Aadhaar: India top court upholds world’s largest biometric scheme

An Indian woman poses with new 2000 rupee notes, her Aadhaar ID card and a finger inked with indelible ink after exchanging withdrawn 500 and 1000 rupee banknotes at a bank in Chennai on November 17, 2016 Aadhaar: India top court upholds world's largest biometric scheme Aadhaar: India top court upholds world's largest biometric scheme 8a75f7144cImage copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Indians will need the identity number to receive benefits from more than 500 welfare schemes

India’s Supreme Court has ruled that the country’s controversial biometric identity scheme is constitutional and does not violate the right to privacy.

However the court limited the scope of the Aadhaar scheme, saying it could not be compulsory for bank accounts, mobile connections or school admissions.

The world’s largest biometric ID database covers welfare and tax payments and access to social services.

More than a billion Indians have already been enrolled.

Many don’t have other forms of identification – only 65 million own a passport and 200 million have a driving licence.

Those who enrolled in Aadhaar received a unique 12-digit identification number after submitting their fingerprints and retina scans. About 30 petitioners went to court to argue that the scheme infringed Indians’ privacy.

What did the judges say?

“Aadhaar gives dignity to the marginalised. Dignity to the marginalised outweighs privacy,” said the five-judge bench, comprising all the sitting judges in the Supreme Court.

“One can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Therefore, they said that people would still need their Aadhaar numbers to access government welfare schemes and to pay taxes.

However, the court said that private entities including mobile phone operators and banks would no longer have the authority to demand customers’ Aadhaar numbers and instructed the government to “bring out a robust data protection law urgently”.

Aadhaar: India top court upholds world's largest biometric scheme Aadhaar: India top court upholds world's largest biometric scheme 5c7f9abebe
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Media captionAn Indian woman getting her fingerprints read during the registration process for Aadhaar cards

It also said that schools could not insist on children’s Aadhaar numbers to enrol students, further adding that no child could be denied state welfare benefits for the want of an Aadhaar number.

The judgement was not unanimous.

Two judges of the five-judge bench said that they disagreed with several aspects of the judgement, including the manner in which its legality had been determined in parliament.


Cautious optimism on every side

Nitin Srivastava, BBC News Delhi

Anticipating a landmark ruling, large media crews and activists had been stationed inside the sprawling lawns of the Supreme Court since nine in the morning.

Opinions about Aadhaar have always been divided, but when the judgement finally came, everyone was suddenly cautiously happy.

“I wanted privacy while buying a mobile phone connection and am delighted the court has ruled in my favour,” Tehseen Poonawala, one of the activists who has challenged Aadhaar, said.

On the other side of the divide, one supporter of the scheme told me that he was glad that Aadhaar had been declared constitutional because “the rich and poor are both benefitting from it”.


What has the reaction been?

Largely mixed.

India’s finance minister Arun Jaitley has welcomed the verdict, calling it “historic”.

Some activists said they were disappointed with the “safe” stand taken by the Supreme Court, although they welcomed the dissenting opinion by Judge D Chandrachud.

Skip Twitter post by @MishiChoudhary

The Indian SC missed the opportunity and took the safe path of curtailing the scope of #aadhaar to some extent and chickened in protecting citizens. The dissent is a saving grace #privacy

— Mishi Choudhary (@MishiChoudhary) September 26, 2018

End of Twitter post by @MishiChoudhary

Skip Twitter post by @pranesh

Justice Chandrachud’s opinion is turning out (surprisingly, for me) to be a historic dissent. He rules that the Aadhaar project, as a whole (not just the Act), is unconstitutional. https://t.co/PavVCYYeDb

— Pranesh Prakash (@pranesh) September 26, 2018

End of Twitter post by @pranesh

Skip Twitter post by @tjoseph0010

A surveillance system of the kind no real democracy has, designed and peddled by fintech profit-seekers and imposed through a fraud on the Constitution by an authoritarian government, has just been curtailed. But it has enough life left to become the Monster it was meant to be.

— Tony Joseph (@tjoseph0010) September 26, 2018

End of Twitter post by @tjoseph0010

The Congress party, which introduced the scheme before it lost power to the current BJP government, welcomed the court decision to prevent private companies from accessing peoples’ Aadhaar numbers.

Skip Twitter post by @INCIndia

We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Section 57 of the Aadhaar Act. Private entities are no longer allowed to use Aadhaar for verification purposes. #AadhaarVerdict

— Congress (@INCIndia) September 26, 2018

End of Twitter post by @INCIndia

In fact, that was the most relevant part of the judgement for most Indians – many of whom had expressed unwillingness to link their mobile phone connections to the scheme.

Skip Twitter post by @kevgada

#AadhaarVerdict will it be applicable today itself as I don’t think bank or mobile operators will allow customer without aadhar card

— केव (@kevgada) September 26, 2018

End of Twitter post by @kevgada

Skip Twitter post by @RachanaCreation

Wonderful! Now enlighten me more, the places which have already taken Aadhar number which have been now of course prohibited, are they going to delete that secured data or continue to keep those details!? Need more vigilance #AadhaarVerdict

— RACHANA SHAKYAWAR (@RachanaCreation) September 26, 2018

End of Twitter post by @RachanaCreation

Others said that the judgement appeared to be “measured” and “well-balanced”.

Skip Twitter post by @BDUTT

At first glance #SupremeCourt has delivered a progressive & balanced #AadhaarVerdict – mandatory for PAN & welfare schemes- not for school admissions, private companies, mobile phones bank accounts. https://t.co/OpPVfvWGpd

— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) September 26, 2018

End of Twitter post by @BDUTT

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