In what could prove to be a major embarrassment to prime minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the Supreme Court on Monday put a big question mark over the ruling coalition’s touted flagship scheme launched under the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Admitting a public interest litigation challenging the legality of the Aadhaar cards issued by the UIDAI, it said, “The Centre and state governments must not insist on Aadhaar cards from citizens before providing them essential services.” At a time when the Congress-led central and state governments are busy linking multiple public services to the Aadhaar number, the ruling is bound to put a damper on the party’s plan to turn Aadhaar-linked cash transfers for services into a vote-catching device.
The ruling is particularly welcome as it tends to endorse serious objections to the legality of the scheme raised by experts as the parliamentary standing committee on finance. The committee, which looked at the National Identification Authority Bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha, had regretted that despite serious differences of opinion within the government on the Aadhaar scheme, it “continues to be implemented in an overbearing manner without regard to legalities”.
The court’s directive that the government should not issue Aadhaar cards to illegal immigrants underlines the apprehensions expressed by the home minister that it could also have sinister implications for national security. The UPA government should not allow electoral imperatives to ignore the patent illegality of the scheme that forces people to part with sensitive private information such as biometric data or finger-prints without having any law to protect their rights. As the parliamentary panel has recommended, the government should scrap the scheme, which is a drain on the exchequer. Instead, cards issued under the National Population Register should be made the only legal identity card for government schemes and transactions.