The Supreme Court on Tuesday referred to a larger Constitution bench another fresh plea challenging the Aadhaar Act and the mandatory use of the unique identification number in at least 17 government schemes, including mid-day meal and disability pension. “We think it is appropriate for the larger bench to pass orders …,” a bench led by justice AK Sikri said. However, it may be noted that the apex court is yet to constitute a larger constitution bench to decide if Aadhaar is violative of a citizen’s fundamental right to privacy.
The bench had last week reserved its judgments on the three petitions that challenged the government’s decision to make Aadhaar mandatory for filing income-tax returns (ITRs) as well as for obtaining and retaining the permanent account number (PAN).
Child rights activist and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Shanta Sinha in their petition have alleged that that some of the schemes for which Aadhaar is mandatory fall outside the purview of the Aadhaar law.
The duo contended that the Act violated their fundamental right to self-determination among others. “There are certain things the government simply cannot do because it fundamentally alters the relationship between the citizen and the state. The wholesale collection of biometric data including finger prints and storing it at a central depository per se puts the state in an extremely dominant position in relation to the individual citizen,” the petition read.
“The accuracy of biometrics is highly doubtful and that will exclude certain beneficiaries,” they said, while alleging various civil rights violations and the potential use of the unique identification number for mass surveillance. “Further the State cannot put itself in a position where it can track an individual and engage in surveillance…the notion of limited government would mean that every individual citizen and citizenry collectively are entitled to live work and enjoy their varied lives without being under the continuous gaze of the State,” focusing on the right to self-determination and an individual’s right to privacy.
They said that the government has resorted to coercive measures in an attempt to compel the citizens to enroll for Aadhaar and the impugned Act also coerces an individual to part with their personal information. “No democratic country in the world has devised a system similar to Aadhaar which operates like an electronic leash to tether every citizen from cradle to grave. There can be no question of free consent in situations where an individual is coerced to part with its biometric information (a) to be eligible for welfare schemes and or (b) under the threat of penal consequences.”
The petition stated that the Centre, by issuing notification through its various ministries and making enrollment for Aadhaar compulsory, has flouted various interim orders passed by a three-judge bench and concurred upon by a constitution bench which asserts that Aadhaar is voluntary. While Aadhaar has been embroiled in legal tussles since 2012, this is the first time the contents of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 are being challenged.
Another Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice JS Khehar had on March 27 made it clear that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory by the government for extending benefits of social welfare schemes, but can be enforced for “non-benefit” purposes like filing of IT returns and opening of accounts.