Unique distinction: SC’s clarification on Aadhaar gives space for reforms
The SC’s clarification on the use of Aadhaar gives the government space for key reforms
The Supreme Court’s oral observations on Monday regarding the use of Aadhaar numbers by the government are significant, for they alter the narrative and potential scope of the ambitious unique identification programme. While reiterating its position that no beneficiary of a welfare scheme shall be denied benefits due to her for want of an Aadhaar number, a Bench led by Chief Justice J.S. Khehar said the government is free to “press” for Aadhaar for ‘non-welfare’ transactions or activities. These include filing income tax returns, opening bank accounts or getting a mobile phone connection. This assumes significance as the government announced two such changes over the past week itself. First, it included amendments to the Finance Bill of 2017, now approved by the Lok Sabha, making Aadhaar mandatory for all applications for PAN (Permanent Account Number) cards and filing of income tax returns. Earlier, following the surge in bank deposits after the demonetisation of high-value currency notes, the Income Tax Department had already asked banks to ensure that all savings bank accounts are seeded with PAN details by the end of February. The only exemptions to this norm are the no-frills savings accounts such as those opened under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana. Effectively, this means that all other new savings bank accounts will require an Aadhaar number. And last week the Department of Telecommunications directed all telecom service providers to re-verify the credentials of their nearly 100 crore subscribers through an Aadhaar-based, electronically authenticated Know Your Customer process within a year.
While the Supreme Court’s observations do not amount to a judicial order, they dispel some of the ambiguity relating to the scope, even future, of Aadhaar. In its interim order in October 2015 the court made it clear that the Aadhaar scheme cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided “one way or the other”. But it has set the stage for the 12-digit Unique Identification (UID) numbers being used as the basic identity proof for all residents. As Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has pointed out, biometrics captured under the Aadhaar enrolment process will ensure no individual can hold more than one PAN card to evade tax dues. Those concerned about privacy may be right about the need for an effective law to ensure that private data aren’t misused. But tagging this concern solely to the UID programme is short-sighted. In an age where data are stored in electronic form, it is possible to collate vast amounts of information from various databases ranging from applications for passports, driving licences, ration cards, and more. The apex court is yet to decide on whether Aadhaar violates the right to privacy. Meanwhile, savings from weeding out ghost beneficiaries have begun to pay off the investment on building the now 111-crore strong Aadhaar database. But the Centre must not stretch the leeway granted by the court.