The government cannot make Aadhaar mandatory to access benefits and welfare schemes, the Supreme Court observed on Monday amid mounting criticism over expanding the use of the 12-digit unique identity number.
But the top court allowed the government to use the Aadhaar-based biometric identity of people for non-public welfare schemes such as opening of bank accounts or for issuing driving licences.
“You can enforce … but you can’t enforce it for extending a benefit. If somebody wants to open an account, you are free to do. That is not a benefit. There you can’t prevent him from using Aadhaar card,” the court said.
“Similarly for issuing a licence, you can ask him to use it. But it can’t be done in the context of social welfare schemes.”
The observations follow a storm over the government’s decision last week to make Aadhaar must for filing income tax returns and to apply for a PAN or permanent account number. The Centre has indicated that PAN cards could be invalidated by this yearend if not linked with Aadhaar.
The government has linked Aadhaar to schemes such as the mid-day meal for students in government schools and payments under the national rural jobs scheme, setting off fears that many people without the ID could be denied their entitlements.
In an interim order four years ago, the top court said Aadhaar couldn’t be made mandatory for government benefits.
A bench headed by Chief Justice JS Khehar clarified on Monday that a clutch of petitions challenging the validity of Aadhaar would be heard in due course, but did not accord an early hearing.
The Chief Justice indicated that the petitions could be examined by a seven-judge bench.
No genuine student will be denied mid-day meal; will give meals & also Aadhaar cards to students: Prakash Javdekar, Union HRD Minister pic.twitter.com/ek76vpRCBK— ANI (@ANI_news) March 27, 2017
Senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for a petitioner, sought an early hearing and challenged the Centre’s plan to link Aadhaar with mid-day meals and opening of bank accounts.
He said the step violated people’s fundamental right to liberty as it restricted their freedom.
Besides, the top court had passed a number of orders that Aadhar cannot be made mandatory, he said before the bench.
The Aadhaar act of 2016 says no one could be denied benefits for not having the unique identity number, as long as someone had applied for it.
It has been contended that collection of biometric data, fingerprints and other personal details by private agencies — such as banks — breached a person’s privacy.
In October 2015, a five -judge constitution bench of the top court had permitted the government to extend the use of Aadhaar for social welfare schemes such as MNREGA, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, and pension schemes for the elderly, widows and those with physical disabilities.
Also, the bench contended: “We also make it clear that Aadhaar card for social schemes is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory, mainly till the matter is pending in this court.”