In the on-going case challenging the constitutionality of Section 139AA of the Income Tax Act (‘IT Act’), the petitioners concluded their arguments today. Our coverage of the arguments made over the last two days can be found here and here.
Today, the petitioners’ counsel elaborated on the concept of informational self-determination, as propounded by the German Federal Constitutional Court in the landmark Census decision of 1983. Relying on three scholarly pieces, he explained that informational self-determination stemmed from the fundamental rights of human dignity and personal liberty. Collectively, these two rights formed the constitutional right to personality under the German legal framework. Informational self-determination was therefore not just a necessary condition for the free development of one’s personality, but also an essential element of a democratic society. He argued that irrespective of whether this was a constitutional value under the Indian framework, it was a legitimate value and concern for the petitioners before the Court.
The petitioners, and others who object to the Aadhaar project must have the right to informational self-determination to not give their personal information to private entities empanelled by the Government. The counsel argued that UIDAI’s enrolment process was through a network of private entities and reiterated that more than 34,000 had been blacklisted for various reasons. This, in his view established the lack of control exercised by the government during the enrolment process. Further, he relied on UIDAI’s Handbook for Registrars to show that even registrars (who may be state governments, or other public or private entities) are at liberty to retain biometrics and use them for other purposes. In his view, this represented a complete destruction of personal autonomy. He argued that the IT Act could not compel him to part with his biometrics under such circumstances.
The second main ground advanced by the petitioners’ counsel was ‘compelled speech’ as a violation of Article 19(1)(a). He distinguished giving demographic information to government authorities for a singular, defined purpose from information collection under Aadhaar. As per him, the state could not compel an individual to provide fingerprints and iris scans to private third parties. He cited Bijoe Emanuel v. State of Kerala (1986) 3 SCC 615 in support of this contention.
On proportionality, it was argued that the number of PAN cards for individuals (as per the Central Government’s figures) was 29 crore. When seen against the government’s figures for duplicates, this would only amount to 0.4% of all PANs. On the other hand, the intrusion caused by enrolling for Aadhaar would be tremendous.
The petitioner’s counsel reiterated his argument on the legislature lacking competence to enact Section 139AA. He stated that the doctrine of eminent domain was limited to land and could not be extended to one’s body, except under narrowly tailored circumstances under legitimate circumstances. Therefore, the legislature lacked competence under Entry 82 of List I or any residuary power to enact a statute compelling parting with such intimate information.
While summing up, he also reiterated the argument on voluntariness, relying on Lord Atkin’s dissent in Liversidge v. Anderson (1942 AC 206) to emphasise that voluntary could never be interpreted as mandatory.
Finally, he urged the Court to strike down Section 139AA of the IT Act, or alternatively, read down the mandatory nature of the provision to make it voluntary. He also suggested that if the bench thought issues such as informational self-determination and compelled speech are too intertwined or if it appeared not appropriate to decide this matter independently, they may be referred to a larger bench. However, considering the irreversible consequences created by the 1st July deadline, he pressed for interim relief to stay the application of the Act or restrain the government from taking coercive steps for non-compliance. He added that protecting against invalidating one’s PAN would also be essential.
A third petition, which was subsequently filed, was also argued in Court today. The counsel for this petitioner (Mr. Dashrathbhai Patel) contended that Section 139AA was a ‘confused, self-defeating and self-destructive’ provision. He pointed out that the Explanation to the section assigned meanings to several terms as per their definitions under the Aadhaar Act. In such a circumstance, borrowing the definition of ‘enrollemt’ from the Aadhaar Act (where it was a voluntary exercise), made it impermissible to make it mandatory under the IT Act. Secondly, it was contended that the definition of demographic information under the Aadhaar Act specifically prohibited collecting information related to income. By linking PAN with Aadhaar, Section 139AA was facilitating the convergence of income information, in direct contradiction with the Aadhaar Act. He argued that what was impermissible directly could not be permissible in an indirect manner.
With this, the petitioners concluded their arguments before the Supreme Court today. The Central Government will respond on 2nd May (Tuesday).
Disclosure: The author assisted the petitioners’ (Maj. Gen. Vombatkere and Mr. Bezwada Wilson) lawyers for today’s arguments.
 BVerfGE 65, 1.
 Bernd R. Beier, Genetic Testing and the Right of Self- Determination: The Experience in the Federal Republic of Germany 16(3) Hofstra Law Review 601-614 (1988); and Susanne Baer, Dignity, Liberty, Equality: A Fundamental Rights Triangle of Constitutionalism 59(4) University of Toronto Law Journal 417-468 (2009); Gerrit Hornung and Christoph Schnabel, Data protection in Germany I: The population census decision and the right to informational self-determination 25(1) Computer Law & Security Report 84–88 (December 2009).
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