Author: Nikhil Kanekal
The union government’s position on Aadhar attained some clarity during a hearing before the Supreme Court on Tuesday. Attorney General Goolam E. Vahanvati told the bench, “You (citizens) need not take Aadhar. It is not mandatory. But if you want to get a benefit, if you want to get a subsidy, then you need to get Aadhar.”
The court, however, refused to vacate its interim order of 23 September, causing much heartburn to the union government, which simultaneously moved a bill through the union cabinet to legitimize the Unique Identity program or Aadhar. The bill is expected to be tabled in Parliament during the upcoming winter session and finally give Aadhar a statutory status. Justices B. S. Chauhan and S. A. Bobde said the court would hear the case at length on 22 October.
The government submitted to the court that Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoPNG) relies on Aadhar to provide subsidies to the public. “There is a problem now. MoPNG distributes subsidised cooking gas to the tune of Rs. 40,000 crores,” said Vahanvati to the bench, adding, “Aadhar is the only foolproof mechanism through which we can do this.”
Justice Bobde observed: “You are saying it is a condition of supply. But there was a series of problems.” – referring to the non-payment of salaries by the Bombay High Court to those who did not possess an Aadhar card, as well as other controversial policies by some departments, who made it mandatory to receive basic public services. “This is a double-edged sword. You file you affidavit with all the other applicants, then we will see,” said the court.
The government approached the court for a modification in its order which said “no person should suffer for not getting the Adhaar card inspite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory”. This has caused the government concern because it has begun using Aadhar to provide direct cash transfers (Direct Benefit Transfer) to residents so that they can avail subsidies on cooking gas.
Additional Solicitor General Nageshwar Rao, who appeared for three companies engaged in the distribution of cooking gas to consumers, told the court that unless it vacates, at least partially its order, “the distribution of subsidised gas would come to a grinding halt”.
Vahanvati pleaded, “Please see my application; if you can give me some relief today, then thousands of people will benefit.” However, when the court continued to refuse on the ground that it would hear the case later, Vahanvati accepted, but cautioned, “In the meantime people will not get subsidised gas.”
Earlier, a procedural controversy briefly stalled proceedings with Anil B. Divan, counsel for the petitioner, accusing the government’s law officers of “mentioning the matter behind our backs” before different benches of the court. He said the government was attempting to get an order from the court without the presence of the other side. He also claimed that the government had failed to serve its affidavit to all the petitioners in advance, thereby denying them a chance to respond in writing or come prepared to the hearing.
The court adjourned the matter directing the government to serve and respond to all petitioners in the case.