Important for SC to allow it to be used mandatorily
While it was always clear that Aadhaar-based authentication would eliminate a significant portion of leakages from government welfare schemes, the Supreme Court was probably justified in ensuring Aadhaar numbers were not made mandatory for getting government benefits since the coverage was not universal—the argument was that, if this was made mandatory, a large section of the population would be excluded from the benefits. While that problem is quickly getting fixed—India already has over 88 crore Aadhaar-enrolled citizens—Aadhaar is now hitting another roadblock. With it not being mandatory, its usage and effectiveness is being curtailed. The government has, for instance, details of all the poor people in rural India—as opposed to the past where there was no single list of people considered poor. With the SECC, India has such a list now. What requires to be done now is to link this list to the 88 crore Indians who have Aadhaar numbers. That is not a very difficult task, though it is laborious and time-consuming. It involves giving those collecting the SECC data a limited access to certain modules of the Aadhaar database—this allows them to match the characteristics of Aadhaar with their database. This is an exercise that should be possible to complete within a year, but the problem is that whenever an attempt is made to populate databases with Aadhaar numbers, the standard response is: Why do it since it is not mandatory?
Which is why, the Centre has done well to approach the Supreme Court to ask it to vacate its stay on making the use of Aadhaar mandatory in government welfare schemes that, in FY15, added up to more than R4 lakh crore. To make its case, the government needs to specify by when complete enrolment will be over, and by when seeding of the SECC-type will be done. Assuming this can be done within a year, it should ask the Supreme Court to make it mandatory a year from now. The reason for making it mandatory is obvious. If the government is spending R4 lakh crore each year for the poor and only half this is reaching the target audience—that’s roughly the proportion for food subsidies which are the largest share of the spending—there is an obvious public good that will be furthered by giving Aadhaar a more sound legal footing.