An expert TNM spoke to said that if the DMK government deems such data essential for implementing subsidies and schemes, it must first enact a data protection law.

TNEB aadhaar link
news Privacy Wednesday, November 30, 2022 - 14:11

Scores of people have begun lining up at special camps ever since the Tamil Nadu government made linking of Aadhaar cards with Electricity Board (EB) cards compulsory. Special camps have been set up at all of Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited’s (TANGEDCO) 2,811 section offices, which opened on Monday, November 28, where consumers can get their Aadhaar card linked with EB connection. State Electricity Minister V Senthil Balaji, during a press conference on Monday, said that this new instruction will not affect subsidies that are already available. 

“People will enjoy cost-free electricity for the first 100 units. The subsidies for the farmers, handloom, and power loom weavers will continue without any issue,” Senthil Balaji said, adding that the free electricity to thatched houses will continue. However, the minister’s announcement answered only a few of the public’s concerns.

The special enrolment camps were set up after many consumers were not able to pay their electricity bills, as the payment option was available only after providing a valid Aadhaar number, both online and offline. While experts have flagged the risk of data breaches, Senthil Balaji claimed that the move was to benefit the loss-making TANGEDCO, to make it easier for consumers to avail benefits, and to update the data of consumers who had domestic, handloom, and power looms electricity connections and to reduce illegal consumption of electricity.

“We will regulate the connections by identifying the people who got connections for domestic purposes but are using them for commercial needs,” the minister said. “If we cannot regulate it then we cannot develop it and then TNEB will be at a loss forever. TANGEDCO has caused a Rs 1.5 lakh crore loss, and the Tamil Nadu government paid interest of Rs 16,511 crores for a period of 12 months”.

Read: Interview: Why TANGEDCO is going bankrupt and what can be done about it

Privacy concerns

As part of its efforts to strengthen data-centric governance, the Tamil Nadu government is setting up a State Family Database (SFDB), described as “the single source of resident data” for the state. Aadhaar linking with EB connections must be seen in conjunction with such comprehensive citizens’ data repositories, says Srikanth L of Cashless Consumer, a consumer awareness collective. The SFDB was preceded by the State Resident Data Hub (SRDH, or Makkal Number in Tamil Nadu), an Aadhaar-linked repository of citizens’ data. Other states like Telangana (Samagra Kutumba Survey) and Andhra Pradesh (Praja Sadhikara Survey) too have built similar databases, which gave governments a 360 degree profiles of residents.

Srikanth warns that the EB-Aadhaar linking can act as an indirect record of property ownership hitherto unavailable with the state government. He points out that the Tamil Nadu government has been seeking Income Tax and EPFO (Employees' Provident Fund Organisation) data, for a data purity project under TNeGA (Tamil Nadu e-Governance Agency) to help identify genuine beneficiaries better. Combined with all the other state department databases, the SFDB would also become a 360 degree profile of Tamil Nadu residents.

Privacy activists in the past have flagged the dangers of such profiles turning into state surveillance tools. While the immediate repercussions of such a tool may not be evident, as such data adds up, measures like Aadhaar-voter ID linking can lead to serious violations.

The data could also be compromised and misused by any political party or corporate entity as well, Srikanth notes, while expressing concerns over data security as he points to past instances, like the Tamil Nadu public distribution system (TNPDS) data breach, where the data of several lakh users was compromised. In Andhra Pradesh too, data from the state’s servers, which contained extensive citizens’ data collected under the Praja Sadhikara Survey, were found to have been transferred to unknown external servers.

Srikanth notes that even if the DMK government deems such data essential for implementing subsidies and schemes, it must first enact a data protection law in line with its ideology and views on data privacy.

Practical difficulties with Aadhaar linking

TANGEDCO provides electricity to 2.33 crore domestic connections, and thousands of people have completed the process. However, it is not as easy as the government claims.

To begin with, many citizens are not aware that this process is compulsory. Further, the names on the EB cards may belong to a relative (living or deceased), thus beginning a long online process. Sangeetha, a resident of Lala Thottam who visited the EB office on Usman road, faced difficulties as her family’s EB card was issued in the name of her mother-in-law, who passed away 10 years ago. "Where do I go to change the cardholder’s name? Ever since she passed away, we have paid the electricity bill using a card in her name. Now it creates a lot of confusion,” she said.

Like Sangeetha, many women who stepped out to link their documents returned quickly, holding EB cards issued in their husbands’ names. "I need to send my husband to the EB office as the phone number registered with my Aadhar card. He has to tell me the one-time password (OTP) that is sent for verification,” a woman named Chitra told TNM.

Further, many people reported problems with receiving OTPs on time and slow speeds. According to Lakshmanan, an assistant engineer at the Pondy Bazaar EB office in Chennai, this was due to high traffic to the website. “To avoid further inconvenience our website updated the program without an OTP section and boosted the server speed also," he said.

There have been many past occasions where Aadhaar was linked with existing government registries like PDS and MGNREGA, with the stated aim of removing bogus entries. But this has often yielded disastrous results. Aadhaar-based verification for government services failed nearly 12% of the time, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) itself had admitted back in 2018.

Aadhaar link with EB connection

Political leaders slam move

Opposition parties have spoken out against the state government’s move, saying that it creates panic among the citizens who may not have the required documentation. BJP Tamil Nadu state president K Annamalai said that the current deadline to complete the linking process — December 31 — is too soon, and that it must be extended to March 31. In a statement, he said the DMK government, which hiked the electricity tariff by up to 50% two months ago, is now “troubling” people by asking them to link their documents without giving them enough time.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) State Committee Secretary K Balakrishnan, in a letter to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin, asked the government to withdraw the Aadhaar-EB card linking. In his letter, Balakrishnan said the move has created panic among them.

Seeman, the chief coordinator of Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), flagged the data and privacy risks of the move. "We cannot accept the reasons the Tamil Nadu government lists to link Aadhaar with EB connection," he said, calling this implementation against basic human rights. "It is condemnable as the government is forcing people to link their Aadhaar card with EB, just like the BJP-led Union government," he added, demanding the government withdraw the plan.

Read: Sensitive citizen data illegally transmitted by TDP Govt, says Andhra Assembly panel

Also read: Explained: Aadhaar-voter ID linking and the major concerns over the move

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