Centre proposes to extend Aadhaar linking deadline to those willing to enrol
The government proposed extending the deadline for mandatory linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts and mobile phones from December 31, 2017 to March 31, 2018, but only exclusively for those who are “willing to enrol for Aadhaar”.
A one-page note, with writing on both sides of it, passed on to a Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra on October 25 contained the proposal. Offering the three-month leeway for the "Aadhaar-willing" citizens, the note however insisted that those already with Aadhaar will be “required” to sync their Aadhaar numbers with SIM cards, bank accounts, PAN and “other schemes where Section 7 (Aadhaar Act) notifications have been issued”.
The government’s suggestion created such a furore in court that Justice Misra asked the government to re-think its proposal to make it voluntary for Aadhaar-holders also.
The court asked Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal, for the Centre, whether it can assure that no “coercive action” would be taken against Aadhaar-holders who do not want to link their bank accounts and mobile phone numbers.
“Can we say you (government) will take no coercive action till March 31," Justice Misra asked Mr. Venugopal.
Mr. Venugopal gave a verbal assurance, but this did not satisfy the petitioners who have been challenging the constitutionality of the Aadhaar scheme since 2014.
Senior advocate Shyam Divan, for one of the petitioners, pointed out that the government had made similar assurances in the Supreme Court since 2014 , but the Aadhaar had continued to “spread”.
Mr. Divan said the government’s note actually meant that Aadhaar-holders would continue to be “coerced” into parting with their bank details and mobile phones despite the extension till March 31, 2018.
He said the government’s attitude discriminated among those willing to enrol for Aadhaar, others without Aadhaar, and finally, a sizeable section of the population who have Aadhaar but are apprehensive about linking their bank accounts and mobile phones to Aadhaar.
“The way Aadhaar is spreading is unconstitutional. Now those who have Aadhaar are vulnerable. Recent reports of deaths of those who linked their Aadhaar and their bank accounts got wiped out. People who have Aadhaar do not want to link. They have to share their one time password... There is an immense drive to link," Mr. Divan submitted forcefully.
He submitted the petitions challenging Aadhaar has been “crying for a hearing” in the Supreme Court since 2014. “Please hear it in November. The Attorney-General had agreed to be ready for hearing in November,” Mr. Divan urged.
Mr. Venugopal said the government-appointed Expert Committee on Data Protection Law headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice B.N. Srikrishna, has started working towards a robust data protection regime as per a suggestion made by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud in his majority judgment for the nine-judge Constitution Bench which had upheld privacy as a fundamental right on August 24.
The government's note said the Justice Srikrishna Committee had already, on October 16, deployed its several working groups to suggest amendments and specific comments to a draft Data Protection Bill circulated by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
The committee is also considering changes in the Aadhaar Act of 2016 and the Information Technology Act of 2000 as firm steps towards a cast-iron data-protection regime.
Mr. Venugopal said a final form of the law would be available by February 2018, and hence, the proposal for a three-month extension in the Aadhaar-linking deadline.
"Yes, it is not one of the easiest things to make a law. They should be given time to frame a robust data-protection law. No point rushing," Justice Chandrachud, who was on the Bench with Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, addressed the petitioners’ counsel.
“So, till they make that law, let them [the government] make it categorical that nobody would be coerced to link Aadhaar...” senior advocate Arvind Datar retorted.
Mr. Datar said the government’s move to link bank accounts and mobile phones with Aadhaar numbers violated the fundamental right to privacy and equated citizens, including the elderly, women and students, with money-launderers.
Seniors advocate Anand Grover submitted that the government could very well work on the data-protection law, but meanwhile, it should order a freeze on the Aadhaar-linking exercise.
They urged the court to immediately stay the notifications for mandatory linking of Aadhaar to welfare schemes, bank accounts and mobile phones.
“Now a school child cannot go for his 10th exam without putting his fingerprints for Aadhaar... is this the level of civil liberties in this country now?” Mr. Divan asked.
The petitioners repeatedly urged the Chief Justice to set up a Constitution Bench and decide, once and for all, the constitutionality of the Aadhaar scheme.
“You cannot command us... come back and mention on Monday,” Justice Misra replied.
The Business Standard, New Delhi, 26th October 2017