Law

'Better to Be Unique Than the Best' – Highlights From the Majority Judgment on Aadhaar

The judgment authored by Justice A.K. Sikri, concurred by Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, strikes down some of the provisions of the Aadhaar Act while upholding the rest.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar scheme, but placed strict limitations on the scope of the project while striking down several contentious provisions of the legislation including clauses that allowed sharing of data for national security purposes and the usage of the biometric authentication system by private corporations.

Of the five judge-bench that delivered the verdict, three justices delivered separate opinions. Justice A.K. Sikri delivered the majority opinion, with Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar concurring with him.

Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Ashok Bhushan have written separate opinions, with the former having partially dissented on a number of points.

Also read: Why Justice Chandrachud Opposes the Aadhaar Project: Highlights From the Judgment

The Wire brings you a selected curation of what the three judges writing the majority judgment feel on different aspects of the Aadhaar project and its enabling legislation.

The only one

It is better to be unique than the best. Because, being the best makes you the number one, but being unique makes you the only one.

Surveillance

Insofar as issue (a) [whether the architecture of the Aadhaar project enables the Sate to create a regime of surveillance] above is concerned, after going through the various aspects of the Aadhaar project, the provisions of the Aadhaar Act and the manner in which it operates, it is difficult to accept the argument of the petitioners. The respondents have explained that the enrolment and authentication processes are strongly regulated so that data is secure. … There are various other provisions for monitoring, auditing, inspection, limits on data sharing, data protection, punishments etc., grievance redressal mechanism, suspension and termination of services, etc. so that all actions the entities involved in the process are regulated.

After going through the Aadhaar structure, as demonstrated by the respondents in the powerpoint presentation from the provisions of the Aadhaar Act and the machinery which the Authority has created for data protection, we are of the view that it is very difficult to create profile of a person simply on the basis of biometric and demographic information stored in CIDR. Insofar as authentication is concerned, the respondents rightly pointed out that there are sufficient safeguard mechanisms.

Data protection

We find that Section 32 (3) of the Aadhaar Act specifically prohibits the authority from collecting, storing or maintaining, either directly or indirectly any information about the purpose of authentication. The proviso to Regulation 26 of Authentication Regulations is also to the same effect.

Thus, the principle of data minimization is largely followed.

We are of the view that most of the apprehensions of the petitioners stand assuaged with the treatment which is given by us to some of the provisions. Some of these are already discussed above and some provisions are debated in the next issue. Summary thereof, however, can be given hereunder:

(a) Authentication records are not to be kept beyond a period of six months, as stipulated in Regulation 27(1) of the Authentication Regulations. This provision which permits records to be archived for a period of five years is held to be bad in law.

(b) Metabase relating to transaction, as provided in Regulation 26 of the aforesaid Regulations in the present form, is held to be impermissible, which needs suitable amendment.

(c) Section 33 of the Aadhaar Act is read down by clarifying that an individual, whose information is sought to be released, shall be afforded an opportunity of hearing.

Also read: Here’s Why Supreme Court Feels Welfare Exclusion Can’t Be Used to Scrap Aadhaar

(d) Insofar as Section 33(2) of the Act in the present form is concerned, the same is struck down.

(e) That portion of Section 57 of the Aadhaar Act which enables body corporate and individual to seek authentication is held to be unconstitutional.

(f) We have also impressed upon the respondents, as the discussion hereinafter would reveal, to bring out a robust data protection regime in the form of an enactment on the basis of Justice B.N. Srikrishna (Retd.) Committee Report with necessary modifications thereto as may be deemed appropriate.

In the present case as well, we have come to the conclusion that Aadhaar Act is a beneficial legislation which is aimed at empowering millions of people in this country. The justification of this project has been taken note of in detail, which the subsequent discussion shall also demonstrate. In such a scenario only on apprehension, the project cannot be shelved. At the same time, data protection and data safety is also to be ensured to avoid even the remote possibility of data profiling or data leakage.

Balancing two fundamental rights – privacy and life with dignity

By no stretch of imagination, therefore, it can be said that there is no defined State aim in legislating Aadhaar Act. We may place on record that even the petitioners did not seriously question the purpose bona fides of the legislature in enacting this law. In a welfare State, where measures are taken to ameliorate the sufferings of the downtrodden, the aim of the Act is to ensure that these benefits actually reach the populace for whom they are meant. This is naturally a legitimate State aim.

Before undertaking this exercise of balancing, we would like to point out that we are not convinced with the argument of the respondents that there cannot be any reasonable expectation of privacy. No doubt, the information which is gathered by the UIDAI (whether biometric or demographic) is parted with by the individuals to other agencies/body corporates etc. in many other kinds of transactions as well, as pointed out by the respondents.

As already pointed out above, the Aadhaar Act truly seeks to secure to the poor and deprived persons an opportunity to live their life and exercise their liberty. By ensuring targeted delivery through digital identification, it not only provides them a nationally recognized identity but also attempts to ensure the delivery of benefits, service and subsidies with the aid of public exchequer/Consolidated Fund of India. National Security Food Act, 2013 passed by the Parliament seeks to address the issue of food, security at the household level. The scheme of that Act is aimed at providing food grains to those belonging to BPL categories. Like the MGNREGA Act, 2005 takes care of employment. The MGNREGA Act has been enacted for the enhancement, livelihood, security of the households in rural areas of the country. It guarantees at least 100 days of wage employment in every financial year to at least one able member of every household in the rural area on assets creating public work programme. Sections 3 and 4 of the MGNREGA Act contain this guarantee. The minimum facilities to be provided are set out by Section 5 read with Schedule II.

Section 22 provides for funding pattern and Section 23 provides for transparency and accountability. This Act is another instance of a rights based approach and it enlivens the Fundamental Right to life and personal liberty of Below Poverty Line people in rural areas.

In the instant case, a holistic view of the matter, having regard to the detailed discussion hereinabove, would amply demonstrate that enrolment in Aadhaar of the unprivileged and marginalised section of the society, in order to avail the fruits of welfare schemes of the Government, actually amounts to empowering these persons. On the one hand, it gives such individuals their unique identity and, on the other hand, it also enables such individuals to avail the fruits of welfare schemes of the Government which are floated as socio-economic welfare measures to uplift such classes. In that sense, the scheme ensures dignity to such individuals. This facet of dignity cannot be lost sight of and needs to be acknowledged. We are, by no means, accepting that when dignity in the form of economic welfare is given, the State is entitled to rob that person of his liberty. That can never be allowed. We are concerned with the balancing of the two facets of dignity. Here we find that the inroads into the privacy rights where these individuals are made to part with their biometric information, is minimal. It is coupled with the fact that there is no data collection on the movements of such individuals, when they avail benefits under Section 7 of the Act thereby ruling out the possibility of creating their profiles. In fact, this technology becomes a vital tool of ensuring good governance in a social welfare state. We, therefore, are of the opinion that the Aadhaar Act meets the test of balancing as well.

Exclusion

The objective of the Act is to plug the leakages and ensure that fruits of welfare schemes reach the targeted population, for whom such schemes are actually meant. The Act passes the muster of necessity stage as well when we do not find any less restrictive measure which could be equally effective in achieving the aim. In a situation like this where the Act is aimed at achieving the aforesaid public purpose, striving to benefit millions of deserving people, can it be invalidated only on the ground that there is a possibility of exclusion of some of the seekers of these welfare schemes?Answer has to be in the negative. We may hasten to add that by no means, we are accepting that if such an exclusion takes place, it is justified.

Also read: After Supreme Court Verdict, What Needs to Be Linked With Aadhaar and What Doesn’t

We are only highlighting the fact that the Government seems to be sincere in its efforts to ensure that no such exclusion takes place and in those cases where an individual who is rightfully entitled to benefits under the scheme is not denied such a benefit merely because of failure of authentication. In this scenario, the entire Aadhaar project cannot be shelved. If that is done, it would cause much more harm to the society.

Since, we have held that enrolment is voluntary in nature, those who specifically refuse to give the consent, they would be allowed to exit from Aadhaar scheme. After all, by getting Aadhaar card, an individual so enrolled is getting a form of identity card. It would still be open to such an individual to make use of the said Aadhaar number or not. Those persons who need to avail any subsidy, benefit or service would need Aadhaar in any case. It would not be proper to cancel their Aadhaar cards. We, thus, uphold the validity of Section 59. As a corollary, Aadhaar for the period from 2009 to 2016 also stands validated.

Limited government, good governance

It is difficult to agree with the sweeping proposition advanced by the petitioners that the Aadhaar project is destructive of limited government and constitutional trust. These submissions are premised on the architecture of the Aadhaar being constitutionally intrusive which threatens the autonomy of individuals and has a tendency of creating a surveillance state.

Money bill

We are of the opinion that Bill was rightly introduced as Money Bill. Accordingly, it is not necessary for us to deal with other contentions of the petitioners, namely, whether certification by the Speaker about the Bill being Money Bill is subject to judicial review or not, whether a provision which does not relate to Money Bill is severable or not. We reiterate that main provision is a part of Money Bill and other are only incidental and, therefore, covered by clause (g) of Article 110 of the Constitution.

We find that this move of mandatory linking of Aadhaar with bank account does not satisfy the test of proportionality. There may be legitimate State aim for such a move as it aims at prevention of money laundering and black money. However, there has not been a serious thinking while making such a provision applicable for every bank account. We, thus, hold the amendment to Rule 9, by the Seventh Amendment Rules, 2017, in the present form, to be unconstitutional.

Linking of mobile number with Aadhaar

By a Circular dated March 23, 2017, the Department of Telecommunications has directed that all licensees shall reverify the existing mobile subscribers (pre-paid and post-paid) through Aadhaar based e-KYC process.

We are of the opinion that not only such a circular lacks backing of a law, it fails to meet the requirement of proportionality as well. It does not meet ‘necessity stage’ and ‘balancing stage’ tests to check the primary menace which is in the mind of the respondent authorities. It also impinges upon the voluntary nature of the Aadhaar scheme. We find it to be disproportionate and unreasonable state compulsion.

It is to be borne in mind that every individual/resident subscribing to a SIM card does not enjoy the subsidy benefit or services mentioned in Section 7 of the Act. We, therefore, have no hesitation in declaring the Circular dated March 23, 2017 as unconstitutional.

You can read the full text of the majority judgment below.

Aadhaar Judgment – Majority by The Wire on Scribd

Join The Discussion