India’s biometric ID, Aadhaar, is here to stay. This is the verdict of India’s Supreme Court which delivered a historic judgement today on a slew of petitions challenging the growing use of Aadhaar in the country. The apex court agreed that government can mandate its use to distribute government subsidies and benefits. It can also be required to be linked to the PAN, India’s tax ID number—an issue that has been hotly contested. However, Aadhaar will not be mandatory for opening bank accounts or getting mobile connections. Private entities cannot insist on Aadhaar as a condition for providing services. Most importantly, eligible beneficiaries cannot be denied their entitlements even in cases where their biometric authentication fails for some reason.
We are in the process of going through the text of the judgement, which runs into more than 1000 pages! What is clear is that the Court has struck a balance between the need for a foundational ID in a country like India and measures to limit its required use, in this case to applications that involve the raising and the use of public resources. This builds on the “proportionality” doctrine enshrined in the previous Court ruling on privacy, with the goal to ensure that use is appropriate and safeguards both privacy and agency of individuals over their personal data. In that sense, the Aadhaar judgement provides an opportunity to review what has been achieved and how we can move forward, building on areas of strength while addressing the challenges of the future.
At the Center for Global Development, we have undertaken a significant body of work on digital ID more broadly and Aadhaar in particular over the last half a decade (you can find it all here). Many of them are relevant to the Supreme Court’s observations on the benefits of the system and the issues that need to be addressed with urgency. We have documented that as an identity management system, Aadhaar’s digital architecture is unique, with low cost and high speed of enrolment. This is being closely studied by many countries around the world as they build their own digital ID systems—a contribution that India has made to the global discourse on identification and development. We have conducted field surveys of Aadhaar’s implementation in public subsidy programs in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, where we have found a high degree of support from beneficiaries for the new digital system. We also acknowledged that similar efforts in other states of India have faced significant challenges, especially in the distribution of in-kind food rations. We have argued for reducing biometric authentication errors that can lead to denial of benefits, something that the Supreme Court has ruled to be illegal. Finally, we have provided evidence on the role of Aadhaar in improving women’s financial inclusion that may have an impact on their economic and social empowerment in the future.
The Supreme Court judgement is the culmination of a long and healthy debate on Aadhaar, in the best traditions of a democratic society that India can truly be proud of. There is much work ahead, especially in terms of improving implementation and creating an enabling legal framework for data protection. As the judges observed, “it is better to be unique than the best”—but Aadhaar can aspire to be both.