The Supreme Court’s interim order making it clear that no person should be disadvantaged because she does not possess an ‘Aadhaar’ card may appear to address the basic question in the average citizen’s mind as to whether this card is mandatory or voluntary. In reality, there is no doubt about its voluntary nature. At the same time, registration of citizens is indeed mandatory. It is a sign of the confusion that marks governance in the country that there is lack of conceptual clarity among the people about what Aadhaar is, how it is related to the population register and whether having a number is essential to receive benefits, subsidies and entitlements. To put matters in perspective, Aadhaar is a number, not a card, given by the Unique Identification Authority of India. The long queues that one sees in the neighbourhood for enrolment and capture of photographs and biometric data are meant for the National Population Register administered by the Registrar-General and Census Commissioner of India. The NPR data is sent to the UIDAI for generation of Aadhar numbers, and, if one already has such a number given earlier by UIDAI, it is ‘de-duplicated’. Enrolment in the NPR is mandatory under the Citizenship Act, whereas getting an Aadhaar number is voluntary.
Some authorities have done great mischief by linking delivery of services and transfers to the possession of an Aadhaar number; for example, the subsidy for cooking gas cylinders will be available only to those who have linked their Aadhaar numbers with their bank accounts and gas agencies. This has caused understandable alarm. The issues before the Supreme Court pertain to the UIDAI scheme and not to the NPR, although the legality of taking biometrics, a feature of the Register, is also under challenge. There are serious questions concerning the possible invasion of privacy when one parts with personal information and images of irises and fingerprints, especially in an era of transnational snooping and digital crime. Further, the present legal framework provides only for taking photographs but not biometric data. Linking the Aadhaar number to benefits and services is also causing great hardship. Some contend that unverified allotment of Aadhaar numbers poses a threat to national security, and the Supreme Court now wants to ensure that immigrants lacking proper documents do not get them. But insistence on documentary proof from the poor and homeless may lead to denial of benefits to a significant segment of the population. The ongoing case gives the country an opportunity to revisit its entire policy on identification and registration so that the twin objectives of knowing who a citizen is and ensuring effective delivery of services are not undermined.