New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the Centre’s flagship Aadhaar scheme as constitutionally valid, observing that the unique biometric ID neither tends to create a “surveillance state” nor it infringed the Right to Privacy.
The court held that while Aadhaar would remain mandatory for filing of IT returns and allotment of Permanent Account Number (PAN), it would not be mandatory to link Aadhaar to bank accounts and the telecom service providers cannot seek its linking for mobile connections.
It would not be mandatory for school admissions, as also for the examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Examination, National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical entrance and the University Grants Commission.
The bench also struck down the national security exception under the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016.
In a 4-1 verdict that also quashed some contentious provisions of the Aadhaar act, a five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, however, held Aadhaar would remain compulsory for filing of Income Tax(IT) returns and allotment of Permanent Account Number (PAN) and for availing facilities of welfare schemes and government subsidies.
“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,” said the top court after a long-drawn bruising legal battle against the government’s ambitious project–the world’s largest biometric ID database.
Ruling that seeding of Aadhaar would not be required for opening bank accounts, availing mobile services, by CBSE, NEET, JEE, UGC and for admissions in schools and free education for children, the court observed that Aadhaar had also become a household name and that its use has spread like “wildfire”.
“Aadhaar gives dignity to the marginalised. Dignity to the marginalised outweighs privacy,” said Justice Sikri, who was in the majority, while reading out the operative part of the 1,448-page judgement in the packed courtroom of the CJI. “One can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
It struck down as unconstitutional the portion of Section 57 of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 that permitted private entities like telecom companies or other corporates to avail of the biometric Aadhaar data.
Justice D Y Chandrachud gave a dissenting judgement in which he ruled the Aadhaar Act should not have been passed as Money Bill as it amounts to a fraud on the Constitution and is liable to be struck down. But the majority verdict by justices A K Sikri, Ashok Bhushan and A M Khanwilkar besides the CJI upheld the passage of the Aadhaar Bill as a Money Bill by the Lok Sabha.
Observing that Aadhaar was meant to help the benefits reach the marginalised sections of society, it said the scheme takes into account the dignity of people not only from personal but from the community point of view as well and served the much bigger public interest.
The court also upheld the passage of the Aadhaar Act as a Money Bill saying the funds for subsidies and welfare schemes are drawn from the Consolidated fund of India. The Congress had alleging that the Rajya Sabha was bypassed as the ruling combine lacked majority in the upper house.
Justice A K Sikri, writing the judgement for the CJI, himself and Justice A M Khanwilkar, set aside several provisions of the Aadhaar Act and other laws including the Prevention of Money laundering Act that had made the twelve-digit national identifier mandatory.
Justice Sikri, in his 567 page verdict, apprehensions by striking and reading down certain provisions and said “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,” the bench said, adding meta data relating to transaction, as provided in one of the regulations, in the present form was “impermissible” and needed amendment.
The verdict also struck down sections 33(1) which allowed the UIDAI to release information saying it cannot be done without an opportunity of hearing.
The top court also set aside the Section 33(2) of the Act in the present form which allowed release of information of an Aadhaar holder due to the security reasons saying it can be done by involving an officer above the rank of Joint secretary and a sitting judge of the High Court can also be involved.
The bench asked the Centre to also bring about a “robust data protection regime” to ensure that the personal data of an individual are protected.
The submission that Aadhaar violated Right to privacy did not cut much ice as the bench said, “It is held that all matters pertaining to an individual do not qualify as being an inherent part of right to privacy. Only those matters over which there would be a reasonable expectation of privacy are protected by Article 21.”
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley hailed the verdict as historic while Information Technology and Law and Justice minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said it “empowered democracy”.
Former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said the judgement was “balanced”.
Welcoming the verdict, Congress leader Kapil Sibal told reporters his party supports the views of Justice Chandrachud.
Sibal said the Congress will certainly move court if amendments in the Aadhaar Act brought after this verdict are not brought in Rajya Sabha for discussion.
The verdict was pronounced on a bunch of 31 petitions, including one by former High Court judge K S Puttaswamy after concluding on May 10 a marathon hearing that went on for 38 days, spanning four-and-half months.
Both Congress, BJP Claim Victory
Both the BJP and the Congress sought to claim victory over the Supreme Court’s verdict on Aadhaar with the ruling party’s chief Amit Shah mocking Rahul Gandhi’s contention that it supported his party’s vision, saying the “Congress won today, just like they won Lok Sabha polls in 2014”.
Immediately after the pronouncement of the verdict, both the parties used it to claim that it was a vindication of their respective positions on the contentious issue which triggered nationwide debate on privacy concerns. While the BJP called the judgement a big victory for the “pro-poor” Modi government, the Congress asserted that the court striking down several provisions of the biometric system is a “slap” on the NDA government.
Thanking the apex court for the verdict, Gandhi said it was an instrument of empowerment for his party, but a “tool of oppression and surveillance” for the BJP.
In his reaction, Shah mocked Gandhi, saying, “Yes, the Congress won today, just like they won Lok Sabha Polls in 2014”.
Shah accused the Congress of trying every trick to fight and defeat Aadhaar as it is the “fountainhead of middlemen and corruption”.
The Congress said by scrapping the “draconian” Section 57 and the national security exception in the Aadhaar Act, the Supreme Court firmly put an end to a “mass surveillance exercise” being carried out under the guise of Aadhaar by the central government and the “grotesque distortion” of an idea conceived by the previous UPA dispensation.
Expressing satisfaction over exclusion of private companies from Aadhaar project, Sibal said the idea to involve private companies was not just “undemocratic” but was against the spirit of democracy, and now the court decision will prevent information from going into private hands.
Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Sambit Patra also hit back at the Congress, saying the order has in fact exposed the opposition party.
The Congress favoured middlemen while the Modi government brought Aadhaar to ensure that benefits are given directly to people, he said.
“We see it as a big victory of the Modi government, the pro-poor Modi government. The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of Aadhaar and has also said that it does not violate privacy,” Patra said.
(With PTI inputs)