Will the government link Aadhaar to COVID-19 vaccination? More importantly, should it?

A woman takes an iris scan to link her Aadhar card with the National Register of Citizens in Barpeta district in Assam on 10 August 2019. David TalukdarAFP/Getty Images
16 December, 2020

As India prepares logistics for the distribution of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine, there are lingering doubts about whether the government will link Aadhaar to the process. The health ministry issued guidelines in October which suggests the government is leaving a window open to connect people’s Aadhaar data to their vaccination status.

On 26 October, in an order to the chief secretaries of all states and union territories Rajesh Bhushan, the union health secretary, wrote that the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration COVID-19 or NEGVAC had “envisaged that the Vaccine will be first prioritised for Health Care Workers followed by other front-line workers and age groups.” Data of healthcare workers is being registered in an application called the COVID-19 Vaccination Beneficiary Management System or CVBMS. This will run parallel to India’s long standing Universal Immunisation Program while using the vaccine monitoring technology and mechanisms already in place for the UIP.

Prior to the 26 October order, the government also circulated a set of guidelines which states, districts and union territories have to follow while collecting healthcare workers’ data—including name, gender, mobile number and postal code. The health ministry directed health authorities to complete the data uploading process by the end of October. The guideline mentions ten types of photo identification that the government will accept with the notable absence of an Aadhaar card. The guideline notes that “Aadhar details will not be recorded but will be required/mandatory at the time of vaccination.” The document mentions Aadhaar three more times. It asks healthcare workers to submit their name as listed in the Aadhaar database, that they preferably submit a phone number linked to the database and that a healthcare worker’s current address may not be the same as that in her Aadhaar card.

Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, an associate counsel with the Internet Freedom Foundation, believes that the government intends to link COVID-19 vaccination status with Aadhaar. She said that this intent is evident in the fact that healthcare workers were asked to bring their Aadhaar card during vaccination and that the government wanted their names and phone numbers recorded to match the Aadhaar document. “Official identifiers like Aadhaar are a form of sensitive personal data and the government cannot collect them unless there is a clear and specific purpose recognised by legislation for doing so.”