Centre for Internet & Society
Interview with Mathew Thomas from the Say No to UID campaign - UID Court Cases

by benoit.crouzet on flickr

The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) recently interviewed Mathew Thomas from the Say No to UID campaign about his ongoing efforts to challenge the UID scheme legally in the Bangalore High Court and Supreme Court of India. Read this interview and gain an interesting insight on recent legal developments with regards to the UID!

Hi Mathew! We've heard that you've been in court a lot over the last few years with regards to the UID scheme. Could you please tell us about the UID case you have filed?

In early 2012, I filed a civil suit at the Bangalore Court to declare the UID scheme illegal and to stop further biometric enrollments. I alleged that foreign agencies are involved in the process of biometric enrollment, and that cases of corruption have occurred with regards to the companies contracted by the UID Authority of India (UIDAI). Many dubious companies have been empanelled for biometric enrollments by the UIDAI and many cases of corruption have been noted, especially with regards to the preparation of biometric databases for below poverty line (BPL) ration cards in Karnataka.

In 2010, according to a government audit report, COMAT Technologies Private Limited had a contract with the Karnataka Government and was required to undertake a door-to-door survey and to set up biometric devices. COMAT Technologies Private Limited was paid ₹ 542.3 million for this purpose, but it turns out that the company did not comply with the terms of the contract and did not fullfill its obligations under the contract. Even though COMAT Technologies Private Limited had been contracted and had been paid ₹ 542.3 million, the company did not hand over any biometric device to the Karnataka Government. Instead, when the company got questioned, it walked away from the contract in 2010, even though it had been paid for a service it did not deliver.

In the same year, 2010, COMAT Technologies was empanelled as an Enrolling Agency of the UIDAI. COMAT Technologies also carries out enrollments in Mysore and a TV channel sting operation revealed that fake IDs were being issued in the Mysore enrollment center. After much persuasion, the e-Government department of Karnataka informed me that they have filed an FIR. And this is just one case of a corrupt company empanelled as an enrollement agency with the UIDAI. Many similar cases with other companies have occurred in other cities in India, such as Mumbai, where the empanelled agencies have committed fraud and police complaints have been filed. But unfortunately, there is no publicly available information on the state of the investigations.

As such, I filed a case at the Bangalore Court and stated that the whole UID system is insecure, that it will not achieve the objective of preventing leakages of welfare subsidies and that, therefore, it is a waste of public funds, which also affects individuals' right to privacy and right to life. In my complaint in the civil court I made allegations of corruption and dangers to national security backed by documentary evidence. According to Order 8 of the Civil Procedure Code (CPC), defendants are required to specifically deny each of the allegations against them and if they don't, the court is required to accept the allegations as accurate. According to law, vague, bald denials are not acceptable in courts. Interestingly enough, the defendants in this court case did not deny any of the allegations, but instead stated that they (allegations) are “trivial” and requested the judge to dismiss the case without a trial. The judge requested the defendants to file a written application, asking for the suit to be dismissed under Order 7, Rule 11, of the Civil Procedure Code. Nonetheless, in May 2012, the judge observed that this is a serious case which should not be dismissed and that he would like to have a daily hearing of the case, especially since the case was grounded on the allegation that thousands of crores of rupees of public money are spent every day.

However, one month later in June 2012, the judge dismissed the case by stating that I did not have a “cause of action” and that the case is not of civil nature under Section 9 of the Code of Civil Procedure. I argued that tax payers have a right to know where their money is going and that we all have a right to privacy and that therefore, I did have a cause for action. I quoted the Supreme Court case setting out the law relating to the meaning of “civil nature”. The Apex court said, “Anything which is not of criminal nature is of civil nature”. I also quoted several court precedents which explained conditions under which complaints could be dismissed under Order VII Rule 11. Unfortunately though, the judge dismissed all of this and suggested that I should take this case to the High Court or to the Supreme Court, since the Bangalore Court did not have the authority to address the violation of fundamental human rights. In my opinion, the fallacy in this judgement was that, on the one hand, the judge stated in his order that there was “no cause for action”, but on the other hand, he said that I should take the case to the High Court or to the Supreme Court! And on top of that, the judge stated that my case was frivolous and levied on me a Rs. 25, 000 fine, because apparently I was “wasting the court's time” !

In addition to all of this, the judge made a very intriguing statement in his order: he claimed that the biometric enrollment with the UIDAI is voluntary and that therefore I need not enrol. I argued that although the UID is voluntary in theory, it is actually mandatory on many levels, especially since access to many governmental services require enrollment with the UIDAI. Nonetheless, the judge insisted that the UID is purely voluntary and that if I am not happy with the UID, then I should just “stay at home”.

And how did the case continue thereafter?

In October 2012 I appealed against this to the High Court by stating that there was a misapplication of Order 7, Rule 11, of the Civil Procedure Code and requested the High Court to send the suit back for trial at the Bangalore Court.

Now, when you appeal in India, the Court has to issue notices to the opposite party, which are usually sent by registered post. However, nothing was happening, so I filed a number of applications to hear the case. The registrar’s office filed a number of trivial “objections” with which I needed to comply and this took three months, until January 2013. For example, one “objection” was that the lower court order stated the date of the order as "03-07-12", whereas I had mentioned the date as 3 July 2012. Then they would argue that the acknowledgement of the receipt of the notice from the respondents was not received. The High Court is located next to the head post office (GPO) in Bangalore and normally it would be sent there, then directly to the GPO in Delhi and from there to the Planning Commission or to the UIDAI. Yet, the procedure was delayed because apparently the notices weren't sent. In one hearing, the court clerk said that the address of the defendant was wrong and that the address of the Planning Commission should also be included. All in all, it seemed to me like there was some deliberate attempt to delay the procedure and the dismissal of the case by the Bangalore Court seemed very questionable. As a result, in January 2013, I asked the High Court to permit me to personally hand over my appeal to the Government Council. And finally, on 17th December 2013, my appeal was heard by the Bangalore High Court!

Over the last three months, the defendants have not filed any counter affidavit. Instead, the Government Council came to the High Court and stated that I have not filed a “paper book” (which includes depositions and evidence, among other things). However, the judge stated that this is not a case which requires a “paper book”, since my appeal was about the misapplication of Order 7, Rule 11, of the Civil Procedure Code. Then the Government Council asked for more time to review the appeal and it is has been postponed.

Have there been any other recent court cases against the UID?

Yes. While all of this was going on, retired judge, Justice Puttaswamy, filed a petition in the Supreme Court, stating that the UID scheme is illegal, since it violates article 73 of the Constitution. Aruna Roy, who is an activist at the National Council for People’s Right to Information, has also filed a petition where she has questioned the UID because it violates privacy rights and the rights of the poor.

Furthermore, petitions have been filed in the Madras High Court and in the Mumbai High Court. In 2012, it was argued in the Madras High Court that the only legal provision for taking fingerprints exists under the Prisoners Act, whereas the UIDAI is taking the fingerprints of people who are not prisoners and therefore it is illegal. In 2013, Vikram Crishna, Kamayani Bahl and a few others argued in the Mumbai High Court that the right to privacy is being violated through the UID scheme. It is noteworthy that in most of these cases, the defendants have not filed any counter-arguments. The only exceptions were in the Aruna Roy and Puttaswamy cases, where the defendants claimed that the UID is secure and supported it in general. In the end, the Supreme Court directed that the cases in Mumbai and Madras should be clubbed together and addressed by it. As such, the cases filed in the Madras and Mumbai High Courts have been sent to the Supreme Court of India.

Major General Vombathakere also filed a petition in the Supreme Court, arguing that the UID scheme violates individuals' right to privacy. When the counsel for the General commenced his arguments the judge pointed to the possibility of the Government passing the NIA Bill soon, which will contain provisions for privacy, as stated by the Government. As such, the judge implied that if the Government passes such a law the argument, that the Government is implementing the scheme in a legal vacuum, may not be valid.

So what is the status of your pending court cases?

Well, I impleaded myself in Aruna Roy's petition and brought my arguments with regards to corruption in the case of companies contracted with the UIDAI and the danger to national security through the involvement of persons linked to US intelligence agencies. The last hearing in the Supreme Court was on 10th December 2013, but it was postponed to 28 January 2014. So in short, in the Supreme Court I am currently filing a case for investigation with regards to corruption and links with foreign intelligence agencies by companies contracted with the UIDAI, while in the Bangalore High Court, I have appealed a civil trial with regards to the misplacement of Order 7, Rule 11, of the Civil Procedure Code.

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