Aadhaar and Midday meals

Politics of exclusion

Print edition : April 28, 2017

Pupils of Savarayalu Nayakar Government Girls High School having a midday meal in the school in Puducherry. Photo: S.S. Kumar

A demonstration in New Delhi on March 17 against the notification making Aadhaar mandatory for midday meals. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

The idea behind the extensive push for Aadhaar does not seem to be addressing the real issues confronting people, that of hunger and deprivation, but mapping them for some intangible purposes.

THE National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s singular obsession with pushing the linking of Aadhaar with a range of entitlements, especially those affecting the poorer sections of the population, has come as a surprise. When the move to map the country and its citizens with a Unique Identification Number, or Aadhaar, came first as the brainchild of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the NDA, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), opposed the project. Now it is resorting to various means by expanding the ambit in the name of efficiency and stemming corruption.

Between August 2015 and October 2015, Aadhaar was made compulsory for obtaining the benefits of the public distribution system (PDS) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) subsidies and later expanded to other schemes. In October 2015, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court placed restrictions on making Aadhaar contingent for a wide range of benefits and essentially held that a citizen could not be compelled to have Aadhaar as a pre-condition to access Centrally sponsored welfare schemes. Despite the court order, there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to show that people have been harassed and denied their legitimate entitlements, including their right to have a bank account, if they do not possess an Aadhaar card.

Moreover, some of the government decisions on expanding the requirement for Aadhaar were made part of the Finance Bill, 2017, thus sealing any option for contestation in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA does not have a majority. The Left and other opposition parties opposed the inclusion of amendments not related to taxation and finance, such as electoral bonds for political funding, in the Finance Bill as a form of “backdoor’’ entry. In the Rajya Sabha, Kapil Sibal of the Congress accused the government of violating the Supreme Court’s orders and said that the government’s explanation could “only be an arrogance of power”. He expressed concern over breach of privacy and the possibility of hacking of banking transactions if Aadhaar was made compulsory for filing of income tax returns. Aadhaar was envisaged by the UPA for “targeting subsidies for targeted people” and “not to pry into the affairs of people”, he said.

Sitaram Yechury, Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP, said: “By smuggling in non-financial matters and non-tax matters and defining the Finance Bill as a Money Bill, the Rajya Sabha had been deprived of its right to discuss matters.” Describing the inclusion of Aadhaar in the Finance Bill as the “worst kind of subterfuge”, he said it had been “smuggled” into the Finance Bill. He said the insistence on Aadhaar was leading to a “surveillance state in India”.

The Aadhaar (The Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services Bill) 2016 was passed by the Lok Sabha as a Money Bill, thus preventing the Rajya Sabha from incorporating and passing any amendments to it. The classification of the Aadhaar Bill as a Money Bill has been challenged in court by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh and the final verdict is awaited. However, despite the Supreme Court’s October 2015 ruling and the petition challenging the definition of Aadhaar as a Money Bill, the government has been aggressively pushing for the linkage of Aadhaar as a precondition to obtain benefits under Central schemes.

A press release issued by the head office of the Employees Provident Fund Office (EPFO) on February 7 stated that members and pensioners under the Employees Pension Scheme (EPS), 1995, were required to furnish their Aadhaar number by March 31. In case the member had not been allotted an Aadhaar number, a copy of the Aadhar enrolment ID slip was required to be attached to the settlement of claim under the EPS for pension processing and monthly pension payments. The same statement allowed for the extension of the last date of submission of life certificate by pensioners until March 31, noting that many pensioners were yet to submit their Aadhaar authenticated Jeevan Pramaan as life certificate for withdrawal of pension. It was evident that many people, pensioners and non-pensioners, were yet to avail themselves of an Aadhaar card.

In early 2014, the EPFO assigned a unique 12-digit Universal Account Number (UAN) to all EPFO subscribers. Now, subscribers are required to additionally “seed” the Aadhaar number to the UAN. The implication that all UAN members have to have an Aadhaar number was evident from the EPFO press release, which said that for those who were “yet to seed Aadhaar and bank details with their UAN, a new composite claim form (non-Aadhaar)” replaces the existing forms. Nowhere did the EPFO release state that having an Aadhaar was optional barring those schemes for which it had been made compulsory earlier and also upheld by the court.

The same modus operandi was followed for other schemes as well. In perfect synchronisation, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, in pursuance of Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act, notified that anganwadi workers and helpers working in anganwadi centres or mini anganwadi centres were required to furnish proof of possession of Aadhaar number or undergo an Aadhaar authentication. Those who did not possess the proof were required to apply by March 31, 2017. The notification was specific that the honorarium would be paid only through Aadhaar-seeded bank accounts with effect from April 1, 2017. Those who did not have such seeded accounts were to furnish proof of enrolment or a copy of the request made for Aadhaar enrolment or furnish either a bank photo passbook, voter identification card, ration card or kisan photo passbook, driving licence or PAN card or an MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act) job card or an employee photo identity card issued by the government or a public sector undertaking or any other document specified by the State government or Union Territory administration. It was also specified that in case the workers and helpers could not enrol owing to non-availability of enrolment centres in the blocks or tehsils or taluks, child development project officers were required to create enrolment facilities at convenient locations.

Nowhere did the notification state that the absence of an Aadhaar card, the absence of enrolment proof or the inability to furnish any other document verifying the identity of the person would not be used as a precondition for the non-release of the honorarium for these workers, who belonged to indigent families and many of whom were single women. The rationale given for the insistence on seeding the bank accounts with the Aadhaar was that the “use of Aadhaar as an identity document for delivery of services or benefits or subsidies simplified government processes, brought in transparency and efficiency and enabled beneficiaries to get their entitlements directly in a convenient and seamless manner” and obviated the need to produce multiple documents to prove one’s identity.

Further, as the Aadhaar Bill had been moved and passed as a Money Bill, the notification justified the seeding of bank accounts with an Aadhaar number on the grounds that the honorarium was paid by the Centre and State governments and involved recurring expenditure from the Consolidated Fund of India. This was the same grounds on which the Aadhaar Bill was introduced and passed as a Money Bill.

The government did not stop with this. Another notification, part of the same overall gazette notification, stipulated that “individuals desirous of availing themselves of the Supplementary Nutrition Programme offered at the anganwadi centres are required to provide proof of possession of Aadhaar number authentication with effect from April 1, 2018. Those who did not possess the number or had not yet enrolled would have to apply for such enrolment by March 31, 2018, provided he or she was entitled to obtain Aadhaar. Individuals could visit any Aadhaar enrolment centre listed on the UIDAI website. It may be recalled that the ICDS was the largest supplementary nutrition programme in the world for children in the zero to six years age group and for pregnant women and lactating mothers.

Aimed at exclusion

In a country rated very low in the hunger index, struggling to achieve zero infant and maternal mortality, and with a high rate of wasting and stunting in children in the zero to five cohort, the insistence on an Aadhaar number for those in need of supplementary nutrition is shocking in the very least. Even to expect such beneficiaries, the poorest among the poor, to access the list from the UIDAI website seemed ridiculous if not insensitive. Pregnant and lactating women were required to give an undertaking that they were not availing themselves of services or benefits from any other anganwadi centre. Even children up to the age of six were required to have an Aadhaar number or a copy of his/her request and the parent required to give an undertaking that the child was residing with him or her and that they were not availing themselves of the services or benefits for the child from any other anganwadi centre. Rather than put in place robust measures to ensure that supplementary nutrition was made universally available to all pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under five without any conditions whatsoever given the pathetic health indices, the government, through its notifications, was making Aadhaar a precondition for availing themselves of such basic forms of nutrition. The targeting was aimed at exclusion. All this was even more shocking because the government had recently committed itself to raising the health budget as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) to 2.5 per cent by 2025.

Not to be left behind, on February 28, the Ministry of Human Resource Development notified that those children in classes one to eight who were availing themselves of the national midday meal scheme aimed at improving their nutritional status would be required to furnish their Aadhaar numbers or undergo an Aadhaar authentication. Like the ICDS, the midday meal scheme is the largest school-based supplementary nutrition scheme for children in government and government-aided schools. The children who availed themselves of such food belonged to the poorer sections of society.

There is enough evidence to show that enrolment in schools had gone up in view of the provisioning of midday meals. The notification also said that the cooks and helpers were paid an honorarium (just like the ICDS workers and helpers) for their services, expenditure for which was incurred partly or fully from the Consolidated Fund of India. These cooks and helpers, the majority of whom are women, are also required to furnish proof of possession of the Aadhaar number or undergo Aadhaar authentication.

The Central government has been reluctant to treat the workers and helpers in the ICDS scheme or the cooks and helpers involved in the midday meal scheme as government employees entitled to a minimum wage and social security, engaged as they are in almost every government programme. The 45th Indian Labour Conference had recommended that workers under the scheme, including anganwadi workers, be recognised as employees and given benefits like minimum wage, pension and social security. Rather than addressing the real livelihood issues of these frontline workers, including their steadily increasing working hours, the emphasis to get them authenticated under Aadhaar and also putting the onus on them to help out with the enrolment for the beneficiaries seemed a skewed priority at best. The stress on identification also effectively served to distract from the real issues of reduced budgeting for ICDS as well as the midday meal scheme.

Interestingly, the Akshay Patra Foundation, which is the world’s largest school meal programme in the government sector, and claims to reach 1.6 million children in 13,529 government, government-aided schools and anganwadi centres in 11 States, has welcomed the linking of Aadhaar with the benefits. The Akshay Patra Foundation operates in a public private partnership mode with the Centre and the State governments.

After a hue and cry was raised, the Ministry for Women and Child Welfare issued a clarification stating that there was no plan to replace the hot cooked meals for children in the three-six age group in ICDS centres with dry rations to substitute the meals with cash transfers. It, however, stated that it was exploring conditional cash transfers instead of take-home rations in view of complaints regarding the quality of such rations. It was also thinking of launching pilot conditional cash transfer (CCT) in select districts. A.R. Sindhu, general secretary of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers, said that the idea behind CCT was to ultimately wind up the ICDS centres. She told Frontline that already in Telengana, the government had started direct cash transfers on an experimental basis. While pushing for enrolment under Aadhaar for the beneficiaries of the ICDS on the one hand, the government has drastically reduced the ICDS budget for 2017-18, which is far less than the budget estimates for 2015-16. It was half of the ICDS budget allocated for the 12th Plan.

The idea behind the extensive push for Aadhaar does not stem from a concern to address the real issues confronting people, that of hunger and deprivation, but is a plan to map them for some intangible purposes. Notwithstanding the concerns of privacy, the move seems more in the direction of exclusion rather than inclusion in the name of better targeting and efficiency.

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