The Supreme Court on Monday said no person will be denied welfare benefits, various services and subsidies for not possessing the Aadhaar number and also asked the government to ensure that the cards were not issued to illegal migrants.
The interim order is expected to benefit a number of people but may come in the way of the UPA’s welfare programmes, such as the “game-changer” direct benefit transfer scheme, in an election year. It is likely to slow down the government’s bid to enrol 1.1 billion eligible residents by 2014.
The order came after the Centre told a bench of justice BS Chauhan and justice SA Bobde that securing an Aadhaar number was voluntary.
It will help people like 80-year-old Usha Lal, an old-age pensioner. The Delhi resident was in a state of panic when she was refused her monthly pension of `1,500 for not having an Aadhaar number. “I went to the post office twice but my fingerprints could not be recorded in the biometric machine,” the New Rajinder Nagar resident said.
In the Capital, several welfare entitlements are linked to Aadhaar, enrolment for which is voluntary. States such as Maharashtra and Jharkhand, too, have made it a must for availing pensions, scholarships and to even register property.
Launched in February 2009 at a projected cost of `15,000 crore, Aadhaar is designed to provide every resident in India a unique 12-digit identity number.
Aadhaar does not distinguish between citizens and non-citizens.
“This matter requires to be heard. Put up for final hearing. Until then no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card in spite of authority making it mandatory,” said the court. It was hearing a bunch of petitions challenging the rollout of the Aadhaar scheme without a legal backing and for violating privacy.
The petitioners brought to the court’s notice decisions of some states making Aadhaar compulsory for a range of activities including salary, PF disbursals and marriage and property registrations.
Referring to a Maharashtra government order that linked disbursement of salaries to teaching and non-teaching staff to Aadhaar, the bench wondered how it had become mandatory for paying salaries.
Basic benefits couldn’t be denied for not possessing Aadhaar, the petitioners contested. The scheme violated an individual’s right to privacy as it was based on biometric-linked demographic details.
Appearing for one of the petitioners, senior advocate Anil Divan said the parliamentary standing committee that examined the bill to introduce the Aadhaar framework had rejected it.
“The standing committee’s concern was that the scheme compromised national security. Instead of removing the defects, the government introduced it through an executive order, which is illegal. Now, they have linked it to various subsidy schemes,” Divan said.
The government will now have to continue non-Aadhaar based system of providing services alongside those linked to Aadhaar.
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The apex court’s observation that the government cannot link its ambitious Aadhaar programme with providing entitlements to citizens is a setback to the central government.
The Nandan Nilekani-led initiative has already issued unique 12-digit Aadhaar numbers to nearly 410 million people and is on course to cover 1.1 billion citizens by the end of 2014.
The order comes just when the UPA was trying to use the benefits of Aadhaar to its political advantage. The Supreme Court’s interim order will also put the brakes on the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme (DBT), as the government will not be able to push residents to enroll for Aadhaar.
The Aadhaar-based DBT for cooking gas subsidies, pensions and scholarships was perceived as game-changer for the UPA.
The Centre has only itself to blame. Many questions were raised about legality of Aadhaar, privacy of Aadhaar number holders, and its intended benefits. But the government decided to brush them under the carpet by remaining silent.
Now, it may be forced to explain itself before the Supreme Court.