The success of welfare schemes in India is often thwarted by dubious delivery mechanisms. It is well known that many of the welfare measures do not actually reach the people for whom they are intended. The government decided that one way to overcome this problem was through the introduction of the Aadhaar card, which would enable the transfer of funds into the bank accounts of beneficiaries. But from the beginning, the Aadhaar card and the attendant unique identification number have been mired in controversy. For one thing, it was never quite clarified if the possession of the card was voluntary or mandatory. The Central government held that it was voluntary but many state governments have made the possession of the card a condition for receiving any kind of government funds, from pensions to scholarships. The Supreme Court, responding to a series of petitions, has issued an interim order to bring clarity to the situation. The order said that the holding of the Aadhaar card is not mandatory.
While the order of the apex court clears the ground at the practical level, there are some fundamental issues concerning the Aadhaar card that remain unaddressed. Many, including this newspaper, has argued that the card (or, to be more precise, the information that the card records) represents an invasion into the private space of individuals. That information enables the State to oversee, whenever it wants, the activities of its citizens. The card thus enhances the powers of the State, which assumes the position of the proverbial Big Brother watching over the lives of individuals. Embedded in the card is the potential of restricting the autonomy and the privacy of individuals. This goes against the very spirit of democracy. Yet the government of the world’s largest functioning democracy remains unconcerned about this. Another aspect is equally important. The lack of clarity on the part of the government of India has created a space for the judiciary to intervene in what is an executive decision. It is significant that the judiciary is yet to comment on the constitutionality of the Aadhaar card but the very fact that there is something of a face off between the judiciary and the executive on the matter is revealing of an unhealthy feature of democracy in India. A feature that is becoming noticeable more often than it should.