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Supreme Court’s Aadhaar verdict: validating the invalids

The court didn’t dwell too much on issues related to security, data protection, privacy and exclusions — except in the dissenting judgement by Justice DY Chandrachud

editorials Updated: Sep 26, 2018 19:35 IST
A man goes through the process of eye scanning for the Unique Identification database system, also known as Aadhaar, at a registration centre in New Delhi(REUTERS FILE)

One of the modern age’s biggest luxuries is being off the grid. It is a luxury restricted to the most privileged. As for the rest, being on the grid is a necessity. The mad scramble for ration cards, PAN cards, passports, and Aadhaar numbers – evident in the thriving industry-clusters helping people procure these — is proof of this. By upholding the validity of Aadhaar, the Supreme Court has, in some ways, served the needs of the average Indian who is the beneficiary of at least one government welfare scheme.

This was the original vision of Aadhaar – to, as Nandan Nilekani, the first chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, put it, “fix the plumbing” and ensure that there was no leakage in government schemes. And so, by limiting it to just this, the apex court has done everyone, not just beneficiaries of such schemes, a favour. For, over time, Aadhaar began to acquire the power and status of the one number that would bind and rule. From bank accounts to driving licences to death certificates, it was sought for everything. What was not designed to be a National ID became just that.

Over the past few years, various government departments, even private firms, have started insisting that Aadhaar numbers be used for just about everything, and just about everyone. This was understandable – Aadhaar was there; it was relatively fool-proof; and it worked. It therefore became the default option for any organisation or entity, public or private, wanting to establish identity. Instead of being one way of establishing identity, it became the only way. A seemingly benign effort to ensure subsidies and incentives meant for the underprivileged reached them started acquiring darker shades of a bigbrotherish regime.

The court didn’t dwell too much on issues related to security, data protection, privacy and exclusions — except in the dissenting judgement by Justice DY Chandrachud; the court ruled in favour of Aadhaar 4-1 — indicating that it was satisfied by measures taken on these dimensions. India is in the process of framing a data protection law, and UIDAI does have a protocol for dealing with exclusions. The court also seems to have bought the argument that the Aadhaar architecture and database are secure. There have been reports to the contrary, although the database itself doesn’t seem to have been compromised ever. But in some ways, the court itself may have struck the greatest blow for all these. By limiting Aadhaar, it has ensured that there aren’t too many long, inter- connected chains of data – the kind of chains that can be misused or compromised.

The court also scrapped, read down, or modified sections of the Aadhaar law to prevent overuse, misuse, and the violation of rights of individuals. It said Section 57 that allows private companies to seek authentication of biometric information is unconstitutional. It also scrapped Section 33(2) of the law that allows information to be shared with the government in the interests of “national security”. And it has ensured that the rights of individuals are protected by ordering that they be heard, before a District Judge can order the sharing of their Aadhaar information as mandated in Section 33(1). Providing individuals legal recourse and also control of their own data, the court also struck down Section 47 of the UIDAI Act that only allows UIDAI to file a complaint in case of breach of data; individuals can also do so now.

All these were points of contention in the various suits filed against Aadhaar and petitioners can take solace from the fact that the court has heard at least some of their concerns.

It has however decided to take the side of the government on the two larger issues. It has, as many expected it to, not disputed the government’s definition of the Aadhaar act as a money bill. The project itself, the concept of Aadhaar, and the enrolment, have all also been endorsed by the court, which has dismissed concerns of profiling. By doing so, it has displayed its trust in the state after assuring itself that there are adequate safeguards. This is not the view of some of the petitioners. Their view is closer to Edward Snowden’s who said with reference to Aadhaar (on Twitter): “It is the natural tendency of government to desire perfect records of private lives. History shows that no matter the laws, the result is abuse.”

The court’s ruling is unlikely to quell those arguments which are also influenced by political affiliations. It has, however, cleared the air on a well-intentioned project, ensured that its focus returns to its original objective of empowering the disenfranchised, and protected the rights of the individual.

First Published: Sep 26, 2018 19:35 IST