Provide Subsidised Foodgrain Even Without Aadhaar Card, Says Karnataka High Court

The court was responding to a petition from a Channapatna-based tailor who had raised concerns over the Centre's decision to make Aadhaar mandatory for PDS.

New Delhi: A week after the Centre decreed that an Aadhaar number would be mandatory for people who wish to avail of subsidised foodgrain from ration shops, the Karnataka High Court, responding to a petition, has directed the appropriate government departments to provide subsidised foodgrain to the petitioner without the production of an Aadhaar card.

Responding to a petition from one G S Sukanya, a tailor who lives in the Channapatna taluk of Karnataka, Justice A S Bopanna passed an interim order that directed the Food and Civil Supplies department, which oversees portions of India’s public distribution system, to not insist on an Aadhaar card and provide subsidised foodgrain to Sukanya.

According to a report in The New Indian Express, Sukanya’s counsel Clifton Rozario referenced the Supreme Court’s October 2015 order, which reiterated that obtaining an Aadhaar number was completely voluntary until a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court decided one way or the other.

It is not immediately clear what the broad applicability of the Karnataka High Court’s order will be. As Prasanna S, a lawyer, told The Wire, the Karnataka HC’s order does not talk of an interim stay on the Centre’s notification itself.  Also, in the last few years, multiple high court orders and observations have sharply panned the creeping wave of mandatory Aadhaar requirements. However, what is crucial, Prasanna says, is this that this Karnataka high court order comes after the official Aadhaar Act was passed by Parliament.

Before the passage of the Aadhaar Act, the Punjab and Haryana High court told the Haryana state government to “not demand Aadhaar card for various government schemes”. There is no evidence to show that Haryana has stopped integrating the Aadhaar system.  The Jammu & Kashmir High Court, on similar lines, threw a wrench in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to biometrically record the attendance of all government employees (via Aadhaar) – yet by last count over 1 lakh employees (central, state government) currently have been registered as part of this Aadhaar attendance system.

Aadhaar mission creep

The Centre’s decision to make Aadhaar a mandatory requirement for its PDS comes on the back of making it mandatory for other schemes such as MGNREGS and the Employees’ Provident Fund Scheme.

To what extent is the decision to make Aadhaar mandatory for these fundamental schemes legal? As The Wire has reported, there are two broad forces at work. First, is the October 2015 Supreme Court order which allowed the use of Aadhaar in schemes such as MGNREGS, EPS, PDS and so on. However, in the same order the Supreme Court also definitively stated that Aadhaar would remain voluntary until a five-judge constitution bench decided one way or the other.

The second force is the Aadhaar Act – specifically section 7, which allows for the use of Aadhaar in delivering government benefits, subsidies and services. However, the Aadhaar Act does not specifically state that Aadhaar is a mandatory requirement.

This has led to various legal clashes. In September 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory in the Modi government’s national scholarship portal, reaffirming its earlier October 2015 order.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court has also dithered in hearing a clutch of contempt petitions and pleas that argue that Aadhaar should not be mandatory; that it comes with a host of security and privacy concerns. In January 2017, a three-justice bench said that “there was no hurry” to hear the pending contempt petitions.