On February 28, 2017, the Ministry of Human Resource Development, invoking Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act, issued a notification for the mid-day meal scheme. According to the notification,
“any individual desirous of availing the benefit under the Scheme..are required to furnish proof of possession of Aadhaar number. … (Someone) who does not possess an Aadhaar number or has not yet enrolled for Aadhaar shall have to apply for Aadhaar enrolment by 30th June, 2017.”
Further, the notification states that
“till the time Aadhaar is assigned to such beneficiary benefits shall be given to such beneficiaries subject to the production of the following identification documents.”
Three documents will have to be produced:
- (a) Aadhaar enrolment slip or (b) copy of his/her request made for Aadhaar enrolment
- An undertaking from the parent or guardian that the child is not enrolled in any other school
- Any one of seven alternative identification documents.
According to the notification, if the child has not enrolled for Aadhaar he/she is required to produce her enrolment slip as well as two other types of documentation in order to remain eligible for school meals. Following questions about this draconian measure, a week later, the forcible enrolment of children into the Aadhaar database was packaged as ‘voluntary’ in a press release:
“…it has also been ensured that no one is deprived of the benefits for want of Aadhaar. In case of Mid Day Meal scheme and under the Integrated Child Development Scheme, schools and anganwadis have been asked to collect Aadhaar number of the beneficiaries and in case a child does not have Aadhaar, the functionaries will be required to provide enrollment facilities and till then the benefits will continue.”
There is no relaxation, but the headlines were managed: ‘Govt Relaxes Aadhaar Norm, Makes Other IDs Acceptable For Subsidy Schemes‘.
Many have fallen for this old trick of headline management. For instance, speaking in the Rajya Sabha, Jairam Ramesh (who should know better since he was in government until not so long ago and his government used this trick too) said, “It was criminal on the part of the government to say that 140 million children who are fed daily are only going to be fed if they produce an Aadhaar number…Only when there was a furore from the political parties that the HRD minister said, it is voluntary. You can have alternative means of identification.”
The notification issued on February 28 still stands, without any relief for children.
There are two reasons why the move to link Aadhaar with mid-day meals is questionable. First, in the current form of the Aadhaar Act, forcing children to enrol means subjecting them to lifelong tracking (without consent, as they are minors), without the possibility of opting out later in life (there is no such provision the in Act). Several parents have tweeted their concern about how they were forced to enrol their child. Interested readers can see this article by Kritika Bhardwaj.
Second, there is little or no role for Aadhaar in the mid-day meal programme. The notification suggests that the government only wants to ensure that children enrol for Aadhaar. That, by itself, will do nothing to improve the school meal programme. The children who eat at government schools are currently enrolled there and are entitled to mid-day meals without any additional proof. Aadhaar, contrary to its stated promise of reducing barriers to access, is creating barriers.
Even the push towards enrolment is likely to be hugely disruptive – it will likely derail not just the mid-day meal programme, but also educational activities in schools. Teachers and (over-stretched) school administration will be forced to make arrangements for Aadhaar enrolment. Once that is done, Aadhaar seeding will waste their time. This is exactly what has happened in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the public distribution system (PDS), where programme staff are unable to cope with their regular tasks because of the burden of Aadhaar, and in some cases have brought these programmes to a standstill.
If the government thinks that after all children have been (forcibly) enrolled, they will move towards daily biometric authentication before serving meals, that move will likely damage the mid-day meal programme. The application of Aadhaar in pensions, the PDS and MGNREGA has shown that this technology is very vulnerable to failure.
For instance, Aadhaar numbers are sometimes incorrectly seeded, often forcing people to travel to the block headquarters to request a correction and then wait a few weeks for the records to be updated. The UIDAI alone has an impressive error code list of fifty items! Or fingerprints may change or become unrecognisable by the authentication device, or the phone network or internet may not work. You cannot make life-saving entitlements (such as rations, pensions, scholarships) contingent on such weak systems.
Of course, the prior question is, what problem is the government trying to solve through biometric authentication? The only possible justification for it is “attendance inflation”: recording full attendance even though some children are absent.
Is attendance inflation a well-established problem in the mid-day meal scheme? Based on current research, the answer appears to be no. Apart from anecdotes (such as from newspaper reports and tweets), there is no evidence of attendance inflation.
If attendance inflation exists, the anecdotal evidence suggests that it could be for two reasons: one, official daily allocations are inadequate to provide food according to the menu. For instance, the current per child daily allocation is roughly Rs 5 per day, but on days when the mid-day meal is supposed to provide an egg along with rice and dal, this is inadequate. The shortfall is made up by attendance inflation wherever possible. (When this is not possible, teachers drive a hard bargain to get good prices, and in some cases, the community may also step in to help.)
Instead of being generous with funds, the government has been tightening the screws. On August 7, 2015, the central government discontinued the LPG subsidy to schools for the mid-day meal. Could there be better beneficiaries of the LPG subsidy than children studying in government schools?
Another reason for attendance inflation is to siphon off funds. In such cases, it is the administrators (teachers, organisers, cooks, helpers) who fudge records. It is they who need to be held to account and punished, not children. Introduction of biometric authentication will end up punishing children for no fault of their own.
If attendance-inflation exists, there are better solutions – for instance, teachers can SMS the number of children each day and the block office can randomly select some for a surprise verification of the numbers.
The mid-day meal is one of India’s most successful social policies, with far-reaching benefits in terms of school attendance, child nutrition, learning efforts and so on. The most pressing problems in mid-day meal implementation (better menus, providing safe storage and cooking spaces, timely release of funds) cannot be resolved by Aadhaar linkage. The mid-day meal Aadhaar notification can be hugely disruptive for our fragile government schooling system. Disruption may be a good a thing in the world of business, but school education is not the place for it.
Reetika Khera teaches at IIT Delhi.