India's parliament has rushed through a bill in the Lok Sabha, the lower house, allowing federal agencies to access a national database containing biometric information of up to a billion people. The legislation has stoked serious concerns over mass surveillance by state entities.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government did not consider any of the amendments proposed by the opposition and passed the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill 2016 in its original form. Besides, the lawmakers did not submit the draft of the bill in the upper house, or Rajya Sabha, where the ruling party lacks a majority, by labelling it a money bill, which does not require approval.
The bill is intended to improve targeting of subsidies and to combat massive mid-level corruption plaguing the system. Under the database scheme started in 2009, the federal government issues a 12-digit unique identification number to each citizen. As part of the scheme, personal data including fingerprints and iris scans are collected. Of the 1.3 billion-strong Indian population, nearly a billion people have registered in the scheme so far.
"I reject all five amendments. They were not part of the 2010 bill and have only been introduced now," said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in parliament. One of the proposed amendments was to alter the term "national security" which can be invoked to disclose private details. The opposition wanted to replace it with "public emergency or in the interest of public safety" but was shot down.
"Can the government ... assure us that this Aadhaar card and the data that will be collected under it – biometric, biological, iris scan, fingerprint, everything put together – will not be misused as has been done by the NSA in the US?" asked Tathagata Satpathy, a lawmaker from the eastern state of Odisha.