The Supreme Court today extended the deadline for Aadhaar linking with all government-sponsored welfare schemes and services to March 31, 2018. The court verdict came days after the government expressed its willingness to extend the date for mandatory linking of unique identify number to avail the benefit of state-run services.
The government had earlier set a deadline of December 31 for linking Aadhaar with several financial services and welfare schemes. The apex court will commence the final hearing on the petitions challenging the Aadhaar scheme itself from January 17, 2018.
While the top court is yet to decide the fate of Aadhaar, here's a recap of how we got here:
2012: A former High Court judge, K S Puttaswamy, files a petition contending that Aadhaar violates fundamental rights of equality and privacy. Before long, several more petitioners-including activists Aruna Roy, Bezwada Wilson and Nikhil Dey-move court so the apex court decided to link all the 20-plus Aadhaar-related petitions to this case. Apart from privacy, the petitioners objected to Aadhaar on grounds ranging from exclusion and denial of benefits to national security on account of indiscriminate enrolment of illegal immigrants.
2013: In September 2013, the Supreme Court makes it clear that the consent of an individual is indispensable for Aadhaar. Pointing at the shortcomings of the Aadhaar scheme, a Supreme Court bench passes an interim order that the UID number cannot be made mandatory for gas connections, vehicle registration, scholarships, marriage registration, salaries and provident fund. Backing the mandatory clause, the UIDAI had claimed that PSU oil companies detected around 45,000 duplicate connections on the basis of Aadhaar numbers, and blocking these would save the exchequer around Rs 23 crore annually.
The court also says the Aadhaar cards should not be issued to illegal immigrants as it would legitimise their stay in the country. In another hearing the following month, the apex court dismisses the Centre's plea to reconsider its earlier verdict and makes it clear that no further revision pleas will be entertained.
March 2014: The Supreme Court directs the Centre to immediately withdraw any instructions making Aadhaar mandatory. The Centre's stand that it had already enrolled 53 crore citizens till September 30, 2013 after spending Rs 3,494 crore, a huge amount that should not not go down the drain, failed to sway the bench. "I have received a lot of letters which say that Aadhaar card is mandatory despite court orders. We had already passed orders saying no one should suffer for not having Aadhaar card. How can you insist on Aadhaar card?" the bench questioned.
The Court also directs the UIDAI not to share biometric or other personal information with any agency without the permission of the cardholder. "60 crore residents have enrolled themselves for Aadhaar card by providing their demographic and biometric information for civilian application only and sharing the data [without the consent of the resident] would endanger the fundamental rights of the citizens," says the bench.
Ironically, this order did not come during the hearing of PILs challenging Aadhaar's constitutional validity but in a related case where UIDAI challenged an order of the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court directing the sharing of Aadhaar data with the CBI for solving a rape case.
July 2015: A Bench of Justices J. Chelameswar, S.A. Bobde and C. Nagappan, while hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the Aadhaar scheme as a violation of privacy, clarifies that demands made by officials for Aadhaar card is in clear violation of the Supreme Court's interim order of September 23, 2013. The Centre had argued that Constitution makers did not intend to make right to privacy a fundamental right, adding that the right to privacy is not absolute-it is subject to restrictions in public interest-and hence, the petitions (under article 32) should be dismissed.
August 2015: The three-judge bench restrains the government from expanding Aadhaar beyond public distribution systems (PDS) for food grains and cooking fuel. It holds that "balance of interest" is better served if Aadhaar is made neither mandatory nor a condition for accessing benefits one is already entitled to. It also refers the question of right to privacy as a fundamental right to a constitution bench, adding that this interim order will be in vogue till such time.
October 2015: The Supreme Court extends the voluntary use of Aadhaar card to Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), all types of pensions schemes, employee provident fund and the Prime Minister Jan Dhan Yojana. The five-judge constitution bench says the purely voluntary status quo will continue till the court takes a final decision on whether Aadhaar scheme is an invasion into the right to privacy.
April 2016: Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh moves court challenging the passage of Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 as a Money Bill in the previous month, calling it "malafide and brazen". And as the government started issuing fresh notifications making Aadhaar mandatory for several more schemes under the new Act, several more petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging them.
Feb 2017: The Supreme Court agrees to hear Jairam Ramesh's challenge in detail even as the government claims that the judiciary had no jurisdiction to encroach on legislative procedure in Parliament, where the Speaker was the final authority. "If the Speaker says blue is green, we will tell her that blue is blue and not green," Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar countered.
Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi, representing the government, also questioned Ramesh's locus standi in filing the writ petition, saying no fundamental right of the petitioner had been violated. "The time has come to relook Article 21. Every petition is coming straight to the Supreme Court now," he added. The court is yet to rule on the matter.
March 2017: Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar orally observed that the government has the rights to enforce Aadhaar for non-welfare plans and schemes, such as mobile phones, issuing PAN Card and filing income tax for businesses. However, no official verdict was announced.
April 2017: A bench of Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan hears senior advocate Shyam Divan's submission that the newly-inserted Section 139AA in the Income Tax Act, which mandates the linking of Aadhaar with PAN, is a "Faustian bargain". Centre counters that taking fingerprints and iris impressions for Aadhaar is not an invasion of a citizen's body. "The concept of absolute right over one's body was a myth and there were various laws which put restrictions on such a right," said Mukul Rohatgi. He also justifies the government's stand of making Aadhaar mandatory by saying that "We found a number of PAN cards being used to divert funds to shell companies. To prevent it, the only option is to make Aadhaar card mandatory".
May 2017: SC agrees to hear a petition filed by a group of people, including and Magsaysay winner and the former chairperson of National Commission for Protecting Child Rights Shanta Sinha, against 17 government notifications allegedly making Aadhaar mandatory to access welfare schemes and benefits after June 30, 2017.
June 2017: The apex court upholds Section 139AA of the Income Tax Act. The Supreme Court says that the new provision that makes Aadhaar mandatory for income tax assessees is not in violation of the fundamental right to equality, or the fundamental right to practice one's profession or trade. During another hearing this month, addressing the petition filed by Shanta Sinha and others, the SC says that there will be no freeze on the government notification making Aadhaar mandatory for social benefit schemes, including mid-day meals.
According to the petition, Aadhaar was an "insecure, unreliable, unnecessary and inappropriate technology project, which is being foisted with coercion on the most vulnerable section of Indians and is threatening their constitutional and legal rights and entitlements every day". In response, the Centre had said that no genuine person will be denied of any benefits because of lack of Aadhaar, adding that Rs. 49,650 crore had been saved in two years under the Direct Benefit Transfer Scheme, which was earlier being siphoned off through fake identities.
"No order can be passed just on the basis of apprehension. The Centre has also extended the date from 30 June to 30 September and there is no urgency," the court said. Thus the status quo continued, and the government continued to drag newer schemes under the Aadhaar umbrella.
July 2017: A five-judge constitution bench proclaims that a nine-judge bench should first decide the question whether privacy is a fundamental right. In two previous judgements, the Supreme Court had pronounced that privacy was not a fundamental or 'guaranteed' right. "To overcome these two precedents, a numerically superior Bench of nine judges is required," explained a report by The Hindu.
August 2017: The nine-judge bench rules that right to privacy is "intrinsic to life and liberty" and is inherently protected under the various fundamental freedoms enshrined under Part III of the Indian Constitution. A few days after this historic judgement, the apex court says that it will hear petitions on Aadhaar-related matters in November, since the government had extended the deadline for mandatory Aadhaar linkages to December 31.
October 2017: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee enters the arena. The West Bengal government petitions the Supreme Court against the Centre's push to make Aadhaar cards mandatory. The SC hauls up the state government for filing a plea challenging the Parliament's mandate in the first place. "We know it is a matter that needs consideration but you satisfy us how state can challenge it," it says, adding that the chief minister was free to file the petition in an individual capacity.
Later that month, a day after the RBI stated that linking of bank accounts with Aadhaar has been made mandatory under the provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, a new petition is filed in the SC challenging the directive. According to petition filed by activist Kalyani Menon Sen, the government's rule on linking Aadhaar violates the fundamental right to privacy and equates citizens, including the elderly, women and students, with money launderers.
The court also issues notice to the Centre on a separate plea challenging the linking of mobile phone numbers with Aadhaar.
The government, meanwhile, denies allegations of misuse of Aadhaar and files a 100-page affidavit to justify linking the unique ID to social welfare schemes. It also tells the court that the deadline for mandatory linking of Aadhaar has been extended till March 31, 2018, for those who do not have the 12-digit unique biometric identification number and were willing to enroll for it.
Nov 2017: Early in the month, in an attempt to protect consumers from harassment, a bench comprising Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan says "We make it clear that in the messages sent by banks and telecom service providers, the date of December 31, 2017 and February 6, 2018, shall also be indicated as the last date of linking Aadhaar with bank accounts and mobile numbers."
Yesterday, the five-judge constitution bench heard pleas seeking an interim stay on the Centre's decision directing mandatory linking of Aadhaar with various government schemes and welfare measures. Instead of making it mandatory for six schemes, as ordered by the court, the government had extended it to 139, said the petitioners.
AG Venugopal, in his turn, said that all the deadlines can be extended to March 31 (right now, the various deadlines differ on the last dates), and the case can be heard when the court resumes after the winter break. The court has previously fixed January 10 to start the final hearing on petitions contesting the validity of the Aadhaar law.