Aadhaar: India top court upholds world’s largest biometric scheme

An Indian woman poses with new 2000 rupee notes, her Aadhaar ID card and a finger inked with indelible ink after exchanging withdrawn 500 and 1000 rupee banknotes at a bank in Chennai on November 17, 2016Image copyright
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Indians will need the identity number to receive benefits from more than 500 welfare schemes

India’s Supreme Court has ruled that the country’s controversial biometric identity scheme is constitutional and does not violate the right to privacy.

However the court limited the scope of the Aadhaar scheme, saying it could not be compulsory for bank accounts, mobile connections or school admissions.

The world’s largest biometric ID database covers welfare and tax payments and access to social services.

More than a billion Indians have already been enrolled.

They received a unique 12-digit identification number after submitting their fingerprints and retina scans. About 30 petitioners went to court to argue that the scheme infringed Indians’ privacy.

What did the judges say?

“Aadhaar gives dignity to the marginalised. Dignity to the marginalised outweighs privacy,” said the five-judge bench, comprising all the sitting judges in the Supreme Court.

“One can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Therefore, they said that people would still need their Aadhaar numbers to access government welfare schemes and to pay taxes.

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However, the court said that private entities including mobile phone operators and banks would no longer have the authority to demand customers’ Aadhaar numbers and instructed the government to “bring out a robust data protection law urgently”.

It also said that schools could not insist on children’s Aadhaar numbers to enrol students, further adding that no child could be denied state welfare benefits for the want of an Aadhaar number.

The judgement was not unanimous.

Two judges of the five-judge bench said that they disagreed with several aspects of the judgement, including the manner in which its legality had been determined in parliament.

What has the reaction been?

Largely mixed.

Some activists said they were disappointed with the “safe” stand taken by the Supreme Court, although they welcomed the dissenting opinion by Judge D Chandrachud.

The Congress party, which introduced the scheme before it lost power to the current BJP government, welcomed the court decision to prevent private companies from accessing peoples’ Aadhaar numbers.

In fact, that was the most relevant part of the judgement for most Indians – many of whom had expressed unwillingness to link their mobile phone connections to the scheme.

Others said that the judgement appeared to be “measured” and “well-balanced”.

What is Aadhaar?

When it was launched in 2010 by the Congress-led government, Aadhaar was a voluntary programme intended to tackle benefit fraud.

The government said at the time that it would help the poor who don’t have official identification to access benefits.

Many of India’s 1.2 billion people don’t have identification – only 65 million own a passport and some 200 million have a driving licence.

So, Aadhaar became the only ID available to millions.

States around Indian have used Aadhaar to transfer government pensions, food subsidies, scholarships, wages for a landmark rural jobs-for-work scheme and benefits for cooking fuel to targeted recipients, and distribute cheap food to the poor.

Aadhaar numbers have become increasingly necessary to access everyday services, from bank transactions to applying for a passport to acquiring a SIM card for a mobile phone.

When the government made it mandatory, it also said all residents must link their bank accounts to their Aadhaar numbers. It was hoped that this would curb tax evasion and help regulate India’s vast informal economy. This aspect has been struck down by Wednesday’s verdict.

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