The Supreme Court on March 21 raised an important question on the mandatory linking of Aadhaar card for drawing pension by retired government employees.
The top court has rightly observed that pension is “not a subsidy but an entitlement of a person for years of service he/she has rendered to the government in the discharge of official duties“.
The five-judge bench comprising CJI Dipak Misra justices AK Sikri, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan is hearing a bunch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar Act on the premise of the citizen’s fundamental right to privacy.
The pension is an entitlement under the respective central or states civil and defense service rules (as applicable) and not a benefit under any of the social schemes. Therefore, there seems to be no basis for its inclusion under Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act, 2016.
There are some practical problems which must be taken into consideration. Whether one wants to admit it or not, due to the fast-crumbling joint family system, a majority of the pensioners are leading independent and lonely lives for decades now. Then, there are many more cases where their children have relocated to distant cities away from them within India and even overseas in search of gainful vocations.
It would definitely amount to undue stress and pressure on such pensioners if they are deprived of their pension because of Aadhaar card. That would not just be unfair but criminal.
The situation for women drawing widow pension and other dependent beneficiaries of such pensions is even worse. Senior citizens suddenly asked to prove their identity for the pension through an Aadhaar card may really be at a loss if for years they had led a dignified life without such an identity.
And all this when all retired central or state government pensioners have the pension payment booklets or service books – as applicable from state to state duly certifying all of their personal details, including the pictures of both the spouses (in case married) and even those of any legally accepted dependent member of the pensioner.
It is also a known fact that the biometrics do undergo a change with advancing years, and in many cases, fingerprints may no longer remain readable or match perfectly.
The SC has, therefore, rightly suggested that the government needs to come out with less invasive ways of confirming the identity of a person. The bench has rightly raised the issue of retired persons settled abroad, highlighting that as per rules, only Indians can enroll for Aadhaar or else only if they spend a minimum stipulated period of continuous stay back in India in a year. This calls for ensuring that any non-resident Indian can also get his/her pensionary dues as they are debarred from applying for Aadhaar. The central government alone has nearly 55 lakh pensioners enjoying this entitlement and the numbers in all states put together are much larger.
It may be recalled here that the apex court has already ruled twice in October and December 2015 that citizens cannot be forced to produce their Aadhaar to avail government’s welfare schemes and benefits. Though the change and switch over to Aadhaar as a single source of identity seems good in the longer run, considering the multiplicity of various benefit-specific IDs created from time to time covering our huge population, it has to be prudently paced to match its success with good governance.
The SC rightly questioned the central government “if Aadhaar was an instrument of establishing the identity of a person, then what was the need for storing data in a centralized repository and linking the unique identification with everything“.
“Why you want to store data when you want the identity of a person to be established in Singapore, everyone has a unique identification card and all information is stored in a chip card and is not with the state,” said justice AK Sikri
The top court said that the govt.should come with less invasive ways of confirming the identity of the person. SC said linking Aadhaar with the pension should not be mandatory. The bench raised the issue of retired persons settled abroad, pointing out that as per rules, only Indians can enroll for Aadhaar. In this case govt. must ensure that non-resident Indians can also get the pensionary benefits as they cannot apply for Aadhaar.