India's Supreme Court clears the use of Aadhaar for welfare schemes, saying it empowered the poor and marginalised, but at the same time also sharply reins in a government push to make it mandatory for various services.

An operator helps an elderly woman scan her fingerprints as she enrols for Aadhaar, India's unique identification project in Kolkata, India. (AP/File photo)
An operator helps an elderly woman scan her fingerprints as she enrols for Aadhaar, India's unique identification project in Kolkata, India. (AP/File photo) (AP)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the validity of India’s ambitious biometric identity or Aadhaar project, but sharply reined in a government push to make it mandatory for various services.

The concept for the Aadhaar  (foundation) scheme was introduced in 2006 and later launched in 2009 with the creation of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).

Around 1.1 billion people have registered for the scheme so far.

Indian citizens had been asked to furnish their Aadhaar numbers for a host of transactions including accessing bank accounts, paying taxes, receiving subsidies, acquiring a mobile number, settling a property deal and registering a marriage.

In a ruling with far-reaching consequences, a panel of five judges cleared the use of Aadhaar for welfare schemes, saying it empowered the poor and marginalised. 

A 4-1 majority of the panel ruled the programme had merits, but struck down a government effort to make its use mandatory in applications for services ranging from bank accounts to mobile telephone connections and school admissions. 

Privacy was a main concern for the judicial panel while issuing the judgement, especially in light of reports about leakage of data related to the programme.

“I think this is a fabulous judgment,” said lawyer Kapil Sibal, a member of the opposition Congress party, who had argued in court against the sweeping use of Aadhaar as a means of identification.

Rahul Gandhi, the president of the Indian National Congress, thanked the Supreme Court for the Aadhaar verdict. He saw the program being used as a tool of oppression and surveillance by governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

While Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, of the BJP, welcomed the "historic" decision, a pro-government journalist described the decision as a "Black" day by saying that it is being used by tax thieves and terrorists. 

India launched Aadhaar, now the world’s biggest biometric database, in 2009 to streamline welfare payments and reduce wastage in public spending.
India launched Aadhaar, now the world’s biggest biometric database, in 2009 to streamline welfare payments and reduce wastage in public spending. (Reuters Archive)

Here are six key points about the Supreme Court decision

1) The Aadhaar card can be used by poor people to avail government welfare and benefit programmes. Children are an exception to the rule, according to the decision, that means no child can be rejected benefits of social programmes in the case of absence of the card.

2) Aadhaar is also compulsory while applying for income tax returns and in permanent account number allotment. 

3) The Aadhaar card cannot be requested by private and commercial banks and online payment companies to verify customers' identity and update their Know Your Customer (KYC),  process. For now, customers should only fill the KYC.

4) Telecom companies cannot request the Aadhaar Card while citizens apply for a SIM card. The companies should also use their own KYC form in the process. 

5) The decision does not make clear about the Aadhaar card data that had already been collected by telecommunication companies, banks and other private comapnies. 

6) The Supreme Court ruling helps, indirectly, to ensure privacy of the Aadhaar Card holders and aims to hinder the  invasion of individuals’ privacy.

7) The Aadhaar number cannot be used in the school admission process. Aadhaar is not mandatory for the CBSE, NEET, and UGC entrance tests into high school, colleges and universities respectively. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies