Need to examine scope for misuse of Aadhaar data, says Supreme Court
The Supreme Court on Tuesday commented on the appreciation Aadhaar has received from international journals and agencies for facilitating a “citizen-centric delivery of services”, even as it agreed that there is a need to examine the scope for misuse of the data collected under the scheme.
Justice DY Chandrachud, a member of the five-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, told the petitioner’s counsel that business journals had praised Aadhaar as a tool for “ensuring that social welfare benefits reached the deserving”.
“This programme is not just the envy of North Korea but also the World Bank,” the judge said when advocate Shyam Divan criticised the Aadhaar programme for enabling surveillance, saying it would be the envy of countries such as North Korea.
Tuesday marked the fourth day of arguments in the Aadhaar case; 30 petitions are pending before the Constitution bench challenging the scheme that entails the collection of biometric data of citizens and issuing a 12-digit unique identity number. The government has pushed Aadhaar as a facilitator for the delivery of its welfare and financial benefits to those who need it. Some of the petitions also deal with the legality of mandating the linking of this number to bank accounts, driving licenses, and income-tax returns.
“The positive aspect of Aadhaar is that for the first time there is a citizen-centric delivery of services. This is exactly the part of Aadhaar that has been appreciated by economists,” Justice Chandrachud said, to which Divan replied that journals should not be relied on. Divan added that local journals have uncovered details of starvation deaths that have taken place due to the programme excluding them.
“Lets not stretch it too far. Ultimately we are all part of a highly networked world,” Justice Chandrachud told Divan when the advocate argued that collection of biometric information could lead to “real-time” surveillance of citizens.
Still, Justice Chandrachud did agree with Divan on section 57 of the Aadhaar Act that allows private parties to seek biometric details and said this needs looking into.
Divan drew a comparison with Europe where, he said, no such programmes were promoted. Justice Chandrachud responded that the involvement of the Indian government in developmental programmes is higher. “The NHS (in UK) may be an exception, but there is nothing like an MGNREGA there”, he pointed out, referring to the government’s flagship job guarantee scheme that uses Aadhaar.
The profiling of people and their private affairs cannot be allowed, though, the judge warned. “What is the scope for misuse in the future? That is important. But we cannot discount that the government can’t use it to ensure the identities of beneficiaries. If the aggregation is only for purpose of social welfare benefits, will that not pass muster?” he asked, voicing the question that will likely influence the court’s ruling.