The central government’s decision to make enrolment in the biometric-based Aadhaar programme mandatory for availment of all government schemes from the next financial year has put it on a collision course with the Supreme Court.
The government’s move appears to be in contravention of the apex court’s orders that Aadhaar should be a “voluntary” requirement for citizens to derive welfare benefits. The judicial body had formed a constitution bench to examine its validity, and announced earlier this week that it would pronounce its judgment on the matter soon.
Although the government claimed that the Aadhaar law enacted in September 2016 gave it the authority to make the 12-digit unique number mandatory for administering schemes, it was told by the court a few days later to continue implementing the social security system as a “voluntary and not mandatory” measure.
“We make it clear that the Aadhaar card scheme is (to be implemented) purely on a voluntary basis, and not mandatory, until the matter is finally decided by the court one way or the other,” it had said in September 2016.
Now, the Centre has decided that Aadhaar would be made mandatory to establish “one’s identity” for availing benefits under government schemes from the financial year 2017-18. The benefits would be provided only after authentication of the claimant through sim-card based hand-held machines.
In the last few weeks, ministries have issued similarly worded notifications – making Aadhaar mandatory for almost everything from education scholarships to scheduled caste/tribe schemes and agricultural subsidies.
The government has already made Aadhaar mandatory for two of its biggest schemes: enrollment to MGNREGS and acquisition of subsidised ration under the public distribution system. Many states, especially those ruled by the BJP, provide benefits under these schemes only to those enrolled under the Unique Identification Authority of India.
“These notifications are in violation of the Supreme Court orders, which categorically state that Aadhaar remains voluntary,” said Reetika Khera, a development economist with the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi. She accused the government of going back on its promise to keep the identification number optional for availing benefits.
An Information Technology ministry official said Aadhaar was initially kept voluntary because enrolment was very low. However, things have now changed with over 1.13 billion people – or more than 90% of the eligible population – being registered under the social security scheme.
“The remaining will be covered in the next three months, with the help of state governments,” he said.
The erstwhile UPA government had launched the Aadhaar programme, which involved issuing a unique identification number to every Indian, under the leadership of Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani. The NDA government decided to continue with it after Nilekani made a presentation in this regard before Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August 2014.
However, concerns were raised that the collection of biometric information from individuals could amount to the invasion of a citizen’s right to privacy.