The Supreme Court on Wednesday lauded the many benefits of the Centre’s flagship Aadhaar Act and upheld its Constitutional validity.
The top court also addressed concerns of petitioners that the Aadhaar card violates an individual’s privacy and asked the Centre to “introduce strong data protection law as soon as possible”. The top court ruled that private entitities can’t ask for Aadhaar and also said the national identity number is certainly not mandatory for school admission.
Justice A K Sikri of the five-judge Constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, said: “Aadhaar empowers the marginalised section of the society and gives them an identity… Aadhaar is also different from other ID proofs as it can’t be duplicated.” He also said there was a fundamental difference between the Aadhaar card and identity. “Once the biometric information is stored, it remains in the system,” he said.
Justice Sikri also said: “It is better to be unique than to be best.” He said: “Minimal demographic and biometric data of citizens are collected by the UIDAI for Aadhaar enrollment. Aadhaar number given to a person is unique and can’t go to any other person.”
The concept of human dignity has been enlarged in the judgement, Justice Sikri said.
The five-judge bench of CJI Misra, Justices A K Sikri, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan took up petitions challenging the Aadhar Act on January 17 this year, and reserved its verdict on May 10 after hearing arguments for a marathon 38 days.
Here are highlights from the judgement:
* Aadhaar is mandatory for filing of income tax returns and for the allotment of permanent account number.
* Telecom service providers cannot seek linking of Aadhaar card.
* It is not mandatory to link bank accounts to Aadhaar card.
* SC also said there was nothing in Aadhaar Act that violates the right to privacy of an individual.
* CBSE, NEET, UGC cannot make Aadhaar mandatory, also not compulsory for school admissions.
* SC strikes down Section 57 of Aadhaar Act permitting private entities to avail Aadhaar data.
* SC directs government not to give Aadhaar to illegal immigrants.
* SC says Aadhaar authentication data cannot be stored for more than six months.
* Robust data protection regime has to be brought in place as early as possible
* SC notes there is sufficient defence mechanism for authentication in Aadhaar scheme.
* SC strikes down the National security exception under the Aadhaar Act.
It was argued by petitioners that Aadhaar law ex-facie violated an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. The overall impact of the 2016 Aadhaar Act, which affects ‘right to privacy’ and lacked security for protection of data, violated every aspect of human rights guaranteed to citizens under the constitution, petitioners argued.
The 12-digit Unique Identification Number has been made compulsory for services including bank accounts, PAN cards, cellphone services, passports as well as driving licenses. It was made the most-important proof of identity and residence, surpassing all other prior identity proofs.
The unique identity project was conceived under the UPA II era and was initially linked to social welfare schemes. But it was later made mandatory for almost all financial transactions, including cellphones – prompting concerns of privacy.
The first petition against the unique identification project was filed by retired Karnataka High Court judge K S Puttaswamy in 2012.
More and more petitions were subsequently filed with citizens arguing that the data collected under the project could be leaked, misused and even make us prisoners of a surveillance state.
In August 2017, arguments against the Aadhaar card got a boost when a nine-judge Constitution bench, headed by then CJI Justice J S Khehar, declared right to privacy as a fundamental right.
But the court also noted that “besides national security, the State may have “justifiable reasons for the collection and storage of data. In a social welfare state, the government embarks upon programmes which provide benefits to impoverished and marginalised sections of society. There is a vital State interest in ensuring that scarce public resources are not dissipated by the diversion of resources to persons who do not qualify as recipients.”
The privacy part of Aadhaar was then taken up by the present five-judge bench, headed by CJI Dipak Misra. It heard the Centres’ defence, who said Aadhaar had been linked to social welfare schemes which ensured subsidies went to the right peope. It also said Aadhaar had a significant role to play in curbing terrorism and prevent financing of crime.
But when the government quoted an earlier decision by the Supreme Court on Aadhaar to defend its decision to link cellphones with the card, the bench said it had misinterpreted that order.
The government cited the June 2017 order by a two-judge bench which upheld the government’s decision to link Pan with Aadhaar. But it had refused to make it mandatory for those who don’t have an Aadhaar card till the Constitution bench’s decision on the privacy issue.