A reference to North Korea in the context of Aadhaar drew a sharp response from the Supreme Court on Wednesday with a five-judge Constitution bench reminding the petitioner advocate that the programme’s role as a facilitator for targeted delivery of financial services had won acclaim from international agencies like World Bank and reputed journals. The court, however, added that it would examine possibility of future misuse of the programme.
“This programme is not just the envy of North Korea, but also the World Bank,” Justice D Y Chandrachud, who was part of the bench, said when senior advocate Shyam Divan submitted that the architecture of the Aadhaar programme enabled surveillance which was the feature of a totalitarian state and that countries like North Korea would envy it.
When Divan replied that the opinion of one international agency should not be used to justify the programme, Justice Chandrachud said several international journals praised its use as a tool to ensure that social welfare benefits reached the deserving.
“This is the positive aspect of Aadhaar that for the first time, you have a citizen-centric delivery of services…This is exactly the part of Aadhaar that has been appreciated by economists,” he said.
Divan submitted that he will refer to instances where local journalists had uncovered starvation deaths which happened on account of the programme.
As the counsel persisted with his argument that collection of biometric info of residents and its aggregation would facilitate mass real-time surveillance by the state, Justice Chandrachud remarked, “Let’s not get carried away…Apart from hearing surveillance surveillance,one must come to the brass tacks of the matter. I don’t think we have come to that”.
The judge pointed out that this was not to mean there were no concerns about the programme. “There are issues that the other side has to answer, but this is not one of it,” Justice Chandrachud said. He added that the point raised by the petitioners regarding Section 57 of the Aadhaar Act which enables even private parties to seek Aadhaar information was a cause for concern and needed to be looked into. “Section 57 is that you are allowing the Aadhaar platform for private parties. That’s a separate issue,” he said
Divan pointed out that biometric details of subscribers were not being stored only in the central registry, but also at the level of the states and referred to the case of Haryana and Odisha.
But the bench headed by CJI Dipak Misra pointed out that the states also seemed to be using it to create database of beneficiaries of social welfare outreach.
The counsel, however, said even countries in Europe were not promoting such programmes.
To this, Justice Chandrachud said the level of involvement of the government here in social welfare was much higher compared to that in Europe. “The NHS may be an exception, but there is nothing like an MNREGA there”, he pointed out.
He added: “If the data is used for profiling people private affairs, that can’t be allowed….”