Database over nutrition
In an unfortunate development, the Centre has recently announced that children at government schools will no longer receive their free midday meals unless they enrol for an Aadhar number. The 12-digit identity number, linked to biometric data, is now mandatory for schoolchildren and the "cook-cum-helpers" who serve them. Both children, as well as cook-cum-helpers, will have to apply for enrollment by the end of June. To be entitled to hot cooked meals from today until June 30, children will have to produce a whole host of documents—proof of having applied for Aadhaar, an undertaking by the parent or legal guardian that the child is not getting any meals from any other school, and a document to prove the child's relationship with the parent/guardian. A child could be refused a meal if he/she cannot produce the required documentation.
In a country with the highest number of malnourished children in the world, one would hope that the government would be desperately devising ways to better the standards of nutrition and health of our children. Instead, the onus is now on children and their parents/legal guardians to apply for an identity number first, before availing of a hot-cooked meal. More than 98% of adults in India have enrolled in the unique identification number scheme. The Economic Times, however, recently reported that of the 23.4 crore Indians who do not have an Aadhaar number till now, more than 90% are children. The move to make Aadhaar mandatory comes despite a Supreme Court interim order in October 2015 which allowed its voluntary use for availing of benefits but said no citizen could be denied a service or subsidy for want of the identification card.
However, the Centre found a route to bypass the court's order after enacting the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill in March last year. As per the new Aadhar Act passed last year by Parliament, an Aadhar card has become a necessary document for the "receipt of certain subsidies, benefits, and services". Early last month, the government made Aadhaar card mandatory for those availing subsidised food grains at Public Distribution System outlets. Some legal experts contend that such notifications are in violation of the apex court orders, which unequivocally makes Aadhaar "purely voluntary" till a final judgement is passed on the matter, and stands despite the passage of the government's Aadhaar Act. The case is now pending before a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court. Why is the midday meal scheme such an important instrument of state welfare? In action for more than a decade, the midday meal scheme, which is the world's biggest government-sponsored school lunch programme, seeks to improve the nutritional status of poor children. In the last financial year, more than 10.2 crore children were served meals. Many studies have shown how these meals provide parents with a strong incentive to send their children to school, thereby encouraging enrollment, not to mention better child nutrition and more effective learning.
Even though this newspaper has been critical of the government's Unique Identification System (UID), there is little doubt that if implemented with proper safeguards, the Aadhaar Bill could become one of the most progressive pieces of socio-economic legislation in the country's history.
Votaries of the system often argue that the technology used could stem political and bureaucratic corruption in the delivery of social schemes through direct income transfers. Much of the excitement surrounding the Aadhaar card has to do with these intended benefits—help eliminate fake beneficiaries and save public money. However, fundamental structural concerns remain, and the current system will only prevent specific types of leakages, such as those related to duplication in beneficiary lists. Poor states, where centrally-sponsored schemes are most needed, are not adequately prepared to deal with the structural issues that stand in the way. Moreover, the UID Authority of India's own Biometrics Standards Committee has noted that retaining biometric efficiency for a database "has not been adequately analysed".
Evidently, the mandatory provision for Aadhaar card should be waived off until there is 100% coverage. Despite the Centre's assurances, there are doubts whether government agencies, both at the central and state level, possess the necessary incentive to ensure that no one is left out.
Many reports and studies have documented that this policy has in many cases resulted in depriving poor people of the welfare they sorely need—elderly people without Aadhaar bumped off pension lists, MGNREGA workers denied their wages due to seeding errors and PDS card holders deprived of their food rations because of technical glitches with Aadhaar-based biometric authentication. Notifications issued by the government like the one for midday meals only increases the pressure on poor people to enrol in the Aadhaar database. Even though the government's intentions seem genuine, targeting children for enrollment and denying them of food for want of an Aadhaar card, seems extreme. Does the government care more about completing its Aadhaar database than filling empty stomachs? This decision is expected to come under the court's scrutiny.