The Election Commission of India (ECI), according to an Economic Times report, is planning to seek the legal route to resume linking voter IDs with citizens’ Aadhaar numbers.
The ECI is likely to propose amendments to the Representation of People Act, 1951 to enable the linking. This comes despite a Supreme Court order in August 2015 asking the ECI to stop their program of linking because of serious privacy concerns. On 26 September 2018, the SC verdict on Aadhaar declared that it cannot be made mandatory for any service except for availing of state subsides and welfare.
In November, The Quint reported on a trove of over 600 pages of documents pertaining to the ECI’s controversial linking program which revealed that the 32 crore Aadhaar-voter ID linkings were carried out without citizens’ consent, contrary to what the Chief Election Commissioner had claimed in March 2018.
The documents, obtained through RTI queries, exposed a range of practices regarding ECI’s linking program that appear to violate principles of citizen privacy, consent and responsible data-sharing among various state institutions.
The RTIs had emerged at a time when large scale voter deletions were detected in Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The internal communications among the state election commissioners and the Election Commission unearthed by the RTI are related to the controversial National Electoral Roll Purification Program (NERPAP) that ran from March 2015 to August 2015 till the Supreme Court stepped in to bring the program to a halt.
During that time, according to Election Commissioner OP Rawat, EC linked 32 crore voter IDs with Aadhaar numbers of citizens in just three months.
The documents, which highlight the EC’s program of linking voter IDs with Aadhaar numbers, shed light on how the Commission managed to link 32 crore voter IDs with Aadhaar numbers in a short span of three months in 2015.
So, what do the reams of now public documents reveal about EC’s practices and its astonishing linking of nearly 1/3 of India’s population? Alongside concerns of privacy and consent violation, a critical scanning of the letters, in possession of The Quint, also raise concerns of suo moto voter deletions and micro-targeting of voters.
Mandatory Linking Busts CEC Claim
Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat had publicly claimed in March that 32 crore voter IDs or Electoral Photo ID Cards ( EPIC) were linked to Aadhaar. In claiming so, he insisted that the linking was carried out voluntarily.
However, as the RTI documents now reveal, communications between the EC and the Aadhaar issuing body – UIDAI, led to a pilot project where the UIDAI had started mandatory collection of EPIC numbers of adults who signed up for Aadhaar.
Ashok Kumar, assistant director general, UIDAI, responding to a letter by RK Srivastava, then principal secretary, Election Commission of India, wrote to him on 25 March 2015, that “it has been requested to mandatorily collect the EPIC number of the 18+ resident while their Aadhaar enrolment [sic].”
Moreover, in yet another letter on 16 March 2015, this time to the Registrar General of Census, RK Srivastava writes, “it is requested that during collection of UID data, provision for collecting of EPIC number by making an additional mandatory field in application format [sic].” For adults, Srivastava writes, “instead of voluntary part, it should be integral part of the application.”
These instances of communication with the UIDAI and the Registrar General of Census reveal the linking of voter IDs with multiple databases and on a mandatory basis. This precludes the consent of the citizen and even their knowledge of this happening.
“By linking Aadhaar without the knowledge of the individual, not only did the Election Commission violate two Supreme Court orders but have taken the most important right of a citizen,” said Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher who has exposed several Aadhaar number leaks by state governments and institutions.
Suo Moto Voter Deletions
On 2 November, the Aam Aadmi Party had made a representation to the Election Commission regarding large scale voter deletions in Delhi, estimated to be around 10 lakh. The ECI has denied these deletions from 2015, the year when Delhi went to Assembly polls. This denial is surprising, given the ECI’s own website published this list of voters who were deleted suo moto.
Not just the capital, but data for Telangana and Andhra Pradesh on the ECI website illustrates large scale voter deletions in both the southern states. A comparison of Electoral Role Data in 2015 and 2018 reveals that about 22 lakh voters were deleted in Andhra Pradesh and 30 lakh were struck off the electoral rolls in Telangana.
In Andhra Pradesh, the state had 3.71 crore voters in 2015. This slid to 3.49 crore in the 2018 list. Similarly, in Telangana, while 2.83 crore electors were registered in 2015, in 2018 the number declined to 2.53 crore.
Telangana’s CEO, Rajat Kumar, had acknowledged this decline in voter numbers during a press conference in September. According to reports, Kumar said that deletions of names from the voter rolls happened during the NERPAP program in 2015.
Andhra Pradesh was one of the earliest adopters of Aadhaar in the country. A detailed presentation in 2015 by Ahmed Babu, Krishna district collector in Andhra Pradesh, explains through a detailed presentation the seeding of Aadhaar with EPIC numbers to ‘cleanse the photo electoral rolls’.
Moreover, The RTI trove contains within it an important communication between the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Bihar and the Deputy Election Commissioner, ECI. The letter, dated, 26 February, 2015, reveals that the State Election Commission of Bihar had been asking permission to delete voters suo moto before the Bihar elections. The state elections to the Bihar Assembly were held in five phases in October-November 2015.
Voter Profiling Concerns
A series of letters between the Election Commission and the Chief Electoral Officer of Gujarat unearthed by the RTI reveals that the Gujarat EC used data that was collected by the Civil Supplies Department. The Gujarat CEO wrote to the Election Commission in 2015 stating that it was using this data for Aadhaar seeding with its electoral rolls.
It is not known what aspects of the Civil Supplies Department’s data would be available to the State Election Commission. The department, which discharges the responsibility of public distribution, had conducted a house-to-house survey and collected various data including Aadhaar and EPIC numbers of residents. The public distribution system (PDS) also gathers SC/ST/OBC status information of beneficiaries.
Researchers have pointed towards the fact that combining multiple databases leads to detailed profiling of individuals and in the case of elections, also allows for micro-profiling of voters. Moreover, given the large scale deletions across states, there is little clarity about the software used to detect duplication and the pattern of deletions.
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana governments’ State Resident Data Hubs (SRDH) are already well-documented examples of 360 degree profiling of residents. This geo-tagged profiling is achieved by combining data of individuals from multiple databases such as MGNREGA, PDS, income tax, property records, phone, bank loans, scholarships and pension. By doing so, SC/ST beneficiaries, religion and location data of individuals can be found and merged.
The Aadhaar number of an individual, in this case, serves as a unique identifier that allows authorities to cross-walk across databases or merge databases using the 12-digit number.
Supporting Aadhaar-Voter ID linking Despite SC Judgment
On 26 September, a five-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court, in its judgment on the Constitutional validity of Aadhaar, said that Aadhaar can only be used for welfare schemes and subsidies of the state under Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act. Earlier, in August 2015, an interim order of the apex court had shut down the Election Commission’s NERPAP project of linking voter IDs with Aadhaar.
However, the ECI seems motivated to link them despite the Supreme Court’s verdict. Medianama reported on 5 October that the Madras High Court had issued notice in a petition that appealed for the linking of voter ID with Aadhaar number. The Election Commission had informed the Court that it supports the petition and the linking.
In March, Chief Election Commissioner, OP Rawat, had also stated that another 54.5 crore will be linked once it gets a nod from the Supreme Court. In July, the ECI had petitioned the Court for linking EPIC number with Aadhaar but the matter was deferred till the Supreme Court delivered its verdict on Aadhaar.
EC Denial About Linking and Deletions
The Election Commission, in its reply to a RTI filed by Medianama, said it has ‘no information in any physical form’ about the number of voter IDs linked to Aadhaar. The response came on 3 October, six months after the OP Rawat had claimed that 32 crore voter IDs were linked with Aadhaar in three months.
Election Commission’s internal communications obtained through RTI also reveals detailed plans of linking and seeding the two. The EC had also communicated specifically with UIDAI as well as the Registrar General of Census regarding access to Aadhaar data of citizens for its NERPAP project. In one of the letters, Gujarat’s CEO had stated that as of 27 February, “10,41,467 Aadhaar card data has been entered already”.
The EC had also denied large scale voter deletions in Delhi. However, this denial is surprising, given the EC’s own website published this list of voters who were suo moto deleted.