SC Constitution Bench on Aadhaar- Final Hearing (Day XXXV)

In October 2015, a 3-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India referred challenges to the Aadhaar program to a constitution bench. One of the primary concerns of this petition was to decide on the existence of a fundamental right to privacy, which has since been upheld. Other similar petitions, concerned with the legitimacy of Aadhaar had been tagged with this petition. While the existence of the fundamental right to privacy has been upheld, challenges against the Aadhaar programme and linking services to this programme were yet to be adjudicated upon.

An interim order was passed in December of 2017, a summary of the arguments can be found here and here.

The final hearing commenced on January 17, 2017. Summaries of the arguments advanced in the previous hearings can be found here.

Advocate Zoheb Hossain continued his submissions for the State of Maharashtra and the UIDAI. He began with referring to various international charters and covenants, stressing on the importance of harmonizing between the economic and social rights and the civil and political rights.

Justice Chandrachud noted that the Directive Principles, even though they are non justiciable, are necessary for good governance and as a guarantee of reasonableness of the law. This is why they are read into Article 21.

The counsel argued that all rights give rise to corresponding duties, and that Aadhaar was a project to secure the economic and social rights of the people. He then brought the Court’s attention to the Justice Wadhwa Committee Report on the Public Distribution System. He then brought the Court’s attention to various precedents. He referred to the case of DK Trivedi, where the Court had held that ensuring socio economic welfare was a constitutional obligation of the State. Further, it had been held that a statute could not be judged on the presumption that the executive power that it confers would be abused, or used arbitrarily.

The counsel then referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and resolutions of the UN General Assembly. He reiterated that rights were indivisible and interconnected, and that socio economic rights were equal to the civil and political rights.

The counsel then argued that the proportionality and reasonableness of a restriction must be examined from the point of view of the general public, and not that of a specific party that claims to be affected. He argued that even if Aadhaar is used for different purposes such obtaining a SIM card or opening a bank account, the data remains disaggregated. He stated that as a consequence, there was no possibility of surveillance, even at the level of the Requesting Entities.

The counsel then drew a comparison between Aadhaar and the Social Security Number in the United States. He noted that the SSN was used for a variety of purposes, and that people could be denied benefits for not producing their SSN. He argued that the Courts in the US had upheld the firing of an employee for refusing to provide his SSN. The counsel then argued that the Aadhaar Act had sufficient safeguards in place over the identity and authentication information. He referred to Section 33 of the Act, noting that decisions made under that Section were subject to review by an oversight committee. He concluded that the safeguards in place were greater than what are provided by the Telegraph Act, and the standards laid down by the Supreme Court in the PUCL case.

Post lunch, the counsel resumed his submissions for the Respondents with examining how various search and seizure related provisions under the IT Act and CrPC had passed constitutional muster. He then proceeded to the issue of ‘national security.’ He argued that in times of emergency, a strict adherence to the principles of natural justice is not necessary. He referred to a House of Lords decision that read in a national security exception to a statute even though the text did not provide  for it.

He then addressed the contention with respect to Section 47 of the Aadhaar Act, arguing that it provided for sufficient remedy since a complaint could be filed to the UIDAI. He argued that Aadhaar had many technical aspects, so it would be best if only the Authority has the power to complain. He noted that a similar setup in the Industrial Disputes Act had been previously upheld. In addition, he noted that the UIDAI could authorize a person to make a complaint as well.

The counsel then submitted that the Aadhaar Act had sufficient safeguards for the CIDR, while provisions under the IT Act would cover actors outside the CIDR.

The counsel then framed the purpose of Section 139AA of the Income Tax as a measure to ensure redistributive justice, to ensure substantive equality. He argued that ‘distribute’ in the Directive Principles had been interpreted liberally, and measures to prevent leakages would thus be considered redistributive.

The counsel then moved to the addressing the argument about compelled speech. He argued that not all transactions can be considered to have a speech element, for instance linking the Aadhaar to PAN. He further noted that the Court in Puttaswamy had held that rights could be curbed to prevent tax evasion and money laundering. He added that the Income Tax Act and the Aadhaar Act were standalone Acts, and that after Binoy Viswam, it was settled that they were not in conflict. He responded to the contention that only individual tax payers had been mandated for linkage, stating that a measure need not strike at all evils at once. He argued that the linkage could help cure ills with companies as well, by revealing the people behind them. The linkage can allow the deduplication of DINs. Advocate Zoheb Hossain then concluded his arguments.

The Attorney General then began his arguments, by addressing the Money Bill issue. He argued the Act was, in pith and substance, a Money Bill. ‘Targetted Delivery of Subsidies entails the expenditure of funds. He argued that every act would have ancillary provisions dealing with review, appeal etc., but the primary purpose deal with the Consolidated Fund of India.

Justice Chandrachud questioned the counsel about whether Section 57 of the Act severed that link. The AG responded that the Section merely allowed the existing infrastructure to be used for other purposes, and was just an ancillary provision. The UIDAI had been brought into existence primarily to prevent leakages and losses.

Justice Sikri noted that there was no distribution of benefits or subsidies under Section 57. The AG argued that the Section would be saved by Article 110(1)(g) of the Constitution, and stressing on an interpretation of the word ‘only’ in the Article. Justice Chandrachud suggested that that might amount to rewriting the Constitution.

The Attorney General will resume his arguments on May 3, 2018.

 

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Aadhaar (the Larger Bench): Day I

Written By Joshita Pai

The 5 judge bench this afternoon commenced with the Aadhaar hearing after reference from the Supreme Court on the issues of existence of privacy as a constitutional right and on clarifications of the interim order issued on 11th of August. The bench seemed determined to focus on the clarification issue and the as the beginning of the proceedings, the CJI stated with particular regard to the privacy issue that he has not concluded what bench can be constituted to determine the question.

Mr. Shyam Divan, Senior Advocate insisted on delivering preliminary findings concerning privacy and in the latter part of the hearing, he introduced the subject again and threw considerable light on the previous orders issued by the Court in the matter. The Attorney General’s arguments primarily were based on firstly, the authentic nature of Aadhaar cards; secondly, on the non-viability of procurement of other identity cards such as PAN cards and driving license by the poorest of the poor, thirdly, that 92 crores of the population has already enrolled for Aadhar; fourthly, that the Aadhaar project is centred around a social welfare scheme, finally, on the premise that the card does not contain the biometric information and only displays the unique identification number.

Referring to the Big Brother concerns, the AG asserted that communication on WhatsApp can be snooped into by Facebook. Whatsapp however, in the light of the recent encryption debacle had assured that the encryption keys loaded at the time of sending a message by a particular user can be read in readable format only by the targeted receiver. Certainly, doubts galore the credibility of such end to end encryption. Moreover, commercial use of data is a tangential concept to surveillance and maintenance of database by the Government.

Delving upon the 92 crores Aadhar card holders, the bench asked the AG if he ruled out the possibility that these many people volunteered for aadhar since that would be their only means to access the proposed schemes. The Court, referring to the interim orders sought clarification w.r.t. the voluntary nature of Aadhaar post those orders. The advocates for the string of defendants reinstated that for all schemes outside PDS and LPG, it has been voluntary and insisted that they wish to resume schemes since they are attached to Aadhar.

Arguing for the petitioners, Mr. Shyam Divan reintroduced privacy concerns and stressed upon how the issue can not be looked into in isolation since the basis for Aadhar is built on collection of biometric information and fingerprinting which has been conducted in the absence of any statutory backing or in the least, issuance of a circular. He also mentioned that the enrollment form does not contain the requirement of supplying biometric data. He read out the interim order issued by the Court on August 11th and stated that there was no notice served to the petitioners from the Centre stating that its challenging the Court order.

The bench intermittently expressed concerns about how the order would be carried out since post clarifications by the constitutional bench of the 11th August order, the same would be referred back to the 3 judge bench. The Court will begin by looking into the interim order issued by the court last week in the next hearing, which is scheduled for 2 pm tomorrow.

Aadhar: the Past and the Future

By Joshita Pai & Sarvjeet Singh

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was set up under the chairmanship of Mr. Nandan Nilekani in 2009 by an executive notification to generate and assign unique identification numbers to residents.

After persistent protests asserting that a project, which requires collection of information such as biometric data, cannot be carried out in the absence of a legal framework, the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance  subsequently found the bill unsuitable citing concerns such as national security and potential privacy violations, duplication of the National Population Register’s (NPR) activities and asked the Government to reconsider the UID scheme. A fundamental issue raised by the Committee was the scope of Aadhar, which covers residents and not citizens.

Towards Aadhaar-enabled delivery of services and applications, UIDAI provides online authentication using the resident’s demographic and biometric information. Services such as e-ration card, linkage of banking services, The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas brought in an amendment in 2011 to its Liquefied Petroleum Gas (Regulation of Supply and Distribution) Order 2000 making the Unique Identification Number (UID) under the Aadhaar project compulsory for availing LPG refills.

The mandatory nature attached to the Aadhaar project however, invited a string of petitions linked to main petition filed by Justice Puttaswamy addressing the lack of procedural safeguards, coercion for enrollment and blocking access to multiple schemes by permitting access only through Aadhar. In November 2013 during one of the hearings of the matter, the Supreme Court concluded that the matter holds importance to all the states and union territories to be impleaded as parties to the case and passed an order to this effect.

The Attorney General defended the project stating that UIDAI requires only basic identity data such as name, age, gender, address and relationship details in case of minors, for issue of unique identity number, commonly known as Know Your Resident. The maintained response from the ministry has been that the UID scheme is envisaged as a means to enhance the delivery of welfare benefits and services and is not carved out for fulfilling surveillance purposes. The UID has clarified that only the person to whom the data is related will be entitled to seek and access the information contained in the Aadhaar database, in pursuant of section 8(j) of the RTI.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court restrained the UIDAI from transferring biometric information to any other agency without the written consent of the aadhaar card holder. The CBI, while investigating the rape of a girl in a school toilet in Goa requested the UIDAI to handover its biometric database. The Judicial Magistrate First Class of Goa issued an order directing the UIDAI to comply with the CBI’s requests. It was protested by the UIDAI in the Bombay High Court which dismissed the petition and the matter was appealed before the Supreme Court. CBI’s request for handing over the data was declined and the UIDAI in its petition refused to share the data citing privacy concerns. The UID petition has also been tagged with the other petitions.

The Supreme Court has prior to the 11th August, 2015 interim order, on three occasions – on September 23rd 2013, March 24th 2014 and March 16th 2015 declared that services cannot be made incumbent on the Aadhar number.

Reiterating the mandate of making Aadhaar and optional process, the Supreme Court, on 11th August, 2015 declared that Aadhaar card will be mandatory only for availing LPG and PDS services. The UID website now carries at the bottom of its homepage a statement to the end that enrollment for Aadhaar is voluntary. The order has not been implemented in practice since schemes such as digital locker and the online health portal schemes are still linked to Aadhaar. The principal opposition to Aadhaar in the Supreme Court has been the question of privacy and the same was argued before the Court.

Defending Aadhaar, the Attorney General placing reliance on M.P. Sharma v. Satish Chandra (decided by a 8 judge bench in 1954) and Kharak Singh v. State of U.P. (decided by a 6 judge bench in 1962), stated that the right to privacy is not guaranteed under the Constitution and its position is doubtful. He further argued that the subsequent decisions in Gobind v. State, Rajagopal v. T.N. and PUCL v. UOI were rendered by smaller benches. The August 11th order therein referred the question of determining the existence of privacy to a larger constitutional bench.

The interim orders were repeatedly sought to be quashed by the Centre in order to facilitate the promised social welfare schemes. Last week, the Supreme Court rejected the plea to stay the order and decided to refer any clarifications or modifications to the Constitutional Bench. The request was processed immediately and a five judge bench was accordingly set up and will be hearing the petition on the 14th of October, 2015. According to these reports, six different state governments, Indian Banks’ Association, UIDAI, SEBI, RBI, and TRAI have joined the case defending the Centre’s stance and asking the court to allow usage of Aadhar identity proof for all welfare schemes.

Going forward the various issues that need to be decided by the Court are in respect to the issue of privacy are:

  1. Whether there is any “right to privacy” guaranteed under the Indian Constitution?
  2. If such a right exists, what is the source and what are the contours of such a right as there is no express provision in the Constitution adumbrating the right to privacy.

India follows the principle of “stare decisis”. The principle of stare decisis is of utmost importance by virtue of the fact that the law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts within India (article 141). Moreover, it is an accepted principle that except in certain situations, in cases of conflict between various judgments the opinion expressed by the larger bench prevails. Therefore, ideally to overrule the judgment by an eight-judge bench in MP Sharma, a nine-judge bench should be constituted.

The constitutional bench that has been formed is a five-judge bench comprising of Chief Justice of India H.L Dattu, and Justices M.Y Eqbal, C. Nagappan, Arun Mishra and Amitava Roy. Starting this afternoon, it will be tasked with determining the fate of Aadhaar and deciding on Centre’s plea of seeking a modification of the Court’s order restricting the usage of Aadhar and to decide upon the existence of privacy as a constitutional right.

Certain reports have stated that the constitutional bench will only hear arguments on the validity of Aadhar and take up Governments request for interim relief. For deciding whether there is a fundamental right to privacy a larger bench will be formed later. This seems problematic on a number of levels:

  1. If the court allows the Centre to make Aadhar mandatory for other welfare schemes, it will be doing so without having any clarity on the status of right to privacy in India.
  2. In case the Court provides the relief to the Government and allows Aadhar to be used for other schemes, without looking at the scheme privacy concerns, how will it later reconcile it when the larger bench decides the rights contours.
  3. If the Court only takes up the issues relating to privacy violation by Aadhar, it will be doing so without deciding whether there is a right to privacy and it contours?

A timeline of the case till August 2015 is available here and a list of the various petitions tagged together is available here.

SC: Aadhar not mandatory & Constitution bench to consider the right to privacy question

By Pushan Dwivedi and Joshita Pai

Highlights from the Court’s ruling

The Supreme Court bench constituting J. Chelameswar, S.A. Bobde and C. Nagappan has decided to refer the challenges to the Aadhar program to a constitution bench, especially to determine the existence of a right to privacy as a fundamental right.

The Apex Court passed an interim order directing the government to publish in electronic and print media that the enrollment is not mandatory. It also made it very clear that the production of the Aadhar card cannot be made compulsory for essential services. With respect to the sharing of personal information, the Court has ordered a strict non-disclosure of information unless the information is sought through a court order for the purpose of a criminal investigation. The purpose of Aadhar has been limited to the Public Distribution System including distribution of food grains and kerosene only.

Arguments in court

Advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for the petitioners, asked for interim relief and for directions to suspend further Aadhar enrollments, prohibit commercial use of Aadhar database, and to direct the government to telecast advertisements to the effect the Aadhar is not mandatory. He based his arguments on the notable absence of any government officer supervising the process and the dearth of statutory framework monitoring the program.

The Attorney General rebutting the plea of suspension of further enrollments insisted that the balance of probabilities have shifted in favour of the government since ninety one percent of the adult population has already been enrolled. He dismissed the privacy concerns relating to the use of database stating that the petitioners stating privacy qualms do not represent the majority of the population. He also argued that the purpose of issuing Aadhar cards is to provide social benefits to people and the program is not built with the aim of carrying surveillance. On the question of making it clear that Aadhar is not mandatory, the AG affirmed that the government is willing to advertise to the public that the enrollment is not mandatory.

There is no data available verifying the number of enrolled citizens. Soli Sorabjee remarked that “there are eight million people who have enrolled that are not to be found in the Aadhar database” His line of arguments primarily focused on the absence of any statutory system monitoring it.

A copy of the interim order can be found here: Aadhar Interim Order

(Pushan Dwivedi and Joshita Pai are Research Fellows at the Centre)

A basic right is in danger

The post originally appeared in The Hindu on 31st July 2015.

The Attorney General’s argument questioning the right of Indians to privacy is wrong on two counts. But worse, it goes against the interests of the people on every count.

“While opinions may vary about Aadhar, the government is expected to act in the best interests of the people.” Picture shows biometric particulars being collected in Tamil Nadu. Photo: K. Ananthan

“While opinions may vary about Aadhar, the government is expected to act in the best interests of the people.” Picture shows biometric particulars being collected in Tamil Nadu. Photo: K. Ananthan

The last ten days have spelt dark times for the right to privacy. On one hand, the DNA Profiling Bill, which may result in a database of sensitive personal data with little to prevent its misuse, is being tabled in Parliament. On the other hand, the Attorney General took a shocking position in the Supreme Court of disputing the very existence of the right to privacy in the Aadhar case.

Undermining decades of evolution of this right through Supreme Court judgments, Mukul Rohatgi argued that it is necessary to put together a constitutional bench to determine whether the citizens of India have a right to privacy.

He is in the wrong for two reasons. The first is technical: he is mistaken in his assertion that M.P. Sharma v Satish Chandra and Kharak Singh v. the State of U.P. created legal doctrine that is no constitutional right to privacy. The second reason is political. A lawyer holding the Attorney General’s office should consider the appropriateness of using that office and public resources when denying that Indian citizens have privacy rights, which are universally recognised human rights. This is all quite apart from the fact that India has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which unequivocally supports the existence of the right to privacy. The United Nations has gone so far as to create a Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy this year. In the context of US surveillance of its citizens, the Indian government has acknowledged the existence of the right to privacy.

In the Constitution

The two decisions that Mr. Rohatgi references did not raise questions about the right to privacy as a whole. Both confined themselves to the limited question of whether principles mirroring the US Fourth Amendment may be read into the Indian Constitution, which is only one element of the right to privacy. The M.P. Sharma case did this while ascertaining if there are any constitutional limitations to the government’s search and seizure of people’s homes, persons and effects; and the Kharak Singh case did this in the context of physical surveillance of ‘history sheeters’.

In M.P. Sharma, the judgment states, “When the Constitution makers have thought fit not to subject such regulation to Constitutional limitations by recognition of a fundamental right to privacy, analogous to the American Fourth Amendment, we have no justification to import it into a totally different fundamental right by some process of strained construction” (emphasis added). This makes it clear that it is not the right to privacy as a whole that is being referred to. The American Fourth Amendment pertains to the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”, not to the right of privacy in its entirety.

The M.P. Sharma judgment goes further to say, “It is to be remembered that searches of the kind we are concerned with are under the authority of a Magistrate… When such judicial function is interposed between the individual and the officer’s authority for search, no circumvention thereby of the fundamental right is to be assumed.” This makes it evident that the court desisted from intervening because it saw the requirement of a Magistrate’s order as safeguard enough.

Similarly, although the judgment in Kharak Singh contains the sentence with the ominous beginning “as already pointed out, the right of privacy is not a guaranteed right under our Constitution”, this sentence cannot be taken out of context. The ‘already pointed out’ refers to an earlier portion of the same judgment in which the court quotes the U.S. Fourth Amendment, and then declares that our Constitution does not confer any ‘like constitutional guarantee’. This makes it clear that it is the Fourth Amendment text specifically that the court was referring to.

The court also belied its own position by finding that unauthorised intrusion into a person’s home violates the common law principle of “every man’s house is his castle”. The judgment explicitly takes the position that Article 21 is a repository for residual personal liberty rights, leaving it open for future reading of such rights into Article 21.

It is apparent that the two cases do not rule out a broad constitutional right to privacy. It is almost impossible to consider the right to privacy in its entirety in a single case since it is a bundle of rights including everything from safeguards against unauthorised collection of personal data to restrictions on intrusion into private spaces. The cases that have emerged from the Supreme Court over the years make this apparent.

Different elements of privacy rights have been read into our right to life and our right to free expression. We have a right against untrammelled interception of our communication, and against doctors divulging personal medical information. Long before the Constitution or the Constituent Assembly came into being, the right to privacy of women in purdah was acknowledged by common law, which forbade the building of balconies above their quarters. We do, therefore, have a rich history of enforcing the right. Like many other nations, we called it by different names and have found it within legal and cultural norms unique to India.

It is common for lawyers to use every strategy they can to win cases but the Attorney General is no ordinary lawyer. S/he is a constitutional authority. It is inappropriate for someone of that stature to argue that the people of India do not have a right to privacy. Former Attorney General Niren De was criticised sharply for telling the Supreme Court that it could be helped if the right to life was violated during Emergency. Mr. Rohatgi’s argument is comparable.

This is a democracy, and while opinions may vary about Aadhar, the government is expected to act in the best interests of the people. Here, we have the Attorney General stepping away from arguing that the government’s actions are in the interests of the people to say that the people do not have rights in the first place.

It is not a case of the government’s lawyer arguing for the prevalence of the wider community’s interests over individual rights, or disputing what is in the interests of the majority of citizens. Mr. Rohatgi, on behalf of the Indian government, is making an argument that is blatantly against the rights and interests of all citizens of India.

Interestingly, the argument runs contrary also to the Minister of Communications and Information Technology’s statements recognising citizens’ right to privacy in the context of both US and Indian surveillance.

Time to clarify

This incident is about more than an argument made in court. It is a serious problem if the Union government makes statements that respect privacy and then takes actions that attempt to destroy it. It is also inconsistent for the government to argue internationally that the U.S. has violated Indian citizens’ right to privacy and then to argue before the Supreme Court that Indian citizens do not have the right to privacy.

Under the circumstances, it is necessary for the government to issue a statement clarifying its stand, which I hope will consist of some form of support for citizens’ privacy rights. Once this is clear, perhaps the Attorney General could continue the arguments that take his client’s wishes into account.

A clear statement from the Prime Minister’s office might also enable other ministries to ensure that they embed this right in their policies. This, for example, might have gone a long way in ensuring that cast-iron privacy safeguards were added to the DNA Profiling Bill.

Ignoring the right to privacy will not only affect India’s ‘global image’ more than any critical documentary does, it will also complicate international commercial relations. Who would send their information or employees to a country that disregards its residents’ right to privacy?

Government says it cannot provide subsidies without Aadhar

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.

SC asks Govt to make sure Aadhar not mandatory to avail services

Author: Nikhil Kanekal

In a writ petition challenging the Indian government’s tacit insistence on citizens using Aadhar cards for public services,  the Supreme Court passed an interim order on Monday asking the government to make sure that no citizen is denied services for not possessing an Aadhar card.

A bench comprising justices B. S. Chauhan and S. A. Bobde directed the union government to ensure that “no person should suffer for not getting the Adhaar card inspite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory”.

The court also asked the government to make sure that Aadhar cards are not being given to illegal immigrants: “it may be checked whether that person is entitled for it under the law and it should not be given to any illegal immigrant.”

The government admitted before the Supreme Court that Aadhar cards were in fact not compulsory. To be sure, the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI), which issues the Aadar cards as a universal identity to citizens, has said Aadhar is not mandatory for public services. However, it increasingly appears that basic public services are not available to citizens that don’t have an Aadhar card. This is being achieved by linking services with Aadhar. In some parts of India this could mean that a person needs to have a UID to get subsidized cooking gas. Although citizens are normally able to avail public services through various other forms of state-issued identification (such as passport, driver’s licence, voter ID, PAN card), the processes being followed by the central government and some state governments on certain public services (registration of marriage) and subsidies (cooking gas) has led many to believe that it is only a matter of time before Aadhar becomes mandatory in order to deal with the state.

In the instant case, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court was told that he would not be paid his salary and dues, unless he got himself an Aadhar card. Unwilling to accept this, he filed a petition in the Bombay High Court.

An excerpt from a Press Trust of India report carried by Business Standard:

During the brief hearing, the bench of justices B S Chauhan and S A Bobde was told that despite the fact that the Aadhar card is “voluntary” in nature, an order has been issued by the Registrar of the Bombay High Court in pursuance of an order of the state government that it would be necessary for disbursal of salary of judges and staff also.

“The scheme is complete infraction of Fundamental Rights under Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life and liberty). The government claims that the scheme is voluntary but it is not so.

“Aadhar is being made mandatory for purposes like registration of marriages and others. Maharashtra government has recently said no marriage will be registered if parties don’t have Aadhar cards,” senior advocate Anil Divan, arguing for Justice (retd) K S Puttaswamy, former judge of Karnataka High Court, said.