The world’s largest biometric ID programme isn’t going anywhere

A very long courtship.
A very long courtship.
Image: Reuters/Mansi Thapliyal
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Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric identity programme, is constitutionally valid, the supreme court of India ruled today (Sept. 26).

However, the court struck down key provisions of the programme. Aadhaar will continue to be required for government welfare schemes, but banks and other private companies can no longer use the platform for their verification requirements.

This verdict comes over a year after the supreme court ruled that Indians have a fundamental right to privacy.

Created in 2009 and administered by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Aadhaar is a biometrics-based identity database that was conceived of as a way to ensure the effective disbursal of public benefits.

Its scope has since widened hugely, with the Narendra Modi government making it mandatory to access many other state schemes, and private entities like telecom companies latching on to the platform. After the court’s judgment, many of these linkages will be rolled back.

Critics claimed the government’s orders that people link their Aadhaar for services were coercive, and are the reason for enrollment in the programme being so high. Over 1.22 billion Indians, nearly India’s entire adult population, have Aadhaar numbers.

Other issues raised about the programme, many of which are addressed in the judgment, have been concerns over privacy, surveillance, security, and various implementation failures, most specifically the denial of services due to failures in the programme’s technical infrastructure.

Here are some of the key points of the judgment:

  1. Required for government welfare schemes like public distribution system and LPG subsidy: Aadhaar has long been required for access to government benefits whose funding comes from the consolidated fund of India, such as the public distribution system (PDS) of food benefits and the LPG cooking-gas subsidy. The court upheld this, rejecting petitioners’ claims that this requirement was leading to exclusion due to authentication failures. The consolidated fund of India includes all revenues received by the government like income tax, central excise, customs, etc., and all expenditure of the government is also incurred from here.
  2. Not mandatory for private companies’ services and for some public services: The court ruled that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for any services provided by private entities, such as obtaining a mobile SIM or opening a bank account (even in a public sector bank). It also cannot be required by schools and other educational institutions, such as CBSE and NET, as well as other government services that are not directly funded by the consolidated fund of India.
  3. The Aadhaar Act provision allowing sharing of data in the interest of national security is gone: The court struck down the provision of the Aadhaar Act which stated that individuals’ personal data could be disclosed if directed by an officer of the rank of joint secretary or higher.
  4. PAN-Aadhaar linkage will go ahead: The court upheld Section 139AA of the Aadhaar Act, which declares that individuals’ Permanent Account Numbers (PAN), which are required for filing income taxes, must be linked with Aadhaar.
  5. Passing Aadhaar Act as money bill was valid: Critics have long claimed that the Aadhaar Act, which was passed in 2016 under the fast-track procedure afforded to “money bills” (basic spending bills to prevent government shutdowns), should not have been allowed to be classified under these criteria. The court turned down that challenge.

Justice DY Chandrachud, however, issued a strong dissent to the majority opinion, in which he stated that the passage of the Aadhaar Act, as well as the programme in its entirety, is unconstitutional. Justice Ashok Bhushan also issued a separate judgment, which, although it did not declare Aadhaar unconstitutional, stated that the money-bill classification could be submitted for judicial review.

The supreme court hearing, which lasted 38 working days spread over 4 months, was the second-longest in the history of India’s supreme court.