The Supreme Court of India upheld the sanctity of personal individual privacy as enshrined in the Constitution of India last week in a landmark ruling, which was widely considered as a setback to the Government of India, though the Government lawyer denied it saying that he welcomed the ruling.
The intent of the Government was to ensure that it had access to citizens’ data to deliver e-services, eliminating middle men and corruption which are endemic in the Indian system of bureaucracy. Most of us from India have felt that there was a strong need to automate routine government services, avoiding the requirement to visit government offices, which are notorious for their poor services and demands for money to execute simple tasks. We have seen and experienced how other developed countries deliver such services efficiently and without much ado, and with zero corruption.
India has successfully implemented the world’s largest national identification system (called “AADHAAR”) based on biometric data of citizens. Though the card is unwieldy, and possibly prone to misrepresentation, it has emerged as the one single identity for all Indian citizens. The PAN or Permanent Account Number Card which is held by most Indians has served as the identification proof for many years, but it was predominantly meant to be used in connection with Income Tax matters. The government now intends to link the Aadhaar Card with the PAN Card in the Income Tax system, thereby clearly establishing the identity and address of the individual tax payer.
Coming back to the privacy case in the Supreme Court of India, it was funny to note the inconsistencies in the arguments put forward by the government on various occasions. The government said that personal privacy, though a fundamental right of citizens, is not “absolute” – it does not give absolute rights to the individual on privacy and privacy has to operate within reasonable limits. The government lawyer went to the extent of arguing that citizens do not have absolute rights over their “own bodies”. Can you believe that?
If there is one institution in India which does not take nonsense, it must be the Supreme Court. For more than couple of decades, Indian Supreme Court Judges have acted as the balancing force between the executive (the government) and the parliament, and have generally been protective of individual citizens and their rights. I was not surprised to learn that in this crucial case of individual privacy, they acted to support the individual, rather than the government. While arguments flew back and forth, it was apparent that the Court was not going to play around with fundamental rights of citizens, irrespective of the needs of the government.
It is critical for the government to deliver e-services to citizens efficiently; it is also important for the government to deliver subsidies to deserving citizens such as farmers. However, the Supreme Court of India differed with the government on the need to sacrifice the privacy of the individual in order to be able to deliver something of value and importance to that individual.
I do not think the government will contest this ruling, or try to pass a legislation to overturn the ruling. I am sure that the current government is pragmatic, if not anything else. They have heard the ruling, and have reconciled themselves to the fact that nothing much is actually going to change on the ground. “Reasonable restrictions” can still be applied to the data collected.
What this case proves is that while access to and use of citizens’ data are critical to various requirements of the government, there needs to be strong safeguards for data privacy and protection before any individual data can be seen or processed. Consent of the individual concerned is of paramount importance before his data can be “touched”. There are no absolute guarantees, everyone understands that, but there has to be a consciousness on the part of the government as to the criticality of the data and the potential for abuse and misuse.
Kudos to the Supreme Court of India for this ruling, coming so soon after another landmark ruling regarding the triple talaq divorce case.
India is setting new milestones as it grows into the next phase of its social development.
Cheers, and have a great weekend,
26th August 2017