Defending the Aadhaar scheme, Attorney General K K Venugopal told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that the data was safe in the Central Identities Data Repository, which was fortified by 10-metre-high and 4-metre-wide walls. He said Aadhaar was “not a fly-by-night effort to get some brownie points”, but a serious effort to end corruption.
Asking the Centre to address concerns that Aadhaar had led to financial exclusion, Justice A K Sikri, who was part of a five-judge Constitution Bench hearing a batch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Act, said: “But the other aspect is this empowering scheme is leading to financial exclusion. You have to address that”.
Justice Sikri also drew the AG’s attention to allegations of Aadhaar being used as a tool for mass surveillance. “If Aadhaar is only intended for identification, why aggregate and centralise data and store it,” he asked.
Saying that “aggregation of data is not possible in Aadhaar”, Venugopal requested the court’s permission to allow the UIDAI CEO to make a powerpoint presentation to explain the security features and answer the court’s doubts. The bench said it would take a decision on the request.
“It will be good if the government comes upfront and tells us that there is financial exclusion… This is not to castigate anyone, but just to find out what is the mechanism to be put in place to prevent it,” said Justice D Y Chandrachud.
Stating that the scheme was aimed at empowering the poor, Venugopal said there was a need to balance the right of 300 million poor people to live with dignity and without starvation as against the privacy rights of others.
But Justice Chandrachud said this argument would go against the spirit of the Supreme Court’s privacy judgment. Referring to the West Bengal famine in the 1940s, he said “the high number of deaths was due to lack of information”. Stating that “there was no antithesis between political guarantees and economic guarantee,” he said, “it is not that privacy is for one section of population and economic right for another”.
Justice Ashok Bhushan too said it could not be argued that the privacy rights of one section could be breached to protect the rights of another.
Venugopal clarified that he was not saying that privacy rights should not be protected, but there was a need to strike a balance. Referring to the West Bengal famine, he said: “From what I have read, the large number of deaths occurred due to the war efforts.”
Justice Sikri then referred to Employees Pension Scheme and asked, “pension earned by employees after retiring, how can that be related to Aadhaar?” He sought to know if such people could be denied pension just because they were unable to prove their identity in the format asked by the government.
“Let’s say a pensioner who is of 89 years of age, who may have Alzheimer’s, dementia… You have to ensure that such people are not deprived of their entitlements. Their cases cannot be treated as aberrations,” said Justice Chandrachud.
But the AG repeated his contention that nobody who had suffered financial exclusion had approached the court yet. The court said this argument was not convincing as many of those denied may be the poor, who do not know how to seek redressal.
Justice Chandrachud said the “action of the Cabinet Secretariat was an indicator that the government was concerned about it”. He was apparently referring to the Union Cabinet’s note in December, on handling situations of authentication failure for extending benefits to beneficiaries.
“It’s an ongoing process. As it is, we have clamped down on corruption and avoided diversion of funds… we will know the benefits in 2-3 years. If there are other requirements, we will do it from time to time. If there is any glitch, we will address that. There will be amendments from time to time,” said Venugopal.
He also drew the court’s attention to directions issued by UIDAI, the nodal agency implementing Aadhaar, to deal with situations of authentication failure.