These disclosures may be most damaging for those who are already vulnerable. Apar Gupta, a lawyer on the team that challenged Aadhaar before the Supreme Court, is particularly concerned about many Dalits (previously the “untouchables” in the caste system) and migrant laborers who work as manual scavengers, entering sewers without protection to clean them by hand. It’s a dangerous occupation with a high fatality rate, and it can also bring immense social stigma. Gupta worries that Aadhaar will permanently stigmatize these individuals by allowing future employers, schools, banks, and new acquaintances to view their database information and judge them based on their socioeconomic standing. Social mobility in India could become even more difficult. So could hiding a pregnancy or a gender-reassignment surgery, or failing the eighth grade. In many of the objections raised about Aadhaar, there’s a kernel of fear that the program could turn a person’s identity into a prison.
The August 24 Supreme Court ruling seemed to address these concerns, making the case that privacy is essential for an individual to function in society. “Privacy ensures that a human being can lead a life of dignity by securing the inner recesses of the human personality from unwanted intrusion,” Justice Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud wrote. In arriving at its decision, the Supreme Court rejected two previous decisions from the 1950s and 1960s that denied a right to privacy, and instead framed privacy as a “primordial” right that must be understood in the context of an interconnected world. The justices further emphasized the point by referencing international jurisprudence about privacy from the United States, Canada, South Africa, and the European Union.
That didn’t surprise Mishi Choudhary, the legal director of the Software Freedom Law Center, who noted that “we’re at a stage where technology is sweeping the planet in almost the same way. A lot of countries are looking to each other for guidance on how to adapt their jurisprudence to suit the current world.”
Over the last few years, Russia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria have all expressed interest in the Aadhaar program, and according to reports, representatives from Tanzania, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh recently visited India to learn more about implementing an Aadhaar system of their own. As the Supreme Court once again prepares for hearings about Aadhaar, the world will be paying close attention.