Aadhaar, on the surface of it seems to be the noblest of initiatives by the Indian Government. Rightly titled Aadhar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other subsidies, benefits and services) Act, 2016, its primacy lies in the rightful delivery of subsidies to the ones in need. Who knew that what started out under the pretext of a National Identity Card under the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee post the Kargil War could morph into an initiative that would help the Government save 90,000 crore in a year while distributing subsidies effectively.
The legal debate about the constitutionality of Aadhaar drew a halt when the Supreme Court on 26th September, 2018 upheld Aadhaar’s constitutional validity keeping some provisions intact while striking others by its five member bench with a 4:1 majority. It ruled that Aadhaar was now mandatory to avail subsidies and everyone had to get their Pan card linked with their Aadhaar.
The reason for the former stems from the duplicity of ration cards that prevailed prior to the introduction of Aadhaar to avail subsidies and the latter would help combat income tax evaders. It’s however no longer mandatory to be linked with bank accounts or phone numbers. Private companies, commercial banks cannot ask for Aadhaar and students don’t need Aadhaar to appear for CBSE, NEET or UGC exams. Further, children can’t be denied subsidies even if they don’t possess Aadhaar.
While there are parts of this judgement that hit the nail on the head such as the striking of Section 57 which allowed private companies to seek Aadhaar or the striking of Section 47 under which only a person of the UIDAI or one authorised by it could move the court in case of a data breach, now citizens can rightfully move the court in cases of data theft. The period for the storage of authentication data has dropped from five years to 6 months.
While there is an upside to this verdict, there are also some potent anomalies that it presents. For instance, the very basis on which Aadhaar is issued i.e biometrics, is wide ranging. Section 2(g) of the Act defines biometrics as fingerprints, iris scans or any other ‘biological attributes’. Justice DY Chandrachud rightly expressed his concerns saying that without a solid limitation on the biometric data that can be collected, one’s privacy is at stake. Besides vaguely defined biometric data, when an identity based on biometrics becomes imperative to avail basic rights such as food, it sets the stage for turmoil.
Those who aren’t able to authenticate biometric data either because their features have changed due to age or because the machines responsible for authenticating data do not catch a signal in remote villages would be left out from getting their basic needs. According to data revealed by the Right To Food campaign, 14 people allegedly starved to death in Jharkhand over 10 months after being denied rations – because they didn’t have Aadhaar. Old pensioners have lost their lives as they were not able to get their pensions on time which also indirectly facilitates their livelihood. It might be a wise move to exempt senior citizens from Aadhaar to avail subsidies just the way children are. As the sole dissenting judge in the Aadhaar verdict, DY Chandrachud said that the rights of the individual cannot be subjected to the vicissitudes of technology or to that of an algorithm.
Both Governments, the UPA and the NDA have sworn by Aadhaar, now it is imperative that the central government look into measures to make sure every beneficiary avails subsidies, the main purpose for which this project was vehemently promulgated. Another concern brewing on the sidelines of this overarching issue is that, is our data really safe? The Supreme Court has blindly accepted the claim by the UIDAI that private data won’t be used for state surveillance or any sort of data breach is out of the question, though are there any laws in place to check for the same? Without laws that punish data breach, misuse can seldom be prevented.