The Big Story: Limiting Aadhar
The impact of Supreme Court’s Thursday’s declaration that Indian citizens enjoy a right to privacy was felt in the corridors of power almost immediately. The Union government, which over the last two years maintained that privacy could not be a fundamental right, did a U-turn and embraced the verdict. Minister for Information and Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, made the extraordinary claim that the government had always wanted privacy to be a fundamental right, blithely ignoringthe arguments the Centre’s lawyers made against privacy. Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, for his part, claimed that the Supreme Court had actually endorsed the government’s view that privacy cannot be an absolute right.
These attempts at obfuscation aside, the government’s reaction is a positive development. It suggests that the Centre is finally waking up to the reality that privacy is a fundamental right. But at the same time, the Centre’s anxiety to salvage Aadhar, the 12-digit unique number issued to residents, was evident when Prasad later tweeted that it was the Narendra Modi government that had brought in a law to protect data gathered for the biometric project, an indication that the fight against state’s infiltration into individual lives is not yet over.
Over the last two years, the Centre has widely expanded the use of Aadhar to purposes for which it was never intended. In Haryana, babies must enroll in the project in order to obtain birth certificates. In July, Aadhar was made compulsory for obtaining death certificates. The unique identification number, presented as the antidote for inefficiency in governance delivery, has slowly become a tool for exclusion. In Uttar Pradesh, schools were asked to enroll students inthe project or lose key benefits. Subsidies for kerosene and building toilets hinge on Aadhar. In Rajasthan, pensioners were struck off the beneficiary list for not obtaining Aadhar numbers. In February, the Centre took the Finance Bill route in the Parliament to make Aadhar mandatory for income tax returns to be filed, raising the danger of the government turning into the Orwellian “Big Brother” state.
Alongside these developments, the security of the Aadhar system has come under severe criticism, as the data of thousands of Aadhar holders has been published on a number of websites in the last six months. Yet, the Unique Identification Authority of India has continued to defend the system as fool-proof. Given these leaks, a legitimate concern has emerged that this information could be abused by private entities. Even companies legally allowed to handle Aadhar data enjoy an unhealthy level of immunity, putting citizens at risk.
In its verdict on Thursday, the Supreme Court has addressed some of these problems. It has indicated that it wants a thorough data protection mechanism put in place. It also aims to limit the use of Aadhaar data to specific purposes, for which the consent of the provider will be essential. However, the court has said privacy is not an absolute right, making national security and public interest key factors in restricting this right. These are the two areas the Centre has consistently cited to deploy Aadhar to undermine privacy. For example, intelligence agencies that collect vast amount of data enjoy protection from scrutiny under the claim that this is necessary for national security. Besides, allmost anything could be argued to be in the public interest.
But perhaps the biggest argument Union government will make before a five-judge bench set to hear the Aadhar challenges soon will be that at least 99% of Indians have already registered for the project and the scheme is too big and costly to call off. It is this claim that the Supreme Court will now have to pierce, having exalted privacy to the esteemed position of a fundamental right.
The Big Scroll
- Supreme Court’s Right to Privacy judgment opens door to gay sex being decriminalised in India.
- These are the reasonable restrictions that will curtail the fundamental right to privacy.
- Privacy not an elitist concern, says Supreme Court.
- In the Indian Express, Indira Jaising writes on how the verdict upholding right to privacy has remedied a dark chapter in Indian judiciary during the Emergency.
- Pulapre Balakrishnan in the The Hindu says the arguments against criminalisation of gay sex should be based on equality and privacy.
- Reetika Khera in the Hindustan Times explains why state-subsidised canteens are life savers.
Vipin Pubby reports on how followers of Ram Rahim Singh are posing a threat to law and order ahead of a judgment in a rape case.
“At 3 pm on Friday, the special court is set to pronounce its verdict in the case that dates back to 2002. Singh is accused of raping two sadhvis (female followers) at his Sirsa ashram. The case came to light after one of the women wrote anonymously to the then prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, about the alleged sexual assault. The Punjab and Haryana High Court then took up the matter, ordering an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Singh has denied the allegation.”