Yesterday, the Supreme Court delivered its first verdict in a series of legal challenges that have been made against the Aadhaar project. In the present matter, the court was examining whether a provision of the Finance Act, 2017 that made Aadhaar mandatory for filing of income tax returns and applying for Permanent Account Number (PAN) cards was constitutionally valid. The court has upheld the validity of this provision, subject to a few qualifications. Below, we discuss the background of the Aadhaar project, why the courts have stepped in to examine its legality, and some aspects of the recent judgement.
What is Aadhaar about, and how is it being used?
Earlier, various identity proofs were required for access to governments benefits, subsidies and services, such as a ration card, driving license or voter id. However, as these proofs could be easily duplicated or forged, there was leakage of benefits and subsidies to ineligible beneficiaries. The Aadhaar project was initiated in 2009 to address these problems. It was envisaged as a biometric-based unique identity number that could help identify eligible persons. It was thought to be a more reliable identity proof, because it sought to authenticate a person’s identity based on their unique biometrics, like fingerprints and iris scans.1
In 2016, Parliament enacted the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 to provide legislative backing to the project. This Act allowed Aadhaar to be used for authentication purposes by the central and state government, as well as by private bodies and persons.
Under its provisions, government has been issuing various notifications making Aadhaar mandatory for government projects, such as LPG subsidies and Mid-Day Meal scheme. In addition, in 2017, Parliament passed the Finance Act to amend the Income Tax Act, 1961, and made Aadhaar mandatory for filing of income tax returns, and applying for PAN.
What is the information collected under Aadhaar?
To obtain an Aadhaar number, a person is required to submit their : (i) biometric information (photograph, 10 fingerprints, scans of both irises), and (ii) demographic information (name, date of birth, gender, residential address) to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). The Aadhaar number, the demographic and biometric information (called identity information) is together stored in the Central Identities Data Repository. In addition, every time a person’s identity is authenticated using Aadhaar, information related to the authentication request is recorded as well.
How is this information protected?
While India does not have a comprehensive law on privacy and data security, the Aadhaar Act, 2016 has some protections. For example, it prohibits UIDAI and its officers from sharing a person’s identity information and authentication records with anyone. It also forbids a person authenticating another person’s identity from collecting or using their information without their consent. Other protections include prohibitions against publicly displaying a person’s Aadhaar number and sharing of a person’s fingerprints and iris scans with anyone. Note that there are penalties prescribed for violation of these provisions as well.
However, the Act permits information be disclosed in the interest of national security and on the order of a court.
The UIDAI authority has been made responsible for the operation and maintenance of the Aadhaar database, and for laying down the security protocols for its protection.
Why did the courts step in?
Even as Aadhaar is being rolled out, with about 111 crore of the 125 crore population already on the database, there are several important constitutional and legal questions around the unique identity project. While yesterday’s judgement addresses one of these issues, other questions remain unresolved. A description of the key legal questions is provided below.
Privacy: It has been argued that the collection of identity data without adequate safeguards interferes with the fundamental right to privacy protected under Article 21 of the Constitution. Article 21 guarantees right to life and personal liberty. In August 2015, a three judge bench of the Supreme Court passed an order stating that a larger bench must be formed to decide the questions of: (i) whether right to privacy is a fundamental right, and (ii) whether Aadhaar violates this right. However, the court has not set up a larger bench to hear these petitions till June 2017.
Mandatory vs voluntary: Another question before the court is whether Aadhaar can be made mandatory for those government benefits and services, that citizens are entitled to under law. In 2015, the Supreme Court passed some interim orders stating that: (i) Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for providing citizens with benefits and entitlements, and (ii) it can only be used for seven schemes including PDS distribution of foodgrains and kerosene, LPG distribution scheme, MGNREGA wage payments, and Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan Yojana.11
Subsequently, Parliament enacted the Aadhaar Act, 2016, and the government has been issuing notifications under it to make Aadhaar mandatory for various schemes.3 In light of this, more petitions have been filed challenging these notifications. Judgements on these petitions are awaited as well.
Linking Aadhaar with PAN: In 2017, after Parliament made Aadhaar mandatory for filing of tax returns and applying for PAN under the Income Tax Act, 1961, fresh petitions were filed in the Supreme Court. The new provision stated that if a person failed to link their PAN with the Aadhaar number by a date notified by the central government, their PAN will be invalidated. The government said this will decrease the problem of multiple PAN cards obtained under fictitious names and consequent tax fraud and tax evasion, because Aadhaar will ensure proper identification.1, However, the petitioners argued that this may interfere with a person’s fundamental rights, such as their right to practice any profession, trade or business and right to equality. It is this question that has been addressed in the new judgement.1
Money Bill: The fourth question is related to the manner in which the Aadhaar Act, 2016 was passed by Parliament. The Act was passed as a Money Bill. A Money Bill only needs to be passed by Lok Sabha, while Rajya Sabha may make non-binding recommendations on it. In case of the Aadhaar Act, Rajya Sabha made some recommendations that were rejected by Lok Sabha. It has been argued before the courts that the Aadhaar Act does not qualify as a Money Bill because it contains provisions unrelated to government taxation and expenditure.13,
What has the judgement held?
The Supreme Court has held that the new provision of the Income Tax Act that makes Aadhaar mandatory for income tax assessees is not in violation of the fundamental right to equality, or the fundamental right to practice one’s profession or trade. The petitioners had argued that the new provision discriminates between individual and non-individual assessees (e.g. companies or firms), because it only seeks to address tax fraud by individuals. They had also contended that Aadhaar could not address the problem of tax fraud through duplicate PANs because there was evidence to show that people had multiple Aadhaar numbers as well. The court rejected these arguments (as well as arguments related to freedom to carry on business), stating that Aadhaar is perceived as the best method of eliminating duplicate PANs, and therefore there is reasonable rationale behind linking the PAN database with Aadhaar.1
The court decided not to examine questions related to human dignity and privacy, on the ground that issues affecting Article 21 will be examined by a larger bench to be set up by the court. However, it granted relief to people, who have not enrolled for Aadhaar, by stating that their PAN cards cannot be invalidated till the time when the matter is finally decided by such a bench.
This, in effect, means that the debate around constitutionality and legality of the Aadhaar project will remain ongoing till a judgement is finally pronounced on whether Aadhaar is in violation of right to privacy under Article 21.
 Sections 7, 8 and 57, Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016.
 Unstarred Question No. 4126, Lok Sabha, March 27, 2017; Unstarred Question No. 1209, Lok Sabha, February 9, 2017; S.O. 371 (E), Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, February 8, 2017, http://dfpd.nic.in/writereaddata/Portal/Magazine/Document/1_211_1_aadhaar-notification.pdf; S.O. 369 (E), Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, February 8, 2017, http://www.egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2017/174076.pdf.
 The Finance Bill, 2017, http://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/the-finance-bill-2017-4681/.
 Regulations 3 and 4, Aadhaar (Enrolment and Update) Regulations, 2016.
 Sections 28-47, Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016.
 Section 33, Section 23, Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016.
 Section 23, Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016.
 “UIDAI achieves 111 crore mark on Aadhaar generation; Unique identity covers over 99 percent adult residents of India”, Press Information Bureau, January 27, 2017.
 Justice K. Puttaswamy (Retd) and Another vs Union of India and Others, Supreme Court, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 494 of 2012; Jairam Ramesh vs Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) 231 of 2016; S.G. Vombatkere and Another vs Union of India and Others, Supreme Court, Writ Petition (Civil) 797/ 2016; “Aadhaar: What are the pending cases before the Supreme Court”, Indian Express, May 31, 2017, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/aadhaar-what-are-the-pending-cases-before-the-supreme-court/.
 Justice K. Puttaswamy (Retd) and Another vs Union of India and Others, Supreme Court, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 494 of 2012, September 23, 2013, August 11, 2015, October 15, 2015.
 “The Aadhaar/ PAN Judgement”, Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog, https://indconlawphil.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/the-aadhaarpan-judgment/.
 “Aadhaar: What are the pending cases before the Supreme Court”, Indian Express, May 31, 2017, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/aadhaar-what-are-the-pending-cases-before-the-supreme-court/.
 Uncorrected Lok Sabha Debates, March 22, 2017, Pg. 240, http://18.104.22.168/newdebate/16/11/22032017/Fullday.pdf.
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.