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.
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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”.
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?
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.
— Mishi Choudhary (@MishiChoudhary) September 26, 2018
End of Twitter post by @MishiChoudhary
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
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.
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.
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
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Others said that the judgement appeared to be “measured” and “well-balanced”.
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