New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday, in an interim order, said the government cannot make Aadhaar numbers mandatory for availing the benefits of government services and subsidies, including the direct benefit transfer (DBT) scheme for cooking gas.
The move could potentially crimp the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) plans to use the direct transfer of benefits as a talking point in the upcoming general election; it had even coined a catchy slogan to do so—Apkaa paisa aapke haath (your money in your hands).
Launched on 1 January, the direct benefits transfer programme has expanded to 28 schemes in 121 districts.
The court has also restrained the government from issuing Aadhaar numbers to illegal immigrants. The Aadhaar scheme was designed to provide every resident in India with a unique identity number and did not distinguish between citizens and non-citizens.
The interim order was passed by a two-judge bench, headed by justice B.S. Chauhan, that was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) challenging the issuance of Aadhaar numbers on grounds of invasion of privacy and right to life, according to advocate Anish Kumar Gupta who is representing the petitioners— former Karnataka high court judge K. S. Puttuswamy and advocate Parvesh Khanna.
Mint has not reviewed a copy of the interim order.
“The court says that Aadhaar can’t be made mandatory for providing services, (and) this is so far the government’s stand as well. Aadhaar can’t be a criteria for excluding people when it comes to services such as registration or protection. This may not hold for subsidies,” said a senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. This person added that he is yet to see and understand the complete order.
News agency Press Trust of India reported that the Union government told the Supreme Court that securing Aadhaar numbers was optional and it had not made it mandatory for citizens.
A senior official at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) said, “One can only comment when we have seen the order, but in general terms, the UIDAI is in agreement that the enrolment for Aadhaar is voluntary and its application should be accompanied with robust exception management which has been the government’s stand as well.”
Exception management refers to providing services or benefits through alternative systems for those who do not have Aadhaar numbers.
“The court said that possession of Aadhaar numbers is not compulsory for availing government-sponsored beneficial schemes and services. The bench issued a set of interim directions today and the matter will come up for hearing at a later date. These orders will operate till a final decision is arrived at by the court,” said Gupta.
The Aadhaar or Unique Identity Number, issued by the UIDAI under the aegis of the Planning Commission, is a 12-digit identification number which serves as proof of identity and address anywhere in India.
The apex court also heard a batch of pleas against decisions of some states to make Aadhaar numbers compulsory for a range of activities including salary, provident fund disbursals and marriage and property registration.
The Aadhaar-based DBT scheme aimed at transfer of welfare payments to the bank accounts of beneficiaries, with the unique identity number acting as the link between the government department’s beneficiary database and the beneficiary’s bank account.
However, official review meetings of DBT have found that linking of beneficiaries’ bank accounts to their Aadhaar numbers has been a drag on its faster implementation.
While S. Sundareshan, mission director for DBT, declined comment, stating he was not authorized to speak on Aadhaar, a petroleum ministry official requesting anonymity said: “If there will be some problem, it will be taken up at the appropriate level for relief.” This person added that it was impossible to target cooking gas subsidies without Aadhaar-linked bank accounts.
Despite the call for fresh legislation supporting the issuance of Aadhaar numbers from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance in consecutive reports since December 2011—the latest one was tabled in April—the government has not created an enabling law. Instead, it has proceeded to link it in phases with transfer of welfare payments such as cooking gas, scholarships and pensions.
The finance ministry said in Parliament on 16 August that only 9.62% of beneficiary accounts for schemes under the programme, other than cooking gas subsidy, were linked to Aadhaar. The figure was about 50% for liquified petroleum gas subsidy transfer, much behind Aadhaar coverage of about 75% in the 20 districts where the targeted cooking gas scheme began on 1 June.
Utpal Bhaskar contributed to this story.