The Big Story: Money matters

The Supreme Court has resurrected an old question: does the Aadhaar Act qualify as a money bill? Back in 2016, the government had classed the bill governing the project to give all residents of India a 12-digit unique identity number as such and hastily pushed it through Parliament. This led to doubts about its legitimacy and a petition being filed by the Opposition questioning the categorisation of the bill. It was, the Opposition alleged, a means to “by-pass the scrutiny of the Rajya Sabha”. Hearing the case on May 2, the Supreme Court flagged section 57 of the Act, which allowed the “state or any body corporate or person” to use Aadhaar to establish the identity of an individual. Apart from other concerns, the question touches on the fundamental nature of Aadhaar, whether it is merely a means to target subsidies or a document of identity.

A money bill, by definition, must contain provisions only related to taxation or borrowing by the government and expenditures from or receipts to the Consolidated Fund of India. Such a bill can only be introduced by the Lok Sabha. It must be returned by the Rajya Sabha to the lower house in 14 days, or else it is deemed to have been passed. The upper house may make recommendations for changes to the bill but the Lok Sabha is not bound to accept them. The government argued that Aadhaar fit the bill since it involved flows from and to the Consolidated Fund of India. But the court pointed out that the mention of “any body corporate or person... snaps the link” with the consolidated fund.

Initially, Aadhaar was meant to be an identity document for the most disempowered, those who did not have any other means to access vital benefits and services. Moreover, it was not mandatory. Over time, the government tried to make Aadhaar compulsory for a range of goods and services, including mobile numbers and bank accounts, with far-reaching implications for the privacy and security of individual citizens. These linkages did not necessarily involve expenditures from or inflows to the central coffers. They also gave private corporations access to vital data about an individual.

Introducing the Aadhaar Act as a money bill was seen as a means to skirt debate in the Rajya Sabha and push it through the Lok Sabha, where the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance enjoys a comfortable majority. The Centre’s own confused language about the unique identity number has not helped. In court, it has argued that, notwithstanding “ancillary provisions”, the law involves massive expenditure from the consolidated fund and is essentially linked to the delivery of benefits and subsidies. But it must also answer whether Aadhaar is merely a ticket to these services or a fundamental document to establish an individual’s identity, rather like a passport or a birth certificate. The question of whether it should have been introduced as a money bill points to the identity crisis of Aadhaar.

The Big Scroll

Anumeha Yadav pointed out why Aadhaar as a money bill was not good news.


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