In a long awaited judgment, the Supreme Court in 4-1 verdict on Wednesday, September 26, declared the Centre’s Aadhaar scheme, that uses biometric data to generate 12-digit unique identification numbers for citizens, as constitutionally valid even as it struck down some the provisions that made it mandatory to link it with bank accounts and mobile phones.
A five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra held that while Aadhaar would remain mandatory for filing of income tax returns (ITR) and allotment of Permanent Account Number (PAN), it would not be mandatory to link Aadhaar to bank accounts and telecom service providers cannot seek its linking of Aadhaar for mobile connections.
The top court also held that Aadhaar would not be mandatory for school admissions. It would also not be mandatory examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Examination (CBSE), National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical entrance and the University Grants Commission (UGC), the court ruled.
The top court also struck down the national security exception under the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016. It said Aadhaar is meant to help the benefits reach the marginalised sections of society and takes into account the dignity of people not only from personal but also community point of view.
The top court said Aadhaar is serving a much bigger public interest. Aadhaar means unique and it is better to be unique than being best.
Three sets of judgments were pronounced in the matter. The first of the three verdicts was pronounced by Justice AK Sikri who wrote the judgment for himself, CJI and Justice AM Khanwilkar.
Justice Chandrachud and Justice Ashok Bhushan, who are part of the bench have written their own judgments. Justice DY Chandrachud dissented, and Justice Ashok Bhushan concurred with the majority judgment.
Delivering the majority opinion of the five-judge Constitution bench, Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice Arjan Kumar Sikri and Justice AM Khanwilkar said there was a “sufficient defence mechanism” for authentication in the scheme.
The judges said there was nothing in the Aadhaar Act that violates a person’s right to privacy. It also upheld the passing of the Aadhaar Bill as a Money Bill by the Lok Sabha.
Justice Sikri, reading out the majority verdict, struck down Section 57 of the Aadhaar Act which permits private entities to avail Aadhaar data and ruled that Aadhaar authentication data cannot be stored for more than six months. It directed the government not to give Aadhaar to illegal immigrants.
He said the attack on Aadhaar by petitioners was based on violation of rights under the Constitution, which they felt will lead to a surveillance State.
Observing that there has been minimal demographic and biometric data collected by UIDAI for Aadhaar enrolment, Justice Sikri said unique identification proof also empowered and gave identity to marginalised sections of society.
There is no possibility of obtaining a duplicate Aadhaar card, he said, adding there is sufficient defence mechanism for authentication in Aadhaar scheme.
The concept of human dignity has been enlarged in the judgement, he said.
Aadhaar means unique, and it’s better to be unique than being the best, the court said. It struck down the national security exception in the Aadhaar Act, the scheme’s enabling law, as well as Section 57 of the Act, which permits private entities to avail Aadhaar data.
The court said it wasn’t mandatory to link Aadhaar to bank accounts or mobile numbers, but that that the identification was compulsory for the filing of I-T returns and for the allotment of Permanent Account Numbers (PAN).
It said no child can be denied benefits of any schemes if he or she can’t produce an Aadhaar number. The CBSE, the NEET, and the UGC can’t make Aadhaar mandatory, and the scheme isn’t compulsory for school admissions, the court said.
The court also directed the government not to give illegal immigrants Aadhaar.
The Constitution bench had reserved its verdict on May 10. It heard petitions challenging Aadhaar’s constitutional validity on grounds that it violated the fundamental right to privacy. Last year, a nine-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court held that privacy was a fundamental right.
Today’s verdict concludes a 38-day hearing held over four-and-half months, the second-longest oral hearing in history, and concerns a programme that already covers more than 122 crore Indians. A number of services, such as government welfare schemes, require Aadhaar authentification.
Key points in the dissenting judgment of Justice DY Chandrachud:
The passing of Aadhaar Bill as a money bill was a subterfuge. Superseding Rajya Sabha to pass the Aadhaar Bill is a fraud to the Constitution.
Justice Chandrachud said Article 110 has specific grounds for Money Bill and Aadhaar law went beyond these grounds. It may have been politically expedient for the ruling party in power to bring Aadhaar Act as Money Bill. But it amounted to debasement of constitutional authorities, he observes.
Justice Chandrachud said individuals cannot be asked to wait upon the vicissitudes of algorithms. He said authentication data can only be retained for six months.
He warned leakage from central database will pave way for surveillance. UIDAI has no accountability/responsibility for storage or leakage of data, he said.
Certain provisions lead to invasion of biological attributes. Differing with the majority judgment on Aadhaar giving dignity of marginalised, he said, “One right cannot take away another. Dignity to the marginalised cannot do away with right of a person to bodily autonomy.”
Constitutional guarantees cannot be left to risks posed by technological advancements
Absence of independent regulatory framework compromises data protection therefore Aadhaar does not pass the constitutionality test under Article 14
“Aadhaar negates pluralistic identities and reduces a person to just 12 digits,” he says.
Justice Chandrachud also raps Central government for insisting on Aadhaar for several schemes despite the Supreme Court repeatedly saying it is not mandatory in various rulings.
With this, Justice Chandrachud strikes down the validity of Aadhaar.
Justice Ashok Bhushan in his judgment he concurred with the majority judgment, except on three aspects.
In the name of Aadhaar, rightful beneficiaries should not be denied services, subsidies, or benefits, Justice Bhushan said.
He said the Lok Sabha Speaker’s decision to pass a Bill as Money Bill is amenable to judicial review.
Justice Bhushan said no material was placed before the Supreme Court to indicate that there has been considerable denial of benefits of subsidies to deserving persons.
He also said that biometric data contains certain personal information of citizens and the breach, if any, has to be ascertained.
Highlights of the verdict:
- Aadhaar mandatory for filing of IT returns and allotment of Permanent Account Number, says SC
- SC says not mandatory to link Aadhaar to bank accounts
- Aadhaar not needed for mobile connections. Telecom service providers can’t seek linking of Aadhaar, says SC
- SC says nothing in Aadhaar Act that violates right to privacy of individual
- SC upholds passing of Aadhaar Bill as Money Bill by Lok Sabha
- SC says no child can be denied benefits of any schemes on not being able to bring their Aadhaar number
- SC directs government not to give Aadhaar to illegal immigrants
- CBSE, NEET, UGC cannot make Aadhaar mandatory, also not compulsory for school admissions: SC
- Aadhaar authentication data cannot be stored for more than six months: SC
- SC Constitution Bench strikes down the National security exception under the Aadhaar Act
- Section 57 of Aadhaar Act permitting private entities to avail Aadhaar data struck down
- Robust data protection regime has to be brought in place as early as possible, says Justice Sikri in majority verdict
- There is sufficient defence mechanism for authentication in Aadhaar scheme: Justice Sikri
- The concept of human dignity has been enlarged in the judgement, says Justice Sikri
- SC declares Aadhaar scheme as Constitutionally valid
- There is no possibility of obtaining a duplicate Aadhaar card: Justice Sikri
- It is better to be unique than being best; Aadhaar means Unique: SC
- SC says there has been minimal demographic and biometric data collected by UIDAI for Aadhaar enrolment
- Unique identification proof also empowers and gives identity to marginalised sections of society, says SC