Countering the government push to make Aadhaar compulsory for access to social welfare schemes, the Supreme Court on Tuesday said obtaining the 12-digit Unique Identification number, which requires the holder to part with his personal bio-metric data, and using it to avail himself of government subsidy was a voluntary exercise.
The court’s observations follows a series of recent government circulars making Aadhaar mandatory to access welfare schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and Employees Pension Scheme.
Against earlier ruling
The government has made Aadhaar compulsory for beneficiaries, many of them the poorest of the poor, despite a Constitution Bench of the court directing the government in October 2015 that a citizen cannot be compelled to have Aadhaar as a pre-condition to access Centrally sponsored welfare schemes. In short, the court had made it clear that the government was not free to discriminate between a person who has the Aadhaar card and one who does not.
However, a Bench led by Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar on Tuesday found no fault with the government’s choice to make Aadhaar mandatory for “non-welfare” activities like opening a bank account or filing Income Tax returns.
The Lok Sabha’s recently-passed Finance Bill made Aadhaar mandatory for filing tax returns and getting a permanent account number (PAN). The court’s observations came during a mentioning for an early date for hearing pending petitions raising the issue of Aadhaar as a violation of the citizen's privacy. The court, however, did not commit to any specific dates, but did not agree for an out-of-turn hearing.
In October 2015, the government had assured the Constitution Bench that the requirement for Aadhaar would be purely of a voluntary nature for citizens to access public subsidy. The court had said that this would remain so till it took a final decision on whether Aadhaar scheme was a privacy invasion.
The then Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu, who led the Constitution Bench, had even asked Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi, for UIDAI, to make a statement in open court that “you will not insist (on Aadhaar) till the matter is finally decided here or a legislation is introduced in the Parliament”.
“Suppose we decide that Aadhaar is purely voluntary and any attempt to make it mandatory would be treated as contempt of court... are you ready to give an assurance or make a statement here to this effect?” the CJI had asked Mr. Rohatgi.
"No person will be denied benefits under any government scheme for want of Aadhaar card," the A-G had responded.
The Constitution Bench had extended the voluntary use of Aadhaar card to Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Scheme, all types of pensions schemes, employee provident fund and the Prime Minister Jan Dhan Yojana. With this, the Supreme Court had modified an August 11, 2015 order issued by its three-judge bench restricting Aadhaar use to only PDS and LPG (cooking gas) distribution.
The government had argued that the Aadhaar card was not to be seen in the sinister light of State surveillance and censorship. Mr. Rohatgi had argued that the Aadhaar was rather a fool-proof method for government to identify the actual beneficiaries of social benefit schemes and not get duped into distributing welfare paid by taxpayers' money on fraudsters.
Supporting the Centre, Gujarat government, represented by senior advocate Harish Salve had justified Aadhaar as a means for citizens to directly connect with welfare schemes without intermediaries. “If somebody wants to live in the forest with no contact with the government, it is perfectly all right for them to do so... But you have to understand that the government is the trustee of the taxpayers' money” Mr. Salve had submitted in the Supreme Court.