Aadhaar for welfare schemes a ‘legitimate exercise’, says Supreme Court
Until November 2017, nearly 252 schemes implemented by various ministries required possession of Aadhaar.
The Supreme Court has cleared mandatory Aadhaar enrolment of recipients of government welfare benefits that account for nearly 3% of India’s GDP, a core issue in a landmark verdict that on Wednesday upheld the country’s mammoth biometric identity system.
Until November 2017, nearly 252 schemes implemented by various ministries required possession of Aadhaar, the 12-digit unique identity document.
Aadhaar for welfare schemes was a “legitimate” exercise, the court said. It, however, defined welfare schemes as only those funded directly from the “consolidated fund of India”, the main corpus of all revenues received by the government. In other words, the court upheld Aadhaar for administering subsidies to the poor.
These include the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, subsidised foodgrains for two-thirds of Indians costing nearly Rs 1.69 lakh crore, social pensions, cooking gas subsidies, scholarships, and other such.
“In a welfare state, where measures are taken to ameliorate the sufferings of the downtrodden, the aim of the Act is to ensure that these benefits actually reach the populace for whom they are meant. This is naturally a legitimate state aim,” the court said.
The court examined the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 and its provisions to reach its conclusions. Welfare schemes under this law are dealt with in section 7.
“The court has actually read down section 7, meaning it has upheld Aadhaar for only those schemes that have a connection with the consolidated fund and constitutes a bounty rather than just any other service,” said Udayaditya Banerjee, an advocate-on-record for the Supreme Court.
Officials in the rural development ministry, which runs some of the largest Aadhaar-based schemes, said they were “happy” and also “unaffected” by the verdict. “If anyone doesn’t have Aadhaar, he or she is never stopped from getting benefits. The onus falls on us to ensure the person gets Aadhaar at a later stage. We will take the responsibility to get him or her an Aadhaar,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
Those opposed to the mandatory use of Aadhaar for welfare benefits have argued it burdens the poor and leads to exclusion. The court however agreed with the government’s view that Aadhaar was intended to plug out leakages.
“The entire aim behind launching this programme is the inclusion of the deserving persons who need to get such benefits,” said Justice AK Sikri, who delivered the majority judgement on behalf of three judges including the Chief Justice. The verdict was split four against one.
On exclusion, the court said the “remedy” was to “plug the loopholes” rather than axe the Aadhaar project.
Economist Jean Dreze, who has tracked cases of Aadhaar’s adverse impact on access to welfare, said: “Except for the compulsory linkage with PAN cards, the middle class is largely off the hook. But the poor are expected to face the ordeal of Aadhaar seeding and authentication for every social benefit, however meagre.”
On the issue of privacy, the court agreed with the government’s view that the fulfilling of socio-economic rights through welfare justifies “minimal invasion of the right to privacy”.
The court also said Aadhaar passed the so-called “proportionality test”. This is a legal principle that deems a law as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate goal by balancing opposing concerns. In the case of Aadhaar, the opposing concerns were “privacy” and the larger objective of “welfare”.