Children at government schools look forward to mid-day meals served at their institutions. Today however, the meal which once came to these children free of cost, will now come with ‘conditions apply’. The Ministry of Human Resource Development declared yesterday that children at government schools would be denied free mid-day meals if they did not have an Aadhaar card. The card carries a 12-digit identity number, which electronically holds one’s biometric data. The necessity to have the Aadhaar identity has been imposed on the “cook-cum-helpers” at schools as well. By June 30, these children (and cooks) must be enrolled in the Aadhaar scheme, if they still want to eat free hot meals at school.
India is one of the highest ranking countries in the world which has a high percentage of malnourished children, according to the World Bank. It is nearly twofold of that of Sub Saharan Africa. On the Global Hunger Index, India ranks 67 among 80 countries.
The government’s priority therefore, should be to feed the children, rather than arm-twist them into getting an Aadhaar Card.
The Center’s decision comes in conflict with the Supreme Court. The latter had ruled in 2014 that in the overall scheme of things, the Aadhaar card would not be mandatory and that, “no person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhaar number in case he/she is otherwise eligible/entitled” (http://bit.ly/2mXR3qZ). As a consequence, it requested all the national institutes and authorities across the board to ensure that the Aadhaar card was mentioned in their forms as a document which was not compulsory. In 2015, the Supreme Court reiterated, “the Aadhaar card Scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other.” (http://bit.ly/2m5FIpD)
In an attempt to defend its mid-day meal decision, the government reasoned yesterday that Aadhaar cards were necessary since it made the process of delivery of services easier, smoother and transparent. “The use of Aadhaar as identity document for delivery of services, benefits or subsidies simplifies the government delivery process and enables beneficiaries to get their entitlements directly and in a seamless manner,” a senior HRD ministry official told NDTV.
However, back in November 2016, the same government had underscored that Aadhaar cards weren’t that necessary – that, in the absence of an Aadhaar card, a citizen could still be eligible to the government services provided he/she gave alternative proof of identification. At that time, the Minister of State for IT and Electronics, PP Chaudhary had stated, “Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act Act provides that if an Aadhaar number is not assigned to an individual, the individual shall be offered alternate and viable means of identification for delivery of the subsidy, benefit or service.” (http://bit.ly/2mXClQB)
In the light of these things, the government has been stealthily pushing to make the Aadhaar identification mandatory, slyly violating the Court’s ruling, by targeting the vulnerable groups of society – children/students, senior citizens, the economically underprivileged, and women. This is not the first time the government has announced the compulsion of having an Aadhaar Card – but its modus operandi is by strong-arming people to enroll.
For instance, this year, the Aadhaar Card had been made compulsory for school and college students who wished to be eligible for the Central Government Scholarship and National Means-cum-Merit Scholarship schemes. In addition, the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry announced that the students who were granted the scholarships already and did not have the Aadhaar number, would have to apply for the card by June 30. This compulsion echoes the step taken by the government which made the Aadhaar card necessary for those candidates who were applying for the NEET 2017 exam.
In December 2016, the government panned its lens at the senior citizens (http://bit.ly/2lGxJgK1) and announced that in order for them to be eligible for railway concessions on both counter and e-tickets (which ideally should be their right), it was mandatory for senior citizens to have an Aadhaar card. This would be applicable from April 1, 2017.
Here’s the kicker though: the government intends on making the Aadhaar card compulsory for all railway ticket bookings in the coming future. Speaking on the senior citizens’ concession subject, the IRCTC Chairman A K Manocha had told PTI, “This is a most ambitious push to Aadhaar-based ecosystem in Indian Railways network that would end fraudulent bookings and curb cases of impersonation. In future, all ticket bookings will require an Aadhaar card.” And that seems highly likely since there is a possibility of the Aadhaar card becoming mandatory for all online ticket bookings (http://bit.ly/2mpbpwz).
In May 2016, Modi generously launched an LPG scheme for poor women. Called the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, it was created to provide Below Poverty Line (BPL) households, five crore LPG connections, which amounted to Rs. 8,000 crores. However, in October 2016, the Petroleum Ministry released an order which delineated that individuals who sought to avail of the LPG scheme would be “required to furnish proof of possession of Aadhaar or undergo Aadhaar authentication.” Citizens were asked to request and apply for an Aadhaar number by November 2016.
At the beginning of this year, the Labour and Employment Ministry released a statement saying that those who wished to gain benefits from the Employees’ Pension Scheme, had to have an Aadhaar card. It stated, “Members and pensioners of the Employees’ Pension Scheme desirous of continuing to avail pension and membership to the Employees’ Pension Scheme … are hereby required to furnish proof of the possession of the Aadhaar number or undergo Aadhaar authentication.” The employees had till January 31, 2017 to enroll into the Aadaar scheme.
These are only a few examples. The government has a straight-forward, systematic strategy. The Aadhaar scheme was introduced in 2010, and in 2016, the Centre had planned to cover the entire population by March 2017. Although the government has been able to get a significant percentage of citizens to enroll (it was reported in 2016 that the Aadhaar was given to 103.8 crore people; http://bit.ly/2mCWU93), it hasn’t achieved it’s goal of covering the entire population – which explains the sudden deluge of Aadhaar-related announcements of late.
As of 2016, there were about 21.7 crore children who had not applied for the Aadhaar card. Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) CEO Ajay Bhushan Pandey told PTI in 2016 that in order to improve these figures, it would focus on children and senior citizens, pushing them to enroll in the scheme. “There are some gaps in the age group of 0-5 years, 5-18 years and those above 60 years of age, as also certain pockets in the country where the coverage is lesser…so we are focusing on it,” he said.
The government is pushing to ensure that the citizens enroll in the Aadhaar scheme. While it intent, arguably so, may be for the benefit of the people, the government must refrain from using its arm-twisting method as its means-to-an-end.