Aadhaar card wouldn’t be necessary for a host of services and welfare schemes, other than government benefits such as food under the public distribution scheme and subsidised LPG cooking fuel, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
The top court’s interim order made the country’s unique identification card, which has been facing privacy intrusion barbs since its inception, optional.
“An Aadhaar card will not be a condition for obtaining benefits otherwise due to a citizen,” the court said and directed the Centre to give wide media publicity that it was not mandatory for a citizen to possess the card.
This means, the government cannot force a citizen to show his or her Aadhaar card to receive benefits such as a pension or to open a bank account.
“The unique identification number or Aadhaar card will not be used for any purpose other than the PDS and, in particular, for the purpose of distribution of foodgrain and cooking fuel, such as kerosene,” said a bench headed by Justice J Chelameswar.
It restrained the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) from sharing any personal biometric details of cardholders with anyone, except for a criminal investigation monitored or mandated by a court order.
The court referred to a larger bench to decide whether right to privacy was a fundamental right. “It is desirable that the matter be heard at the earliest,” it said, asking the Chief Justice to constitute the bench. The validity of Aadhaar would be decided after the constitution
bench determines the right to privacy issue.
A clutch of petitions has challenged the government’s project for a 12-digit identification number for each citizen, saying collection of biometric and other details for the card infringed an individual’s privacy.
The court, however, declined to stop the Aadhaar enrolment process as demanded by the petitioners. The order came as a breather for the government that has already spent crores on the project.
Attorney general Mukul Rohatgi explained to the court the benefits of Aadhaar, which would ensure effective implementation of social welfare schemes such as MGNREGA, distribution of foodgrain and LPG cylinders.
He said Aadhaar cards have been issued to about 90% of the population.
The project came under fire for a techno-legal glitch, pointed out by retired Karnataka High Court judge Justice KS Puttaswamy. He moved the top court in 2013 seeking declaration of a 2009 executive order on Aadhaar illegal because there was no legislation backing the scheme.
In September 2013, the Supreme Court asked the government not to ask for the Aadhaar card to extend benefits under welfare schemes.