SC Constitution Bench on Aadhaar- Final Hearing (Day XXX)

In October 2015, a 3-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India referred challenges to the Aadhaar program to a constitution bench. One of the primary concerns of this petition was to decide on the existence of a fundamental right to privacy, which has since been upheld. Other similar petitions, concerned with the legitimacy of Aadhaar had been tagged with this petition. While the existence of the fundamental right to privacy has been upheld, challenges against the Aadhaar programme and linking services to this programme were yet to be adjudicated upon.

An interim order was passed in December of 2017, a summary of the arguments can be found here and here.

The final hearing commenced on January 17, 2017. Summaries of the arguments advanced in the previous hearings can be found here.

Rakesh Dwivedi resumed his arguments for the Respondents. He began with the issue of  Section 7 and exclusion. The counsel responded to the argument about probabilistic systems by submitting that there are alternatives that are allowed by the Act. In the event of an authentication failure, the first alternative is to produce a proof of possession of Aadhaar. The second alternative is to provide enrollment ID, for people who haven’t yet received the Aadhaar. He submitted that the UIDAI had issued directions to this effect. A refusal to comply would be a breach under the Aadhaar Act.

Justice Chandrachud asked if the Section 7 proviso would apply to someone who had not applied for Aadhaar. The counsel replied in the negative. The counsel continued, describing the Regulation. He submitted that for State and Central agencies that require Aadhaar for benefits, they are required to ensure enrollment, including the setting up of coordination centres. Further, in the context of PDS, he argued that Clause 5 of the relevant notification allowed any member of a household to claim the benefit. He concluded that there could be no question of denial, as a result of these measures.

Justice Chandrachud asked if the systems had been tested in remote areas, with limited connectivity, such as Ladakh. Section 7 is silent on alternatives in such cases. The counsel responded that certain exemptions had been notified in the regulations.

The counsel reiterated that the system should not be demolished, but improved so that it could work. He then submitted that even today, we live in a relational world. One cannot pick and choose how one relates to the world; or how one establishes identity. All institutions require some kind of identity, and have some conditions about it.  He argued that this wasn’t a question of dignity, because these are regulatory conditions. He stated that these are permissible, and the only standard is if a fundamental right is being violated.

The Bench noted that the counsel was trivializing the Petitoners’ argument. They noted that the central concern was that of centralization of the database and its misuse.  Justice Chandrachud further argued that the issue was why only one identity had been mandated, and why multiple identities could not be allowed.

The counsel responded that one must go by the rules of the institution they want to participate in. He provided the example of the Proximity Card of the Supreme Court. Justice Chandrachud asked if the form of identity should relate to the purpose of identification. The counsel agreed, stating that there should be a rational nexus. However, he argued that allowing different forms of identity to be submitted would lead to a slippery slope which would destroy the whole purpose of the system.

Justice Bhushan added that many of the other forms of identification don’t have pan-India operation. The counsel agreed, noting that they were also sectoral, without any portability. In comparison, he argued, Aadhaar is universal. Aadhaar is also unique on account of the use of biometrics. If you abandon biometrics, the unique nature is lost. He submitted that even Smart Cards use biometrics.

Justice Chandrachud reiterated the concern about aggregation and analysis of data. The counsel responded that all protections that were socially and legally possible were in place.

He continued, stating that the argument about biometrics providing knowledge about the person was incorrect. He argued that while DNA might contain such information, fingerprints don’t. Further, only one fingerprint would be present with the Requesting Entities. Justice Chandrachud clarified that the issue was not of the biometrics themselves, but their attachment and linking to everything else, which could become a source of information about the individual. The counsel responded that no single Requesting Entity would have access to all of that information. It would be delegated and segregated. Further, any collusion or aggregation would not possible. Any misuse would require corruption at an inconceivable scale. In addition, most of the authentication would be required very rarely – once a year, or once in a lifetime. For PDS, it would be once a month.

At this point Shyam Divan interjected, that Banks had been demanding Aadhaar every time a Fixed Deposit is opened. The counsel responded that for most people, that is also a rare occurrence. Further, that was an issue on the Bank’s side, and not mandated by the Act. He argued that that can be examined separately. If the law were to be changed, to mandate authentication for every transaction, that could be questioned and challenged.

The counsel then moved on to the issue of clashes between fundamental rights. He brought the bench’s attention to the Preamble to the Constitution. He argued that the Preamble states that certain values are to be ‘secured’ by the state, and certain are to be ‘promoted.’ He argued that this imposes an obligation on the state to provide the basic minimum (for instance, minimum wages) to people. He argued that there was therefore a hierarchy, and the right to life should triumph over the right to privacy. He argued that for the people to without the bare minimum, the Constitution would amount to a mere paper Constitution.

Justice Chandrachud noted that dignity was not a peripheral value in the Constitution, but the core foundation of all rights. The Constitution protects dignity in all its forms, and food security and privacy were both aspects of dignity. The counsel responded that when they were in conflict, the first must have primacy over the second. He noted the NALSA judgment, which according to him brought about a paradigm shift in our conception of dignity.

Justice Bhushan questioned if they had to be read in conflict, and could not be recognized together. The counsel responded that they were arguing for a balanced approach, and in this case, in the favour of the right to life.

Justice Chandrachud asked if this would require a proportionality test. He stated that the question was whether the incursion on privacy is so less, to justify the benefits that have been claimed. The counsel responded that in the case of a restriction on a right, the burden lies on the state. However, this was a case of an interplay between rights. Justice Chandrachud countered that the burden was still with the state. The counsel responded that they were only submitting that the parameters for scrutiny would be different. Further, that Article 21 supersedes the rights under Article 19 and 14. Life would come first, and the other rights wouldn’t mean anything without it.

The counsel then resumed arguing for the relevance of biometrics, noting that large parts of the population were illiterate. Their thumbprints were all they had had to use in the conduct of their lives.

The Chief Justice noted that the real problems were of surveillance, aggregation, privacy and exclusion, which have to be addressed. The counsel said that the subsidies were in furtherance of life, liberty and dignity.

Justice Chandrachud asked for a clarification, whether the respondents were arguing for the tests under Puttuswamy to be abandoned. The counsel responded in the negative, and that Section 7 was not examined in Puttuswamy.

He then went on to quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and excerpts from Kesavanda Bharathi, the NALSA judgment, and German human rights jurisprudence.

The hearing will continue on April 19, 2018.

 

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