A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court will decide on Wednesday the constitutionality of Aadhaar, the controversial biometric identity card project that the government claims plugged leaks in welfare schemes but which critics dub as intrusive and violating privacy.
The Constitution Bench, comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra and justices AK Sikri, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan, reserved its verdict on May 10 after hearing the petitions for over 38 days starting January 17 this year. More than 30 petitions have challenged the Aadhaar act and government orders that made it compulsory for linking of bank accounts, mobile phone numbers, permanent account numbers and filing of income taxes to the unique identification number.
The court will also decide whether the government was right in passing the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial & Other Subsidies, Benefits & Services) Bill in March, 2016, as a money bill, which meant that only the Lok Sabha (where the government has a comfortable majority) had voting rights, without the assent of the Rajya Sabha (where the government is in minority). The petitioners argued the Aadhaar act should not have been passed as a money bill and even if the act is upheld, the unique ID cannot be used for purposes other than distribution of subsidies.
The petitioners argued that Aadhaar encroached on the right to privacy of citizens, which the court confirmed as a fundamental right in a nine-judge bench verdict in August 2017. Senior advocate Shyam Diwan, appearing for petitioner Kalyani Menon Sen, termed Aadhaar “an electronic leash” and argued the government could completely destroy an individual by “switching off” the 12-digit number.
Attorney general KK Venugopal made the case that the Aadhaar law complied with the tests laid down in the right to privacy judgment. It’s fair, just and a reasonable law with adequate safeguards, is in pursuance of a larger public interest, including preventing dissipation of social welfare benefits, and for prevention of black money and money laundering, he explained.
He stressed the need to balance two competing rights: the right to live a life of dignity, which includes the right to food, employment and medical care and the right to privacy.
Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) chief executive officer (CEO) Ajay Bhushan Pandey made a PowerPoint presentation to the bench, claiming data collected under Aadhaar was encrypted and even “the faster computer on earth will take more than the age of the universe” to break the encryption key.
The government also argued that the demographic information required under Aadhaar was already being taken under section 139A of the Income Tax Act for obtaining PAN along with the left hand thumb impression of individuals who cannot sign. Aadhaar will ensure one person has only one PAN and by interconnecting the PAN-Aadhaar database, make tax evasion, black money and setting up of shell companies difficult.
At the end of the hearings on May 10, Venugopal remarked it was the longest case in the SC’s history, behind only the Kesavanand Bharti case dating back to the 1970s, which was heard by a bench of 13 judges and dealt with powers of the executive to amend the Constitution.
“After the unanimous verdict upholding that right to privacy as a fundamental right, it will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court, in a sense, waters it down by giving the state the right to impose reasonable restrictions on the right to privacy,” said Lomesh Kiran Nidumuri, partner, IndusLaw.
Aadhaar began as a unique ID project in 2009, when the UIDAI was set up under its first chairman Nandan Nilekani. The first Aadhaar number was issued the next year to a woman in rural Maharashtra. In June, UIDAI chairman J Satyanarayana claimed India has so far saved over Rs 90,000 crore with the use of Aadhaar.
“The government’s tall claims about Aadhaar combating corruption and resulting in savings have been exposed as bogus. Hope the judgment recognises that making Aadhaar mandatory has resulted in widespread exclusion of the poorest from social security programmes without any corresponding benefits to the people of the country,” said Anjali Bhardwaj, Right to Information activist.