” to “public emergency or in the interest of public safety” in the provision specifying situations in which disclosure of identity information of an individual to certain law enforcement agencies can be allowed.
Ramesh argued that “national security” was a “loose” term liable to be misused in interpretation by the government of the day. Many other speakers from the Opposition benches criticised the government for labelling the Bill as a money Bill, and said it did not qualify as such. They also cautioned the government against making Aadhaar numbers mandatory for claiming government benefits and services. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, while clarifying the points raised by members, said it had been judicially settled in many countries, including the United States, that if an individual wants to claim specific government benefits, asking him or her to enrol for a Aadhaar like programme is not unjust.
“You cannot stake a claim to the benefits and at the same time be unwilling to shed privacy concerns,” he said. But this argument was rejected by the Opposition benches. Sitaram Yechury of CPM, Tapan Sen and D Raja of CPI, and Naresh Agarwal of Samajwadi Party were among those who said they were not satisfied with the clarification. Independent member Rajeev Chandrasekhar raised the concern that an Aadhaar number could be obtained by non-citizens as well and wanted the government to take steps to prevent such a possibility. Earlier, the Rajya Sabha witnessed heated exchanges when Jaitley got up to introduce the Aadhaar Bill. Opposition members from the Congress, Left parties, BSP and Samajwadi Party accused the government of attempting to bypass Rajya Sabha.
Jaitley spoke for about half an hour explaining why the Bill qualified as a money Bill. Yechury opposed the Bill on other grounds as well including the fact that it dealt with privacy concerns. He said the Supreme Court was deliberating on a plea that privacy should be recognised as a fundamental right, and hence the government should wait for the court order. But Jaitley said legislation cannot stop just because the court is considering a related matter. “It is an unprecedented argument, particularly in a democracy which is governed by the separation of powers. The power to legislate belongs to Parliament. It does not belong to the court,” he said.