SC refuses to widen Aadhar card scope

The Narendra Modi government received a setback on Wednesday as the Supreme Court refused to modify its 11 August order restricting the use of the Aadhaar card to the distribution of foodgrains under the public distribution system (PDS), supply of kerosene, and LPG cylinders.

The three-judge bench said the government's plea to extend it to more subsidies, salary, pension disbursement and schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana must be dealt with by the Constitution Bench to which the matter has been referred.

Worse, no date has been specified when the larger bench would commence hearing.

Besides the centre, RBI and Sebi, other regulatory bodies like IRDA, Trai, Pension Fund Regulatory Authority and states like Gujarat and Jharkhand had recently moved the court and pitched strongly for voluntary use of Aadhar cards for providing benefits of various schemes, other than PDS and LPG.

The Supreme Court had, earlier, ordered restricted use of Aadhar, terming it as optional, and had barred the authorities from sharing personal biometric data collected for enrolment under the scheme.

In its interim order on 11 August, the apex court had said that Aadhar card will remain optional for availing welfare schemes of the government and the authorities will not use it for the purposes other than PDS and LPG distribution system.

The centre, RBI, Sebi, IRDA, Trai, Pension Fund Regulatory Authority and some states had since moved the court seeking orders supporting voluntary use of Aadhar cards for providing benefits of various other schemes, so as to enable doorstep delivery of benefits to the aged and the weaker sections.

A bench headed by Justice J Chelameswar, which had already referred the batch of pleas challenging the Aadhaar scheme on the question of right to privacy, made it clear that all applications seeking "modification, clarification and relaxation" of its 11 August interim order will be heard by a constitution bench.

"We are of the opinion that it is better that these applications for modification are also heard by a larger bench," the three-judge bench, which also comprised Justices S A Bobde and C Nagappan, said.

The bench had also raised doubts on entertaining interim pleas after transferring main petitions to a constitution bench to decide on issues like right to privacy.

Strongly defending the cards, the government said it was essential for good governance, transparent implementation of government programmes and to ensure that its benefits reach only the eligible persons.

Presenting the government's view Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi referred to the fact that as of 21 August, over 900 million of the 1.25 billion citizens have been issued Aadhar cards by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).

He also said that since the restriction is only on mandatory use of Aadhar cards there should not be any problem in allowing it to be used on voluntarily basis to establish the identity of persons and make available the benefits of other welfare schemes as well.

However, the petitioners against Aadhar had opposed its mandatory use even for PDS and LPG schemes, the court has to decide on the validity of Aadhar scheme itself.

The Attorney General had argued that lifting the bar on use of Aadhaar cards is a prerequisite for implementation of various welfare schemes of the government, including Prime Minister's Jan Dhan Yojna.

Rohatgi had said issue of privacy cannot be linked to Aadhaar as the government was making efforts for those who cannot reach the court.

He had also submitted that a bar on Aadhar use would render crores of rupees invested on the UIDAI scheme to connect six lakh villages with various welfare measures like MNREGA, pension scheme, Jan Dhan Yojana etc and 85,000 bank correspondents deployed to take the benefits to the doorsteps of the beneficiaries worthless.

He also argued that the use of Aadhar cards would have been of great use in stopping fake withdrawal of money arising out of welfare scheme and save pensioners of the drudgery of queuing up at the pension office every month and presenting himself/herself in November to establish they are alive.