If the workings of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) were always a bit mysterious to most citizens of India, they aren't going to get any clearer anytime soon. That seems to be the case at least from a recent response by UIDAI to a right to information (RTI) query.
Recently, The Wire reported that the official handles of UIDAI and its CEO, ABP Pandey, have blocked several Twitter users, who were allegedly raising questions about the security breaches of Aadhaar or advocating against its blanket imposition. Not all of those blocked had tagged these handles or were following them. But, clearly, someone out there was keeping an eye on their activities.
The RTI application, filed by Sushil Kambampati founder of YouRTI.in in March, asked the UIDAI several questions about its policy of blocking users on social media. Specifically, it wanted to know which handles the UIDAI official account and its CEO have blocked and about any specific guidelines that allow for such actions to be taken against social media users. In response, the UIDAI denied having blocked any handles and dismissed the other queries as "Not Applicable". It didn't take too long for Twitter users to call out its bluff though.
An investigation carried out by Alt News revealed that some of the users who complained of being blocked were unblocked after the RTI was filed. But the evidence of them being blocked in the first place exists in screenshots taken by the users — proof that both UIDAI and its CEO had been on a blocking spree earlier.
@SKisContent @Vadabadava @AnupamSaraph @UIDAI @ceo_uidai We are blocked by CEO UIDAI. Screenshot from 2 minutes back, and your RTI. Must appeal. also, ask what social media policy/process of UIDAI pic.twitter.com/00EeIYlVQ8— Rethink Aadhaar (@no2uid) April 28, 2017
But beyond the denials issued by UIDAI looms a larger question: can government agencies decide to block the citizens they are supposed to serve for the offence of asking questions they may not have convincing answers to? Twitter user @aparatbar, who is a lawyer, claimed such ad hoc moves by "public authorities who disseminate information" may be unconstitutional. By impeding people's right to know their policies, government agencies are choosing to reveal and conceal data according to their convenience, undermining the imperative for transparency in any functioning democracy.
The fact that a Central agency entrusted with sensitive personal details of millions of citizens is behaving in such a whimsical manner in the world's largest democracy is worrying, to put it rather mildly. Just how alarming its conduct is becomes clear when we remind ourself of RTI, one of the strongest tools of public accountability we have in India, and its steady dilution at the hand of draconian policy-makers.
While it was revolutionary for India to have passed the RTI Act in 2005, its implementation has always been fraught with controversies, bordering on danger. In a detailed survey of the RTI over the last 12 years, Ajai Sreevatsan points out certain provisions of the Act are used by the State to reject legitimate applications, obfuscate information and deny information. The Narendra Modi government recently turned the process of filing an RTI application more cumbersome by stipulating a word length and raising the fee. Since many of RTI's beneficiaries are impoverished citizens, it may no longer be as effectively used now as it once was.
This is not to say misuse of RTI, to ask frivolous questions for instance, isn't rampant. A common reason for denying RTI queries pertains to such mischiefs, closely followed by the imperative to protect national interest — a term whose ambit seems as elastic as the definition of the 'right' kind of patriot these days.
When activists are persistent, demanding satisfaction even at the risk of their wellbeing, the ways to silence them have been ruthless. Once again, as Sreevatsan points out, since 2007, at least 65 RTI activists have been killed, 157 attacked, and 168 threatened. The provocation behind their predicament could be as grave as exposure of illegal land-grabbing to raising doubts about the efficacy of demonetisation of high-value currencies, which played havoc with the livelihood of millions for weeks on end.
With rising panic following the breach of sensitive information linked to the Aadhaar scheme, the public is besieged with worries. The questions they have for the government are many, though the answers they get are, at best, sketchy.
The efficiency of the Aadhaar project, which is expected to enhance the delivery of government benefits, such as the public distribution system and pensions, is not fully known, since the government is unwilling to divulge enough details. But after several instances of leakage of data over the last few months, the Centre seems at least willing to admit that its systems are not foolproof, though it has no intention of backing out from Aadhaar.
The government's determination to impose Aadhaar on its citizens, in defiance to a Supreme Court order against it, may be based on its commitment to improving public services. But such an ambitious plan cannot be executed while endangering sensitive data, such as bank details, or be taken to be the only benchmark for dispensing benefits to citizens, given the far-too-many instances of technological and human glitches that plague biometric data. Fingerprint mismatch, poor connectivity with the Internet forcing people to climb on trees to catch better signal on their cell phones, identity theft — the reports over the last few months are too dire to be bluntly ignored.
But these are merely the ground realities. By now, most of us know what the government expects of us: to trust it blindly, no questions asked.
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