Imagine if government databases could track when you moved cities, changed jobs, bought property, got married, or basically had any kind of social life. The Indian government is in the final stages of creating a National Social Registry — “an all-encompassing, auto-updating, searchable database” that can track every aspect of Indians’ lives, HuffPost India reported on the basis of RTIs filed by activist Srinivas Kodali (read the RTIs here) and journalist Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava.

What is the National Social Registry? The National Social Registry will either be a single, searchable Aadhaar-seeded database, or “multiple harmonised and integrated databases” that use Aadhaar numbers to integrate religion, caste, income, property, education, marital status, employment, disability and family-tree data of every single citizen. It will automatically update itself in real-time.

Communication from Ministry of Rural Development, sent by Joint Secretary Biswajit Banerjee on June 17, 2019

Is this based on Aadhaar? Yes, because the 12-digit Aadhaar number will become the unique identifier to track every citizen across databases, akin to a cookie on your browser that tracks you across websites, but worse because you can’t get rid of it. It will be the “single identifier” that will allow different databases to effectively talk to each other. This casts the mandatory linking of Aadhaar with different forms of ID and accounts such as the PAN, Voter ID, ration card, bank accounts in a different light.

Communication from Ministry of Rural Development, sent by Joint Secretary Biswajit Banerjee on June 17, 2019

If that is not enough, the UIDAI has also suggested a “Data Exchange Framework” so that all the government-administered databases at both central and state levels can easily exchange data. HuffPost clarified that it is not clear if this proposal has been accepted.

What all will the National Social Registry be linked to? In addition to every database that is linked to Aadhaar, the Registry could also be linked to Birth and Death Registers, and Marriage Registers (to account for migratory changes).

Will the National Social Registry collect more data? Not clear, but it will be built on the data collected by the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC). Think of it this way: the Caste Census is the chassis of the National Social Registry. As per the RTI documents, the Social Registry Information System will be “strengthened upon SECC data”.

What is the Socio-Economic Caste Census? It was started in 2011 as a means to collect data on the caste, income and pre-defined social parameters of every Indian citizen. When the BJP-led government published this data in 2015 (they withheld the caste data), it provided granular data that could be used by central and state governments to roll out schemes that looked at indicators other than annual family income. Although it was coordinated by the Ministry of Rural Development, the caste census was administered by the Home Ministry and Census Commissioner of India.

When will the Registry come into force? 2021. An expert committee has already been set up to implement it and is in final stages of planning a pilot project. This committee met four times between June 2017 and October 2019.

Who are the members of this committee? Ministry of Rural Development, UIDAI, the World Bank, National Informatics Centre, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Ministry of Rural Development, Centre for Digital Financial Inclusion, the Direct Benefit Transfer Mission; the committee also sought comments from NITI Aayog.

How will this be financed? The World Bank has “assured cooperation” and agreed to an initial $2 million grant under its Non-Lending Technical Assistance programme. The Indian government met “counterpart funding by creating SECC data register” and the Rural Development Ministry has the option of “using one per cent of Budgetted provision of IAY [Indira Awaas Yojana] and NSAP [National Social Assistance Programme] for creating and maintaining SECC based Social Registry”, as per RTI documents from January 2016. However, actual funding will need formal approval of the Cabinet once all details have been worked out.

National Social Registry undermines citizens’ privacy

“We should be looking for a Social Registry System that attends to the privacy concerns too especially with the policing system and bureaucracy that is not hesitating to show crumbling morality and with very often their movement leaving dark shadows of corrupt practices,” Manoranjan Kumar, Economic Advisor at the Ministry of Rural Development, in communication dated March 15, 2017, highlighting privacy concerns.

Communication from Ministry of Rural Development, sent by Economic Advisor Manoranjan Kumar on March 15, 2017

The National Social Registry will track all citizens, all the time, and across sectors, to “ensure greater administrative convenience by converging resources and efforts” at central and state levels. This is something that the Kumar had acknowledged in November 2015: “developing a social registry requires inter-sectoral work from the design stage”.

The National Social Registry will set up a surveillance state. All the data collected/linked via the Registry can be easily weaponised to target specific communities. And given its overarching nature across databases, there will be no escape for citizens. If that is not enough, this National Social Registry (and the Socio-Economic Caste Census) is not governed by any Act. Even the Indian population census is governed by the Indian Census Act, 1948, that mandates data confidentiality.

Read: One nation, one card? Amit Shah floats idea of an all-in-one ID

What about the Right to Privacy judgement or the Aadhaar Act? The National Social Registry committee is actively trying to defang both of them, according to the HuffPost report and the RTI documents:

  • UIDAI has recommended amending the Aadhaar Act: In the October 4, 2019 meeting of the expert committee, the UIDAI Deputy Director General recommended amending the Aadhaar Act so that Aadhaar can become “a common identifier/single entity identifier across multiple social welfare programmes”. Amendements to the Aadhaar (Authentication) Regulations, 2016 and Aadhaar (Sharing of Information) Regulations, 2016 “are in the pipeline”, HuffPost reported. These amendments would allow data collected for an Aadhaar-enabled transaction to be used beyond the specified purpose.

Communication from the Ministry of Rural Development dated June 11, 2019

Can this be used to strip people of their citizenship?

Even today, in Lok Sabha, the Home Ministry avoided answering when asked if it was aware that UIDAI had asked people across India to prove their citizenship to UIDAI, and if UIDAI had the authority to ask such a question in the first place. The Minister of State Nityanand Rai only said that UIDAI can issue a show cause notice only “on receipt of any complaint from any person or law enforcement agencies about individuals in possession of Aadhaar obtained by any fraudulent means, or by submitting false or fake documents”.

Any resident of India, irrespective of their nationality, is eligible to apply for an Aadhaar. Despite that, the lack of firm denial from the Home Ministry is concerning, especially considering the ambiguity around what documents can be used to establish citizenship post the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.