Aadhaar Verdict: A Fine Balancing Act
The apex court has ruled that Aadhaar will be required to benefit from services that draw upon the Consolidated Fund of India. The judges categorically stress that the unique identity number cannot be made mandatory for any other purpose.
The much-awaited verdict of the Supreme Court on Aadhaar has finally arrived. By any yardstick, the Aadhaar case that came before a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court was incredibly complex. No wonder, the verdict took a long time to come.
The apex court has rightly pointed out that 99.76 per cent of the country has been enrolled in the scheme. After this enormous exercise, if the Aadhaar architecture was abandoned now, it would "amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater."
The wise judges rightly kept the core of the Aadhaar Act intact but struck down certain parts which had obviously contravened its original purpose. Last month's judgement upholds both the government's need to deliver targeted welfare for empowerment and rapid development and the privacy concerns of citizens. Accordingly, the court has reverted Aadhaar to an instrument of welfare. It has closed off the possibility of expanding it to feed the rapacity of data miners or to satisfy the unhealthy curiosity of governments about the private affairs of citizens.
The verdict pronounces Aadhaar as constitutionally valid for State schemes. However, it invalidates linking of bank accounts and phone connections to Aadhaar. The judgement retains linking of Aadhaar to the Income Tax Permanent Account Number (PAN). It also tightens protection for personal data somewhat and removes the monopoly that the Aadhaar Act gave the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) in the matter of prosecuting anyone for misuse of Aadhaar.
In essence, the court has ruled that Aadhaar will be required to benefit from services that draw upon the Consolidated Fund of India. The judges categorically stress that the unique identity number cannot be made mandatory for any other purpose. In all other cases, prior identity documents which were accepted by the UIDAI will remain acceptable. The sole exceptions to the principle are direct taxation, for which Aadhaar must be linked to PAN cards, and matters of national interest, in pursuit of which data can be shared, but safeguards have been tightened. Commercial entities cannot collect or access Aadhaar data, and metadata must be stripped from transactions in which Aadhaar is quoted.
It is unfortunate that a majority of the judges (four against one), save for Justice D Y Chandrachud, found no problem with treating the Aadhaar Bill as a money Bill to circumvent its passage in the Rajya Sabha. In fact, Justice Chandrachud in his dissenting verdict went to the extent of seeking an annulment of the Aadhaar Act as wholly unconstitutional since it should not have been piloted as a money Bill. This had robbed the Rajya Sabha of providing its wisdom to the law. He further ruled that the law did not comply with the definition of a money Bill under Article 110 of the constitution. The dissenting note essentially serves as a powerful warning to governments which may seek to short-circuit the Parliament in the future.
Another vital issue around the Aadhaar verdict is that it does not specify what will happen to data already with banks and corporate entities. What will be the fate of data which citizens have already shared with private entities? Will they have to file suit individually to have the data permanently deleted? These are crucial questions that will have to be sorted out soon.
It is rather assuring that both the majority as well as the dissenting views stress the need for India to have a strong data protection law. Ideally, the government should put in place a rigorous law to protect data and prevent its misuse.
Some vital questions still remain unanswered in an otherwiseenlightened Aadhaar verdict.