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The Supreme Court judgment on the constitutional validity of Aadhaar is very disappointing for the poor. The main reason why people like us whose work deals with social welfare and welfare benefits went to court was because the constitutional right to life was threatened by the fact that Aadhaar was made mandatory to get benefits—even though the people are entitled to them.
Because of Aadhaar, a large number of people got excluded and the safeguards that were put in place never gave them an opportunity to get their benefits. The people who do not have Aadhaar are not being excluded; it is the people who have Aadhaar and are still not able to avail the social benefit schemes who are the real losers.
As a result, there have been hunger deaths—and no accountability for that. The court judgment, by allowing the mandatory use of Aadhaar for welfare benefits to continue, therefore to us is not in line with a fundamental right of people: the right to life. That is something that the Justice Bhushan judgment said—that nobody should be excluded. But simply saying that has not helped in the past and there is no reason for us to expect that it would help in the future. The only way to give relief to the poor would be to not make Aadhaar mandatory.
Allowing Aadhaar to be linked to PAN (Permanent Account Number) actually means that all the poor are covered through welfare benefits and income-tax payers and others are covered through the PAN card. Even though it is no longer necessary to link Aadhaar to bank accounts, by linking it to PAN, one is in effect linking it to all financial transactions.
Linking of Aadhaar as a number actually means nothing. The real question, however, arises when an individual’s biometrics are linked to either PAN or the social benefit schemes.
How can there be a grievance redressal mechanism without it being clearly spelled out and no accountability fixed? If someone does not get their benefits and starves or dies, who will be held responsible and what compensation would they get? This again is unanswered.
We welcome Justice Chandrachud’s minority opinion that the passing of the Aadhaar Act as a money bill is a fraud on the Constitution. Actually, we think the whole process of passage of this law was a fraud on democracy because there was no public consultation while formulating the law, and earlier there was no law either.
Without a law, even though the court repeatedly said that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory, it was made mandatory. In Rajasthan, we have found that among those with Aadhaar who are entitled to benefits, 20 per cent of them are not able to draw their rations and we have found that crores of people were not able to take their MGNREGA wages because of Aadhaar. Somebody has to answer for that and our struggle will continue.
This is in violation of Article 21 of the Constitution. The result of this is that many of these people have opted out of the rural employment generation scheme. This is the reason that people like us have been saying that Aadhaar is unconstitutional because we are entitled to certain benefits. And only because of the law which forces us to provide data are we not able to avail the benefits.
Another section of society that has faced hardships because of the Aadhaar system are pensioners. Around 10 lakh pensioners were taken off the list due to the Aadhaar system. We have been saying time and again that the prime minister claiming that the government has saved a certain amount by weeding out fictitious beneficiaries is worse—as amounts which have not been disbursed to beneficiaries cannot be termed as savings. This is all because of the Aadhaar system. In fact, it is an insult to the beneficiaries.
However, all is not bad. The fact that the verdict can be reviewed is a good sign. Also, another good aspect of the verdict is the scrapping of Section 57 of the law. Now, private companies cannot access details of citizens.
However, all is not good even in this aspect. There are many social benefits which are run under the public-private partnership model. This means the government can still access data of individuals and we do not know where and to whom the data is given.
As activists, we have made use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act a lot. The RTI allows us to keep a watch on the government’s moves but Aadhaar has allowed the government to watch people’s moves. When by law you have to provide your data, where it goes is a big issue. We are deeply disappointed that Section 7, which was the core of the argument in the entire case and deals with the generation of a Unique Identification Number for availing benefits, has not been struck down. We are deeply disappointed that the core was used as an excuse. We are also deeply disappointed that the middle class has not got any relief from the verdict.
Like demonetisation, the government thinks that Aadhaar can be imposed on the public. But somewhere, we want the government to say ‘Please vote on Aadhaar’. We certainly want to say, please vote on Aadhaar.
Social activist working for the National Commission for Peoples’ Right to Information
Social and civil rights activist who founded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and is one
of the petitioners in the case