The Supreme Court has once again made it clear that the government cannot insist on the possession of an >‘Aadhaar’ card or number as a precondition for citizens to avail of specified benefits and services. The court has been forced to reiterate its earlier order to this effect as more and more entities are trying to link their services with Aadhaar. From the beginning it was clear that making Aadhaar a mandatory requirement would evoke resentment and cause hardship to various sections. Some authorities caused alarm by indicating that people would stand to lose benefits or be denied routine services unless they enrolled themselves. There were even reports that some police stations asked for Aadhaar numbers before registering first information reports, and that certain educational institutions tried to make it a prior requirement to apply for some courses. By making it clear that no person should be in a position of disadvantage on account of not possessing an Aadhaar number, the court has protected the right of the people to make their own choice in the matter. It, however, has not brushed aside the relevance of the Unique Identification Number programme. It has allowed the authorities to link the supply of goods under the Public Distribution System and cooking gas cylinders with Aadhaar numbers. For all its exertions, the government must be relieved that to this extent its identification programme has obtained the court’s approval.
However, the question arising out of the scheme is not limited to whether it should be voluntary or mandatory. In its pursuit of better management of and greater efficiency in the delivery of services, it is natural that the government would want an identification mechanism to authenticate beneficiaries and consumers of its services and welfare measures. Previously, such a mechanism would have posed a technological challenge. It has now become a political and moral question. Can a government force citizens to enrol in an identification programme that involves submitting personal information and biometric data? The question, which involves determining the very validity of the scheme, has now been referred to a Constitution Bench. The reference will also cover the issue of the citizens’ right to privacy. One of the key points in the legal challenge is that collecting biometric data without enabling legal provisions and without clear norms to protect the data from misuse and theft may violate constitutional rights. Recently, the Attorney General caused considerable disquiet by arguing in the same matter that > privacy is not a fundamental right . What the country needs is not only a safe means of digitising citizens’ identity particulars but also a comprehensive law to protect their privacy and personal data from unauthorised surveillance and misuse. Anything short of that will leave the citizen short-changed.