It was a slow afternoon at the election office in Kerala’s Ernakulam district Civil Station in Kakkanad, when TNM visited the recently inaugurated help desk for linking Aadhaar with Electors Photo Identification Card (EPIC) on Friday, August 26. There was just one person getting his Aadhaar linked at the help desk, which had been inaugurated by the District Collector Dr Renu Raj only on the previous day. Similar help desks had been set up in civil stations and taluk offices across the state to encourage the public to link their Aadhaar number with their voter ID, as part of the Election Commission of India’s Aadhaar-linking drive that started on August 1.
The drive is the outcome of the 2021 amendment to the Representation of People Act that requires all entries on the electoral roll to be Aadhaar authenticated, except in cases where sufficient cause for exemption is presented. The amendment was introduced and hastily passed without adequate discussion on a single day in the last winter session of Parliament, as has been the custom of late. A similar haste is evident in the implementation of the provisions of the law.
The Election Commission of India had assured in a tweet on August 22 that linking of Aadhaar with EPIC was voluntary and that no entry in the electoral roll would be deleted on non-submission of Aadhaar. Instructions to this effect were sent to all state Chief Election Officers (CEO) by the ECI. Yet, on-ground activities give a different impression.
Deputy Collector Anilkumar B, said that the election office was functioning on the presumption that Aadhaar linking would be made mandatory in the near future. Daily meetings are conducted by the CEO to monitor the progress and explore ways to reach more people.
Sanjay Kaul, Chief Electoral Officer (Kerala), in a statement said Booth Level Officers will visit homes of voters to help them link Aadhaar with Voter's ID. Though voters can link the two IDs without the assistance of BLOs by filling the form 6B available on www.nsvp.in or the Voter Helpline App.
According to a Times of India report, Kerala is currently the most sluggish in linking the IDs with only 8015 out of 2,72,54,487 voters (0.47%) submitting form 6B.
“Currently, the help desk in the Civil Station is focussed on the employees here. Several initiatives aimed at the general public including door-to-door visits of booth level officers (BLO), special campaigns in connection with Onam festivities and help desks at public places like railway stations, are being planned. Targeted campaigns for marginalised sections, such as tribal colonies will be undertaken jointly by BLOs and revenue officials,” he informed.
Kanayannur taluk Deputy Tahsildar (Election) Biju Jose said that even though Aadhaar linking is not mandatory, several new counters will be set up in village, corporation and panchayat offices in the coming days to ensure increased participation. This is in addition to the door-to-door campaigns that BLOs will undertake. On August 30, Ernakulam District Collector Dr Renu Raj is set to inaugurate a counter at the popular Lulu Mall to facilitate linking of Voter ID and Aadhaar.
VK Narayanan, a BLO in the Ernakulam constituency, and six other BLOs had attended an online meeting with the CEO office on August 26 morning. When TNM contacted him in the evening, he had just got home after visiting a few houses for Aadhaar linking. Narayanan and his family have already linked their Aadhaar numbers with voter IDs. In the meeting with the CEO office, the BLOs were instructed to complete Aadhaar linking between September 4 and October 25. “Rewards have been announced for the top two performers at the district level,” he said. He added that BLOs are also responsible for convincing any member of the public reluctant to link their Aadhaar with voter ID. “A time will come when Aadhaar will become essential for verifying the identity of the voter and in casting votes. Foreseeing such a circumstance, people should complete the linking now itself,” he reasoned. While the ECI repeatedly puts out communications terming Aadhaar-voter ID linking voluntary, election offices across the country, including in Kerala, are evidently employing all means possible to ensure complete public participation.
Advocate Prasanth Sugathan, legal director of the Software Freedom Law Centre, said that the linking attempts in various states including Kerala are conducted as though it is mandatory. “This is the same procedure that was initially used to link Aadhaar with phone numbers. The only way to resist is if citizens raise a clear objection,” he said.
Interestingly, in a letter written to the Election Commission of India in the first week of August, Sitaram Yechury, General Secretary of the CPI(M) had expressed concerns of security, privacy and voter deletion over the linking of Aadhaar Voter ID linking. "With the lack of a data protection law, we oppose any potential sharing of all Voter-IDs linked with Aadhaar to be shared with the Ministry of Home Affairs for either for the purpose of building the NATGRID database, the National Population Registry, the National Registry of Citizens and any new and upcoming databases of birth and death registries. We oppose usage of this data collected only for electoral purposes to be used for other purposes and demand a purpose limitation for this data," the letter said.
According to researcher and activist Srinivas Kodali, “Voluntary has always meant mandatory in the case of Aadhaar.” He pointed out how the government used loopholes like good governance rules to make Aadhaar mandatory, despite the Supreme Court limiting its usage to only subsidies. Srinivas cautioned that the ECI’s promises must be viewed sceptically. “The claim that Aadhaar is being linked to purify the electoral roll is a lie. The reason Aadhaar and voter ID need to be linked is for Aadhaar-based e-voting, possibly to further use it in One Nation One Election that is being pushed by the BJP,” he reasoned.
The official claim is that the linking will help eliminate duplicate entries in the electoral roll. Srinivas refutes this, citing the case of mass voter disenfranchisement in Telangana as proof that Aadhaar cannot fix electoral rolls. The Telangana Election Commission’s attempt at removing duplicates from the electoral rolls in 2018 using Aadhaar-based software had resulted in lakhs of legitimate voters, including badminton player Jwala Gutta, losing their vote. A similar incident in Karnataka had resulted in the elimination of more than 60 lakh legitimate voters in 2015. Both these were part of the National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP).
The officers at the Kakkanad help desk say that duplication has never been a major concern in Kerala. “The current system is foolproof to a large extent. At the same time, it is possible that Aadhaar authentication will bring to light duplicates that had gone unnoticed till now,” one officer said. Narayanan agreed with this. According to him, the annual surveys of BLOs to add new voters and remove deceased persons and those who have shifted residences from the electoral roll have ensured that duplication does not occur. “With the use of apps like Voter Helpline and Garuda, the chances of duplication have been further reduced. In my opinion, joint efforts of BLOs and taluk officials are sufficient to weed out duplicates,” he said.
No information regarding the methodology that the ECI will employ to remove duplicates using Aadhaar has been made public. The ECI has revealed neither the software source code nor the procedures to be followed, leaving little clarity on how it will use Aadhaar or any kind of software in the preparation of electoral rolls, Srinivas said.
The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) warns that mass linkage of Aadhaar with voter ID will lead to targeted disenfranchisement, exclusion of minorities, voter profiling and abuse of voter data. A 2021 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General has revealed that around 4.75 lakh cases of duplication in Aadhaar numbers had been found as of November 2019. The report said that any data connected with Aadhaar are to be stored mandatorily in a separate Aadhaar data vault. But, the report further states, “Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) could not provide reasonable assurance that the entities involved adhered to the procedures.” This has paved the way for increased incidents of data, identity and monetary theft. Aadhaar-voter ID linking can cause the problems of the former to seep into the latter. The better choice would be to keep the two isolated, Srinivas said.
An allegation that emerged from Puducherry during the 2021 election was that the BJP misused Aadhaar data to send targeted campaign messages to Aadhaar-linked phone numbers. In the absence of any data protection law or framework, what awaits India in the coming years will be much worse.
When asked about the possibility of legitimate voters being removed from the electoral roll due to mistakes in the process, an officer at the help desk pointed to the annual renewal of the electoral roll. “The electoral roll is renewed on January 1 every year. If a voter is deleted from the list due to a fault in the system, they can re-enrol the next year,” he said. This is far from sufficient, as the examples of Telangana and Karnataka make evident. In addition to this, biometric authentication through Aadhaar is error-prone, especially for the elderly and for those engaging in manual labour. “If Aadhaar-voter ID linking leads to smartphone-based e-voting, the marginalised groups without phones and their politics will be more affected,” Srinivas added.
Assessing the government's push for surveillance, advocate Prasanth said discussions on it are sparse in the absence of an effective political opposition. Even litigations on the matter are dragging on forever. Both Prasanth and Srinivas are of the opinion that a delayed pushback from the public will result in this being normalised, just like how the feeble opposition to Aadhaar made it a fait accompli in a few years. Srinivas emphasised that the issue is between the citizens and the ECI and can only be dealt with by collective resistance. Whether the linking will withstand legal scrutiny is unpredictable. “While political parties can play a role, it is the people who need to react and protect their rights of representation,” he said.