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Aadhaar court order holds up new Indian social programs


In the wake of India’s Supreme Court decision on Aadhaar, many social programs that relied upon the biometric database for citizen authentication are in jeopardy.

As BiometricUpdate.com reported earlier this month, the court placed a cease order on the national Indian government concerning its use of Aadhaar data. Under the new court order, the use of Aadhaar is restricted to the distribution of liquid propane gas, kerosene and food grains. India’s Supreme Court also ordered that any additional data collected under the auspices of the Aadhaar program not be used for any other purpose, except for criminal investigations, when specifically directed by the court.

The court order, in effect, suspended the multi-fold expansion of the citizen biometric registration scheme proposed by Prime Minister Modi’s government, until the Supreme Court determines the constitutionality of the system. The ruling therefore stops the Indian government’s push to make the biometric registration scheme ubiquitous across myriad government programs.

In a letter to all state governments last autumn, India’s Home Ministry declared that Aadhaar would facilitate “anytime, anywhere, anyhow” authentication to beneficiaries. To make this goal possible, the government had proposed a “Digital India” project, which would be tasked with providing citizens with a “cradle-to-grave” digital identity.

The Indian government had also began to pilot the mandatory biometric attendance for government officials and even proposed using Aadhaar for prisoner identification. The new government was also reportedly exploring the use of Aadhaar to assist in the issuance of passports, mobile SIM smartphone cards, and pension payments.

Modi’s government also proposed the use of Aadhaar to issue bank accounts to all Indian households. According to government sources, as reported in the Indian press, the prime minister wanted Aadhaar registration to be completed as soon as possible, so that its can be expanded to help deliver even more welfare initiatives and programs, including Modi’s “Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana” scheme. The new program, which means “Prime Minister Scheme for People’s Wealth” aimed to provide a bank account for each household in India. The financial services ministry had described the scheme as an important step towards converting India into a cashless and digital economy. Modi had designated the program a “national priority” with a goal of providing financial services at affordable cost to the most disadvantaged and low-income segments of Indian society.

The prime minister also had an ambitious plan to use the Aadhaar database as a means of identification for healthcare insurance beneficiaries in order to deploy its newly proposed universal healthcare program. As part of the new national government’s manifesto, Modi had promised radical reforms in healthcare with the introduction of the “National Health Assurance Mission” (NHAM) scheme. The new program’s goal would be to provide accessible and affordable healthcare to every Indian citizen.

With the limitation on Aadhaar usage imposed by the court to a small number of social programs however, the biometric program will be extremely limited in scope until the “right to privacy” reference question is determined by India’s Supreme Court.

In the current court action, petitioners have asked the court to protect citizen’s constitutional rights to privacy, while the government is seeking to declare that such a right does not formally exist. If the court ultimately determines that the right does not exist, then the national government will be able to continue to proceed with using Aadhaar for additional welfare and security applications. If the court determines that the right to privacy does exist, then government will have to seek alternative means to implement it new proposed social security and national security programs.

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