The government’s plan to use Aadhaar for more than just disbursing subsidies got a push when, while refusing to urgently hear a plea against Aadhaar, SC said nothing prohibited the government using Aadhaar for non-welfare schemes like PAN cards, opening of bank accounts, filing of income tax returns, etc. When finance minister Arun Jaitley announced the mandatory seeding of PAN numbers with Aadhaar — to check the widespread fraud in PAN cards — as part of the Finance Bill, many protested against this, arguing it was not permissible. Senior advocate Shyam Divan brought up the matter before a bench headed by Chief Justice JS Khehar and justices DY Chandrachud and Sanjay Kishan Kaul on Monday.
While saying it would take time to constitute a seven-judge bench to hear the arguments against Aadhaar, the SC reiterated its position on using the biometric identity scheme for subsidies — no individual can be denied benefits if s/he doesn’t have an Aadhaar. Linking PAN numbers and Aadhaar, however, are not welfare schemes.
Since the SC had, in 2015, already allowed the voluntary use of Aadhaar in welfare schemes that include MGNREGS, PM Jan Dhan Yojana, LPG and PDS — a third of payments under the direct benefit transfer (DBT) schemes are already disbursed using the Aadhaar payment bridge — this means that while all DBT schemes and other welfare-fund disbursements cannot be strictly Aadhaar-linked, the government can still reinforce use of Aadhaar for release of assorted doles, using the voluntary-use tag.
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Also, considerable progress has been made in terms of making Aadhaar available to citizens from the time the SC gave its last ruling on the issue in October 2015. Indeed, after the SC ruling, Parliament has passed the Aadhaar Act in March 2016, and this gives Aadhaar a firm legal footing. With the majority of citizens covered by Aadhaar today, it is difficult to argue making Aadhaar mandatory will prevent a large number of people from getting social welfare benefits.
The SC also said, on Monday, that a seven-judge bench needed to be constituted for authoritatively deciding a batch of petitions challenging the Aadhaar scheme on grounds including that it infringes on the right to privacy of citizens. It, however, expressed inability in setting up of the seven-judge bench, saying it would be decided at a later stage.
The Aadhaar payment platform is currently being used for MGNREGS payments as well as for national social assistance programmes (NSAPs) like widow/old age disability pensions, sundry scholarship schemes, housing subsidies and so forth. A majority of LPG users are currently getting the subsidy on the fuel in their Aadhaar-seeded bank accounts. Also, use of Aadhaar is on the rise for PDS food supplies, thanks to the points of sale machines installed in over a third of fair price shops in the country.
On October 15, 2015, a five-judge bench had permitted the voluntary use of Aadhaar cards in welfare schemes that also included MGNREGS, all pension schemes and the provident fund besides the NDA government’s flagship schemes like PMJDY. The bench headed by the then Chief Justice HL Dattu had also put a caveat in its interim order for the Centre and said, “We also make it clear that Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary and not mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this court, this way or the other way.”
(with PTI inputs)