SC Extends Aadhaar Linking Deadline to 31 March
The Supreme Court, on Friday, accepted the Centre’s submission and passed an interim order to extend the deadline for linking Aadhaar identification to bank accounts, mobile services, and all government benefit schemes to 31 March 2018.
A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, in an interim order, also modified its earlier order with regard to linking of Aadhaar with mobile services and said the deadline of 6 February 2018 for this purpose also stood extended till 31 March.
The apex court said the Constitution Bench would commence final hearing from 17 January on the petition challenging the Aadhaar scheme itself.
On Thursday, 14 December, the SC had heard arguments on whether or not an interim stay against linking of Aadhaar with various services was urgently needed. A number of petitions had been filed asking the Supreme Court to stop the government from coercing people to link Aadhaar to bank accounts, phone numbers and welfare schemes, till the court passes its final judgment on the constitutionality of the Aadhaar scheme.
This had been raised as a matter of urgency since the deadlines for linking most services was 31 December 2017. If the Supreme Court rules that Aadhaar is unconstitutional, particularly in light of its right to privacy decision earlier this year, this mandatory linking of Aadhaar to services may no longer be allowed. However, if the court does not pass a stay ahead of this deadline, the issue would have become a fait accompli.
After arguments by several eminent lawyers for the petitioners, and the counter-arguments of Attorney-General KK Venugopal for the government, the five-judge bench said it would give its decision on interim relief on Friday morning at 10:30 am.
Arguments in Favour of Interim Relief
The petitioners were represented by the experienced line-up that had argued in favour of a fundamental right to privacy – senior advocates Shyam Divan, Gopal Subramanium, Meenakshi Arora, KV Viswanathan, Arvind Datar, KTS Tulsi and Anand Grover.
Their main argument centred on the fact that the Supreme Court in 2015 had passed a number of orders which had clearly said that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory, even for public welfare schemes.
They next raised the issue of Aadhaar misuse and exclusion of people who don’t have it or because of poor Aadhaar infrastructure. This was protested by the government who said it should only be argued at the main hearing, but the petitioners argued that the Court couldn’t ignore these issues as they were related to fundamental rights of citizens.
The court pointed out that section 7 of the Aadhaar Act 2016 allowed the government to notify mandatory linking of Aadhaar with various services. This was countered by Arvind Datar, who pointed out that under that section, only services funded by the Consolidated Fund of India could be linked to Aadhaar, which would mean that linking to private services like bank accounts was not covered under this.
Anand Grover pointed out that even though Aadhaar data was supposed to be secure, there is still no data protection law in the country, which meant that leaks were possible, and that many people were being excluded. He also raised concerns about private companies receiving Aadhaar data, details of which have not been provided despite RTI requests.
The A-G argued that the Supreme Court’s previous orders saying that Aadhaar should not be made mandatory were not relevant anymore because they were passed before the Aadhaar Act 2016. After the passing of the Act, he argued that linking of Aadhaar with all the services was valid as it was now based on a proper law.
Beyond that, Mr Venugopal did not raise any other specific arguments. Instead, he suggested that all deadlines be extended to 31 March 2018, and the main Aadhaar case be heard in January. This is a change from the government’s previous stance that they would only be willing to extend the deadlines for people who hadn’t yet got an Aadhaar number.
There was further debate about linking Aadhaar to bank accounts. The Finance Ministry in the last couple of days extended the deadline to 31 March 2018 for linking existing bank accounts (and other financial services) to Aadhaar, though there remained some confusion about new bank accounts. The CJI said that their order would address this confusion.
(With inputs from PTI)