The Union government got the Aadhaar Act passed in the Lok Sabha in 2016 as a money bill, making the Aadhaar card mandatory for availing of various government benefits. The Act was passed to overcome several earlier directives from the Supreme Court which barred the government from insisting on the card to grant the rights enjoyed by the citizens.
Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh challenged the legislation before the Supreme Court. His arguments are two-pronged. The personal details collected for the Aadhaar scheme contains biometric data. This data could be hacked into by cyber criminals as the government has not put in place efficient methods to ensure its security.
His second contention was that the government could share the data with other private service providers. This could also lead to a violation of privacy.
We have just heard reports of a leak of Aadhar data belonging to 35 lakh pensioners in Kerala and 14 lakh people in Jharkhand through government websites.
The UPA government rolled out the Aadhaar project without any legal backing. The Supreme Court was flooded with public interest litigation pointing out that the scheme was a violation of citizen’s rights. The government tried to pass a draft bill in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 but the attempt failed.
The Narendra Modi government withdrew the draft bill and introduced an amended bill in the Lok Sabha. The bill was introduced only in the Lok Sabha after getting the Speaker to tag it as a money bill under Article 110 of the Constitution. The Rajya Sabha was kept out of the loop.
The Union government presents the Aadhaar Act as a piece of welfare legislation. The Act is silent on individual right to privacy. This indicates that the Act does not recognize privacy as a right. The Union government may further this argument to respond to Ramesh’s case before the Supreme Court.
The Aadhaar Act defines an individual’s photo, fingerprint and iris scan as biometric data. This loose definition may be interpreted to contain genetic data like DNA in future.
Any misuse of such data would have implications far beyond our comprehension. The government is free to share the data collected as per the Aadhaar scheme with a third party under section 3(1) of the Act. The authorities only have to secure the permission of a district judge for this.
However, the judge is required to listen to Aadhaar authorities and the third party, not the owner of the biometric data. This is held as a violation of the citizen’s right.
Article 21 of the Constitution upholds the right to life. The Supreme Court has given progressive interpretations of the article in various judgements in the last 60 years.
Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations terms privacy as a human right. If the Supreme Court interprets the Article 21 to include the right to privacy in its ambit, the collection of biometric data could be deemed a violation of privacy and the Aadhaar Act could be declared unconstitutional.
The constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Act is sure to trigger heated arguments before the Supreme Court.
(The writer is the secretary of the Kerala Legislative Assembly)