Days after news broke of the central government mandating that children will not be served mid-day meals at school without Aadhaar cards from June, it turns out that five central government ministries have in the last week issued a series of 14 similar notifications for 11 schemes, including access to primary and secondary education.
In this, the central government continues to violate a Supreme Court order of October 2015 specifying that the Universal Identification Document, commonly known as Aadhaar, cannot be made mandatory for any government scheme. It can only be used as voluntary identification for five specific government programmes: public distribution scheme, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, National Social Assistance Programme, Jan Dhan Yojana and for LPG subsidies.
No schemes of this sort are among the 14 notifications from the Ministries of Social Justice and Empowerment, Human Resource Development, Health and Family Welfare, Labour and Employment, and Women and Child Development issued since February 21.
The notifications follow a similar format: they describe the general benefits of Aadhaar, the scheme and its beneficiaries, and lay out a deadline for enrolling in Aadhaar to continue accessing these schemes. None of the notifications specify the particular benefits of Aadhaar for that particular scheme.
While most deadlines for application range from the end of March 2017 to 2018, the Labour ministry’s notifications mandate beneficiaries to apply for Aadhaar by the same date on which the ministry issued the notification.
Privacy in question
Beneficiaries of government schemes who will have to apply for an Aadhaar number and have their status logged into the Aadhaar database include immensely vulnerable groups such as children between 6 and 14 years old, women rescued from sexual trafficking, and even disabled citizens who wish to apply for or continue getting scholarships or government-funded aids and appliances.
Other beneficiaries listed in these notifications include adults who are not literate and seek skill training, health workers, aspiring women entrepreneurs and those seeking career guidance and jobs.
The notifications have also raised concerns of privacy of beneficiaries, such as women rescued from trafficking and other groups. In February, several instances of security weaknesses in Aadhaar, through leak of demographic data of children and instances of private firms illegally storing biometrics have come to light.
“This manipulation at the highest level is not good for the country and democracy,” said Bezwada Wilson, National Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan and one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court case against the mandatory implementation of Aadhaar.
People from the most discriminated against communities like ragpickers and safai karmcharis do not want their identity to be revealed, Wilson noted. Pointing out the privacy issues in surrendering biometric details to the government, he added, “Tomorrow, I can become doctor or a journalist. Why should I reveal what I have done previously?”
Education rights ‘violated’
For education activists, making Aadhaar enrollment mandatory for accessing an umbrella scheme like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is a “clear violation” of the Right to Education Act.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, funding for which is shared by the Centre and most states in a 60:40 ratio, is meant to support the implementation of Right to Education and help achieve universal elementary education. Consequently, its funds go toward a very wide range of activities including building new schools and maintaining existing ones, supplying textbooks and uniforms, paying teachers and running special training centres for out-of-school children. All children in public schools in the six-14 age-group are likely to be beneficiaries and, therefore, required to produce Aadhaar cards.
Lawyer and education activist Khagesh Jha pointed out that the act itself was created to “remove barriers to education” and has been interpreted to mean that no documents will be required for a child in the six to 14 age-group to take admission in a school. “This is violation of the fundamental right and of the Act,” he said. He also added that this is the first barrier – in the shape of a required document – being introduced in schools across India. In some states, including Delhi, Aadhaar has already been made mandatory and scholarships and other amounts are transferred directly into bank accounts linked to the unique identity numbers.
“When no document is required for enrollment, how can they ask for Aadhaar to access a scheme like SSA?” asked Ambarish Rai of the Right to Education Forum. “To get an Aadhaar card, in practice, you are asked to produce residence [and identity] proof. Many families do not have any. Landlords hesitate to endorse applications. Migrant families will be excluded in the process.”
There are two ways in which a resident can enrol oneself in Aadhaar: by producing two existing valid ID or, for those unable to produce such ID, by the “introducer system” through an introducer appointed by a registrar. A Right to Information query filed by Scroll.in, the Unique Identification Authority of India shows that till 2016, when over 105.1 crore residents had enrolled, only 8,47,366 – or 0.08% – got Aadhaar through “introducer system.” Over 99.9% had to show two pre-existing ID to obtain an Aadhaar.
Disabled children, already out of school in large numbers, will be further deterred.
“As per the last sample survey by IMRB-Social and Rural Research Institute , 28% of disabled children were out of school,” observed Radhika Alkazi of Astha, an organisation that works with disabled children. “There are already huge barriers to getting into school and staying on. Adding one more pre-condition is cruel.”
Aadhaar number has been made mandatory for accessing a range of schemes of the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, including pre and post-matric scholarships, free coaching and travel allowances. The scheme for distributing aids and appliances been added to the SSA in the case of disabled children. “Certification is already such a cumbersome process and now more people will give up along the way,” said Alkazi. “The irony is, we now have a new act. While policies are being strengthened, on the ground they are being constantly undermined.”
Rai suspects the process of linking the schemes is intended to help weed out “fake enrollments and beneficiaries”. Till now, funds for most functions were released on the basis of enrollment reported by schools. “Now they want to track all children in that age-bracket,” he added. “But this exercise is dangerous and will lead to many being excluded. Unique IDs have nothing to do with enrollment, retention or quality.”
The time allowed for applying for Aadhaar is not sufficient either, felt activists. For most education or related schemes under the Ministries of Human Resource Development and Social Justice and Empowerment, the deadline is June 30. Teachers or staff-members employed under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan have to enroll Aadhaar up too and by June 30. “Three-and-a-half months for a country like India is nothing,” said Alkazi. But beneficiaries of adult education schemes – Saakshar Bharat for skill-development and another one supporting NGOs and private organisations in the field of adult education – have till the end of the month.”
Said legal scholar Dr Usha Ramanthan: “They are making it clearer and clearer that the Unique Identification project is not about inclusion or reaching one’s entitlements, but coercion and exclusion. Now that they have reached children, I hope people will realise what this project is about.”
MRIDULA CHARI, ANUMEHA YADAV & SHREYA ROY CHOWDHURY