11/01/2018 11:01 AM IST | Updated 11/01/2018 11:04 AM IST

The Supreme Court Of India Raised An Important Humanitarian Question About Aadhaar

A question the government should have seen coming especially as the winter sets in.

Cathal McNaughton / Reuters
Women wrap themselves in blankets in a government shelter for homeless people to escape the cold in Delhi, India January 16, 2017.

In the days since a newspaper's investigation exposed a possible breach in India's biometric database of millions, several questions have been raised about the security of the identity card the government of India wants every citizen to register for. In all the controversy surrounding the Aadhaar card and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government agency that issues them, there's a humanitarian question that should have been asked, but wasn't — on access to night shelters by India's homeless as a cold wave grips North India. That's when the Supreme Court stepped in.

During a hearing on lack of night shelters for homeless people, the Social Justice Bench headed by Justice Madan B Lokur asked the Uttar Pradesh government if a permanent address was mandatory for Aadhaar enrollment to avail of welfare services.

The Uttar Pradesh government indicated that the homelesswere required to have documents, Aadhaar included, if they wanted to use night shelters. The court wasn't amused.

"So, how do homeless people get Aadhaar if they have no home or a permanent address," Justice Lokur reportedly said. "Does this mean that they do not exist for the Government of India," he added.

According to the 2011 Census, there are 1.77 million homeless people in India.

According to The Hindu, Additional Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the UP government, argued that the urban homeless were migrants from villages and therefore were likely to have permanent address proofs.

"We are talking about human beings who have no place to stay. Those who have no place to stay have to be given a place to live," Justice Lokur is reported to have observed. "As per records and statistics available, it seems that 90 crore Aadhaar cards had been issued by the government, but what about the people who are homeless and destitute. How will they make Aadhar if they don't have an address," he said.

READ: 'We're Not Shooting The Messenger': UIDAI On The Back Foot After Media Slams FIR Against Reporter Who Exposed Data Leak

In her investigative report, Tribune correspondent Rachna Khaira claimed that access to the Aadhaar database of more than 1 billion citizens was being sold for just Rs 500 ($8). The Tribune newspaper said it bought login details to the Aadhaar website from touts on WhatsApp and had access to personal information such as the names, numbers and addresses of millions.

To address concerns about data security, the UIDAI on Wednesday put in place a two-layer security system, according to reports. The virtual identification for ID holders will entail generating atemporary16-digit random number that can be shared instead of the actual 12-digit Aadhaar number.

According to independent estimates from civil society organizations, there are an estimated 150,000 – 200,000 homeless people in Delhi, 40,000 – 50,000 in Chennai, 200,000 in Mumbai (including Navi Mumbai), 100,000 in Ahmedabad and 150,000 in Kolkata.