New Delhi: People will no longer need an Aadhaar card to benefit from government welfare schemes, the Supreme Court decided today, even as it referred the wider issue of the Unique Identification (UID) programme’s impact on privacy to a Constitution Bench.
The court was responding to a batch of petitions that challenged both the constitutionality of the UID programme and the manner in which Central and state authorities have upended the supposedly voluntary nature of the scheme by making enrolment mandatory for accessing a host of government services.
“UID/Aadhaar will not be used for any other purposes except PDS, kerosene and LPG distribution system,” a bench headed by Justice J Chelameswar said on Tuesday, adding the rider that even for availing these facilities it would not be mandatory for an individual to possess an Aadhaar card.
Addressing the petitioners claim that collection and sharing of biometric information, as required under the scheme, is a breach of the “fundamental” right to privacy, the court barred the authorities from sharing any personal information or data collected from those enrolled in the scheme – except as part of a criminal investigation, with the permission of the court – but refused to accept the interim plea that ongoing UID enrolment be stopped pending settlement of the constitutionality question.
Instead, it allowed the Centre’s plea that the question of whether privacy is a fundamental right be referred to a Constitution Bench. “If yes, then what would be contours of the right to privacy,” the bench said while referring the matter to Chief Justice H L Dattu for setting up the larger bench. That bench would also decide the larger question of whether the collection of biometric data by the UID Authority of India as part of the Aadhaar enrolment process was an infringement of an individual’s privacy.
At an earlier hearing, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, while backing the Aadhar card scheme, had contended that the right to privacy was not a fundamental right.
“No judgment explicitly cites right to privacy as a fundamental right. It is not there under the letters of Article 21 either. If this court feels that there must be clarity on this subject, only a Constitution Bench can decide,” he had said.
Referring to pronouncements made in the A K. Gopalan, Maneka Gandhi and Bank Nationalisation cases, the top law officer had said that inconsistencies with regard to interpretation of certain fundamental rights can only be “squared up” by a larger bench.
The Centre had opposed a plea seeking initiation of contempt proceedings against it, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and others for allegedly insisting on Aadhaar cards to grant benefits of various schemes to citizens, saying it was not mandatory.
In pursuance of earlier orders, the government has conveyed to the states and authorities concerned not to make Aadhar cards mandatory for availing benefits of various schemes, Additional Solicitor General Pinky Anand had told the court.
The bench was hearing a batch of pleas against decisions of some states to make Aadhar cards compulsory for a range of activities including payment of salary, provident fund disbursement, marriage and property registration.
The government had also said those having Aadhar cards were being asked to provide it to authorities but it was optional.
Senior advocate Gopal Subramanium, appearing for Mathew Thomas, one of the PIL petitioners, had filed an application seeking initiation of contempt proceedings against the Centre and others, including RBI, and the Election Commission.
He had alleged that the government and others were in violation of earlier orders that had said that no person should be denied any benefit or suffer for not having Aadhar cards.
(With inputs from PTI)
Featured image credit: Meena Kadri, CC 2.0