India’s top court on Wednesday upheld the constitutional validity of the country’s ambitious biometric identity project ‘Aadhaar’, saying it benefits the marginalized and poor, but raised multiple concerns around the law that governs it, calling for changes. A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India said benefits under the Aadhaar project should be in the nature of welfare schemes and it cannot be made compulsory for services such as bank accounts, mobile connections or school admissions.
Among other things, India’s unique Aadhaar number – linked to an individual’s face, iris and finger prints – is used to help plug theft and leakages in the $23.63 billion (£17.9 billion) a year food welfare programme.
After the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi made Aadhaar mandatory for receiving all government benefits, millions of the poorest Indians were denied vital food rations when distribution shops had trouble reading fingerprints from work-worn hands or could not connect to the central server over India’s unreliable cellphone networks. At least 25 Indians died of starvation after Aadhaar-related verification problems, according to a tally by one academic researcher, and some local governments, such as New Delhi, stopped using the system for food programs.
Proponents, led by Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, argued that such problems were just teething pains. They said that a digital ID would be transformational in a country where hundreds of millions of poor people have long lacked a reliable, universally accepted way to prove who they are. For private companies such as cellphone providers, Aadhaar turned a paper-intensive, two-day process of verifying a new customer’s identity into a 30-second fingerprint scan.
The court’s decision complicates the legacy left by the unanimous opinion from a nine-judge panel last summer in a related case that Indians had a fundamental right to privacy. The Modi government had argued that citizens have no such right.
In its majority opinion Wednesday, the court recognized the right to privacy and suggested the Aadhaar legislation gave the government too much power to pry into people’s lives.
The court consolidated the cases and held 38 days of hearings in the spring. During its deliberations, it halted the government’s effort to mandate Aadhaar verification for bank accounts and other nongovernment services.