Almost since its inception, the fate of Aadhaar — which the Supreme Court on Wednesday referred to a larger bench while declining to stay an August 11 interim order that restricted its use to only the LPG scheme and the PDS — has been uncertain. Even as the executive has enrolled millions of people in the biometric identification programme, Aadhaar has been vulnerable to legal challenges, especially on the ground of individual privacy. Despite what seems to be a multiparty consensus on the transformative potential of the unique identification project, which originated as a UPA scheme but has been subsequently adopted by the NDA, both governments have failed to insulate Aadhaar from such disputes. They have left it to fend for itself without a statutory framework.
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The Modi government clearly views Aadhaar as an essential tool in its ambitious Digital India initiative, and in its plan to overhaul the existing architecture of social welfare schemes. Aadhaar’s promise lies in its capacity to enable the state to effectively target entitlement programmes to the intended beneficiary by allowing those who most need benefits to access them without requiring various stamps of officialdom as proof of identity. By linking a number to unique biometric details, Aadhaar can help eliminate duplication and impersonation in muster rolls and beneficiary lists, plugging the leaks that currently characterise most social welfare initiatives. Yet, the government is endangering its own agenda with its apparent disinterest in giving the programme a clearer definition in law, which might also address some of the questions that hang over it, particularly on privacy.
It is not as if concerns that the wealth of personal information collected by the Aadhaar database could be misused are unwarranted. Not only does the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which administers Aadhaar, operate independent of parliamentary oversight, government initiatives like the Orwellian-sounding Central Monitoring System fan suspicion that the state will use composite Aadhaar data to surveil and profile individuals and groups. The CBI’s attempt in March last year to force the UIDAI to share its fingerprint data with investigators for a rape case was stayed by the Supreme Court, and will have lent weight to the arguments of privacy rights advocates.
Such incidents underscore the fact that unless the UIDAI is supported by legislation, the courts will continue to be the final arbiters of its mandate. By making it a priority to codify both a right to privacy that explicitly outlines a framework for the operation of data collection agencies and the UIDAI itself, the Modi government can remove the uncertainty that plagues Aadhaar and enable it to realise its full potential.