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Indian high court extends voluntary use of Aadhaar to social programs


A constitutional panel, formed by India’s Supreme Court, extended voluntary use of Aadhaar to a myriad of social programs last week.

Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique identification number issued by the Indian government to every individual resident of India. The Aadhaar project was initiated by the previous Congress Party administrator as an attempt towards having a single, unique identification document or number that would capture all the details, including demographic and biometric information, of every resident Indian individual. Currently, Aadhaar is used to identify citizens and provides various services for approximately 630 million people.

The Court’s decision determined that it is not mandatory to possess the unique identification card in order to obtain benefits under social welfare schemes that include pensions, the National Rural Employment Guarantee, the Jan Dhan Yojana household bank account scheme and popular employee investment fund programs. As a result of the court’s decision, Aadhaar is now currently mandatory only for liquified petroleum gas rations.

The constitutional panel reviewed a cease order that suspended the national government’s multi-fold expansion of the Aadhaar citizen biometric registration scheme. The panel was struck after a three-judge panel of the court refused to modify a cease order restricting Aadhaar’s use. The decision came after the Indian high court reviewed a previous Aadhaar cease order it issued.

In August, the court placed a cease order on the central government concerning its use of Aadhaar data. Under the court order, the use of Aadhaar was restricted to the distribution of liquid propane gas, kerosene and food grains. The Supreme Court of India also ordered that any additional data collected under the auspices of the Aadhaar program could not be used for any other purpose, except for criminal investigations specifically approved by the court.

In its cease order, the court also stated that the government had to ensure it made it extremely clear to citizens that the use of the Aadhaar system is optional for accessing welfare programs, and that no personal data contained within the system would be shared with any other government departments.

Last week, however, the court announced that it would hear multiple applications, including an item seeking both clarification and modification of its August order which halted wide scale use of the scheme.

During the hearing, the government admitted to the court that Aadhaar cardholders have the option to opt out of the unique identification scheme if they wish by blocking data embedded on the cards. This admission by India’s Attorney General was the first time that the national government had disclosed that a mechanism exists under which a cardholder can choose to block biometric information linked to their Aadhaar card. Indian Express reported that such a blocking mechanism was introduced “some time back following clamour from rights activists that Aadhaar allegedly trampled upon the right to privacy and that once enrolled, a cardholder could not deregister.”

The government argued before the panel that Aadhaar was “purely voluntary” and that residents are not mandatorily obliged to obtain cards. India’s Attorney General noted that cardholders should not be deprived of social benefits because some people are opposed to the Aadhaar scheme. The court agreed.

Ironically, the Modi government, which came to power last year, was highly critical of the previous government’s administration of the biometric ID system during a contentious election campaign, when it characterized Aadhaar as a “failure” and a “waste of money” that needed to be eliminated.

However, after Modi came to power, his government vowed to use the scheme to expand social services to include a new universal healthcare scheme, along with enhanced monitoring of government employee attendance and truancy. The government also wants to expand the use of the Aadhaar biometric system for national security and crime-related surveillance.

The review reaffirms the court’s previous decision in 2013 that Aadhaar numbers are not mandatory for receiving government services. A larger panel of the bench however will examine the question of whether the right to privacy is a fundamental right, according to the August cease order. Civil libertarians in opposition to the Aadhaar scheme have long argued that the system is unconstitutional because it breaches a fundamental right to privacy. In response, the government recently argued before the Supreme Court that privacy is not a fundamental right bestowed by India’s constitution and asked the court to reconsider all its judgments over the past two decades that defined privacy as a constitutional right.

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