India's government has been pushing to make the biometric ID mandatory for everything from opening a new bank account to school admissions. The Supreme Court has now ruled on the controversial scheme.
India's Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the validity of the country's Aadhaar biometric identity scheme, saying it did not infringe the privacy of Indians.
Aadhaar, which translates to "foundation" in Hindi, the world's largest biometric ID database, is a 12-digit unique identification number tied to an individual's fingerprints, face and iris scans.
Critics of the scheme had expressed concerns that it could give rise to a surveillance state and hand over critical personal information to private companies.
"This is a fabulous judgment," said lawyer Kapil Sibal, a member of the opposition Congress Party, which led the government that launched the scheme in 2010.
"It takes care of citizens' rights and it ensures we don't have a surveillance state in place, it ensures that our privacy is not intruded into, and at the same time, it protects the rights of the marginalized," he told television channel CNN News18.
Benefits outweigh flaws
Among its objectives, the project aims to ensure the delivery of India's $23.6 (€20 billion)-billion-a-year food welfare program. More than a billion Indians have already been enrolled, providing many with their only proof of identification.
In a 4-1 ruling, the court said that the scheme's benefits outweighed the right to privacy, arguing that it empowered the poor and the marginalized.
"What we are emphasizing is that the remedy is to plug the loopholes rather than axe a project, aimed for the welfare of large sections of the society," said Justice A.K. Sikri, who made the ruling. He said that beneficiaries would be harmed if Aadhaar were to be shelved.
Curtails government's ambition
However, Wednesday's ruling limited the scheme's scope largely to the distribution of social security benefits, with the court striking down the government's controversial push to make the biometric ID mandatory for bank accounts, mobile phone connections and school admissions. The dissenting judge, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, also made a scathing attack on the Aadhaar scheme, saying it violated the right to privacy, as it could lead to the profiling of voters.
"The reason why we challenged (it) was because it went beyond the public distribution system, beyond protecting the marginalized, and tried to create a surveillance state," Sibal said.
The court asked the government to urgently introduce a robust data protection law to allay concerns related to the safety of data stored in the Aadhaar database.
ap/kms (AFP, Reuters, dpa)