India’s Supreme Court upholds, tweaks controversial ID system

Accra, Sept. 26
-(DPA/GNA) – The Indian government’s identity system that links to an
individual’s biometric details is constitutionally valid, the country’s Supreme
Court ruled Wednesday, even as it limited the scheme’s scope largely to
distribution of social security benefits.

The system is based on
Aadhaar, a unique 12-digit number provided to each citizen that links to basic
personal details along with fingerprints and iris scans. First introduced in
2009, Aadhaar, or “foundation” in Hindi, was initially meant to be
used to claim social security benefits.

The government
gradually increased its scope, making it compulsory to link it with income tax
numbers, bank accounts and even mobile phone services.

The constitutionality
of aspects of the scheme and the law governing it had been challenged in the
Supreme Court. Questions included whether it infringed the right to privacy;
whether it could be made mandatory; whether the system could lead to a
surveillance state; and what redress was there if a person’s data was breached.

The court had clubbed
together over two dozen such petitions, and after hearing all sides of the
arguments, a five-judge bench handed down its decision on Wednesday.

Three judges including
the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra gave a majority judgment backing
Aadhaar, while a fourth judge gave a concurring verdict and a fifth a
dissenting one. The total judgement ran 1448 pages.

The majority decision
said that the scheme was valid under the constitution and that it can be used
for distribution of state welfare benefits.

On concerns that the
lack of an Aadhaar ID was leading to exclusion of some of India’s poorest
citizens, the court said the loopholes admitted by the government needed to be
closed but that the entire project need not be stopped.

The majority ruling
also said the dignity of the marginalised outweighed the right to privacy as it
served a larger purpose.

Aadhaar could not be
made compulsory for access to other services, including bank accounts,
telephone connections and school admissions, the ruling said. It could,
however, be linked to the income tax number of citizens.

The government
defended Aadhaar by noting its effectiveness in ensuring proper distribution of
benefits to millions. This, the government said, has prevented siphoning of
funds, which was common under older, paper-based systems.

Finance Minister Arun
Jaitley said Aadhaar’s link with government social security benefits was
already yielding savings of 9 billion rupees (about 124 million dollars)
annually.

More than 1 billion
Indians have already signed up for Aadhaar, and there has been huge concern
about whether Aadhaar – built on a mammoth biometric database – would lead to a
surveillance state or a data breach.

The Supreme Court
struck down a provision that allowed use of the data by private companies, for
example mobile operators and banks.

The court said any
authentication using the Aadhaar database could be stored only for six months
and urged the government to introduce a robust data protection law.

“The court
expressed some procedural concerns,” Jaitley said at a press briefing.
“Let us examine the judgement carefully.”

GNA

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