The Telegraph
New Delhi

The government is set to introduce the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021, seeking to link electoral roll data with Aadhaar to check “multiple enrolment”, while raising fears of “mass disenfranchisement” as is said to have happened with ration cards and the rural job scheme.

The bill, to be introduced in the Lok Sabha on Monday, will also be pitched as a gender-friendly exercise as it will allow the substitution of “wife” and “if she” in the Representation of the People Act, 1950, with the gender-neutral “spouse”.

The bill further looks to fix certain qualifying dates — January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 — for the preparation or revision of electoral dates.

Another amendment relates to the requisitioning of premises for election-related work, including voting, counting and the storage of voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail devices.

The move to link the electoral rolls to Aadhaar — which has been in the works for some time — has been contested by civil society activists, researchers and retired civil servants. Some of them have described it as a “dangerous” idea.

In a joint statement issued in September and circulated again on Sunday, organisations opposed to the reform said: “Indians’ right to vote cannot be imperilled by irresponsibly linking databases and using an opaque algorithm to ‘verify’ identities.

“Technological solutions cannot replace responsible administration. Timely door-to-door verification of voters remains the most effective method of updating electoral rolls and ensuring accuracy of voter data.”

Further, the critics argue, the proposed amendment violates the Supreme Court judgment upholding privacy as a fundamental right as well as the Aadhaar verdict that limited the use of Aadhaar authentication to welfare programmes and PAN-linking related to incomes.

The Supreme Court had while hearing the Aadhaar challenge asked the Election Commission of India to suspend an earlier attempt to link electoral rolls with Aadhaar, and did not allow it in its final judgment.

“The right to vote is not a benefit given by the government but a right given to each and everyone by the Constitution of India,” Jagdeep Chhokar of the Association for Democratic Rights (ADR) said.

The joint statement underlines that Aadhaar was never meant to serve as proof of citizenship, adding that this exercise would also be a “colossal waste of public funds”.

It also cites how the use of Aadhaar to clean up the databases of the MGNREGA and the public distribution system led to huge numbers of exclusions, and expresses fear that the same would happen with the latest exercise.

The signatories have also stressed the difficulties that many people face when the linkage does not happen owing to a range of reasons.

While allowing the two databases to be linked, the bill says “no application for inclusion of name in the electoral roll shall be denied and no entries in the electoral roll shall be deleted for inability of an individual to furnish or intimate Aadhaar number”.

But opponents of the amendment say that governments tend to breach rather than observe such clauses.

They also argue that it’s improper for the government to bring in the bill when the matter is being discussed by the department-related standing committee. They are also worried that the bill may be passed in haste without a proper debate as the winter session is scheduled to end on December 23.

“Given that the current government has a dismal record on sending bills to standing committees for study, this attempt to bring a bill on a subject that is currently under consideration of a committee is indicative of the scant regard the government has for parliamentary procedures and conventions,” the joint statement says.

The signatories to the statement include the Adivasi Women’s Network, ADR, Internet Freedom Foundation, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan, Rethink Aadhaar, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and the Article 21 Trust.

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