A five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, is currently seized of a batch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Act and government notifications to link it to various schemes.
On December 15, the apex court had ordered that the deadline for linking Aadhaar to mobile phone numbers be extended till March 31, 2018. This became necessary as the apex court had — in an earlier order on February 6, 2017, while hearing a PIL — directed that an e-KYC scheme launched by the government to verify phone numbers using Aadhaar be completed in one year. Accordingly, the deadline could be revised only by a new order.
During the hearing, the Centre conveyed to the court that it had extended the deadline for linking Aadhaar to “all schemes” (except phone numbers) till March 31. The court “accepted” the submission. The March 31 deadline is for new bank accounts as well, subject to the condition that those opening an account furnish proof that they have applied for an Aadhaar card.
The court also said the revised date would apply to both central and state schemes.
The question of seeding PAN cards with Aadhaar was settled by the court in June 2017, while dealing with a petition by former Kerala minister Binoy Viswam. A two-judge bench had upheld the move and directed that those who already have Aadhaar must link it with their PAN cards.
For those without Aadhaar, the bench had clarified that their PAN cards should not be treated as invalid till a larger bench decided whether the Aadhaar scheme was violative of Article 21 of the Constitution.
Retired Karnataka High Court judge Justice K Puttaswamy was the first to approach the apex court, challenging the Act. Subsequently, some activists and NGOs also moved court. Their petitions were tagged together and referred to the Constitution bench.
The petitioners have contended that the unique identity violates right to privacy of citizens — upheld as a fundamental right by a nine-judge Constitution bench of the court in August last year. They have also argued that its architecture would pave the way for a surveillance state, as the movement and activities of users can be tracked by collecting metadata.
They also pointed out that Section 57 of the Act enables private parties to seek Aadhaar from users, which has inherent dangers. Petitioners also said that as the unique identity collects and stores the biometrics of a user — such as fingerprints and iris scan, which need to be authenticated from time to time — it can lead to denying people their due if the biometrics fail to match.
The government has so far focused on the argument that Aadhaar was an empowering tool for the less privileged, and a way to ensure that benefits and subsidies given by the state go to those who rightfully deserve them.
Upholding privacy as fundamental right, the apex court had raised vital questions on data privacy and asked the government to consider putting in place a data protection law. Subsequently, the government set up a committee, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice B N Srikrishna, to look into the issue and submit a report. The report is expected by March.