Wednesday, Sep 25, 2013, 8:39 IST | Agency: DNA
The Supreme Court’s order against the government on Aadhaar cards stems from the haphazard manner in which the project was allowed to take off.
In a belated intervention, the Supreme Court has restrained the government from denying benefits and services to citizens for non-possession of Aadhaar cards. The SC bench, acting upon a public interest litigation (PIL), has also forbidden the enrolment of illegal immigrants. While the two strictures spell trouble for the government, the order is certain to put the Centre in a fix for other reasons too. For a while now, civil society has been complaining about the government’s deceitful conduct with regard to Aadhaar.
Even while maintaining that Aadhaar is not mandatory, state governments have preyed on the citizen’s fear of exclusion to get everyone into enrolling; even those ideologically opposed to sharing their private information. Already marriage registration, cooking gas subsidies, and employee provident funds are accessible in some states contingent on Aadhaar registration. The inference of more subsidies and schemes to be linked with Aadhaar is hardly lost on anyone even as the government exudes benevolence.
For over four years now, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) that issues Aadhaar cards has been functioning under executive orders. A half-baked draft legislation intending to grant statutory recognition was rejected by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance in December 2011. The committee also questioned the project’s implications to the exchequer, civil liberties, technological soundness and national security. In bypassing Parliament, the UPA government succeeded in launching its pet-project quickly. Questions about the project’s private vendors, misuse of personal information, and regulatory controls were thus never addressed.
With the two-judge bench listing the PIL before a larger Constitutional Bench, the government must be aware of the risks. To pre-empt drastic judicial measures against the UIDAI, the government must move quickly to get statutory backing. In the UIDAI’s present form and mandate, the government will be hard-pressed to rebut the petitioners’ claims that the personal and biometric data collection breaches the right to privacy. Or that storing this data engenders fears of data theft and racial profiling against minorities.
By mid-September, Aadhaar coverage has crawled to reach a third of the country despite wide publicity and huge budgetary allocation. But UP and Bihar, the largest and most backward states, have only enrolled a dismal 7 and 3 per cent of their respective populations. To compound the irony, despite Aadhaar’s primary purpose of ensuring that welfare schemes reach those below the poverty line, states with better development indices like Kerala and Delhi have notched up 80-90 per cent coverage.
The Supreme Court’s stricture on excluding illegal immigrants from Aadhaar is a wake-up call to the government and a direct outcome of dodging Parliamentary sanction. Aadhaar was visualised as an identification document for every resident. The lack of identification was identified as a cause of financial exclusion, and police brutality, for those who are landless, homeless, or work at sweatshops and in the informal economy as rickshaw-pullers and domestic maids. Good intentions aside, only legislation can align Aadhaar with the Constitution’s ideals. At a time when the gargantuan project has travelled too far to backtrack, the SC’s observations over “illegal migrants” and “citizens” is entirely a muddle of the government’s making. Between Parliament and the judiciary, it is Parliament that is better suited to take an informed decision on UIDAI.