In 2015, as the Supreme Court debated the legality of a centralized biometric-based database of India’s 1.3 billion citizens, a lawyer arguing against Aadhaar dramatically held up a newspaper report before the judges, pointing out that the government’s top law officer, attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, had said Indians do not enjoy a fundamental right to privacy.
It was his (Rohatgi’s) job to convince the court to allow the use of Aadhaar for welfare schemes. After the first hiccup, when the court barred the government from making Aadhaar mandatory for government benefits, Rohatgi secured the right to use it limitedly for five flagship schemes of the government. The court also allowed continuous enrolment of more citizens in the Aadhaar database. He now weighs in on the issue.
Is the Indian government opposed to its citizens’ entitlement to a fundamental right to privacy?
In the hearings, I have only cited the stand of the Supreme Court on extending to the right to privacy the status of a fundamental right. I do not want to put it on either extreme. The determination has to be done by the court. However, privacy concerns are sufficiently taken care by the Aadhaar law now.
On privacy, Aadhaar is not to snoop. It is not to get into people’s bedrooms. Over one billion have voluntarily consented to collection of biometrics.
More cases about protection of privacy are cropping up, like the case seeking government’s intervention in Whatsapp-Facebook data sharing. Why not take a stand on this? (The Indian Supreme Court in April set up a Constitution bench of five judges to determine if WhatsApp’s user data sharing policy is violative of citizens’ right to privacy. The government has also agreed to regulate over-the-top content through its national telecom regulatory body.)
The larger question on privacy needs to be settled by the court. Till then, one cannot comment on secondary concerns on privacy.
Also Read: Aadhaar: A widening net
Why does India need Aadhaar?
Aadhaar is to weed out fake, bogus beneficiaries of government schemes and fix leakages in social welfare schemes. Subsidies must reach the rightful beneficiaries and not a ghost identity. This is not only helping the government save money but also helps people of this country. Before Aadhaar, the government lost Rs50,000 crore-to-Rs1 trillion annually due to these leakages.
There are also security concerns for putting Aadhaar in place. You see, anybody can walk into this country and it is increasingly difficult to keep a check on such entrants. Using Aadhaar at airports, borders will help in keeping this country safe.
How does that (linking Aadhaar to welfare services) comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling that directed the government to not make Aadhaar compulsory for benefits?
They are entitled to claim benefits by showing other proof of identity accepted by the government, provided they go and apply for an Aadhaar card. Enrolment is not an issue at all; there is a camp in every nook and corner of the country. They are even coming home to enrol citizens.
Do you think the law answers critics of Aadhaar, although many have questioned the manner in which the new law was passed and have challenged it before the court?
One of the issues that the critics of Aadhaar had raised was that there was no law backing the scheme. The new legislation takes care of this. A money bill deals with the government’s spending from the consolidated fund of India. Political parties in opposition have challenged it in court, and we are opposing it. All issues, incidental or allied to spending from the consolidated fund of India, will require Aadhaar.
How is the government going to respond to increasing complaints and fear of data breaches?
The Unique Identification Authority of India will ensure secure systems to store Aadhaar data. There are statutory bodies of the government to take care of this. One instance of breach... is not a cause of worry.
Collection of biometrics is not unique to Aadhaar. If you visit the United Arab Emirates, an iris scan is performed at immigration. Many countries ask for fingerprints.