By linking mid-day meals to Aadhaar, government risks the lives of children

It will only worsen the state of malnutrition and affect school attendance.

In a series of moves, the central government has issued 15 notifications linking social welfare schemes to Aadhaar. The most worrisome among them was issued by the Ministry of Human Resource Development that told schools that to avail mid-day meals, children across the country would need Aadhaar cards.

Without resolving issues related to fraud, quality and reach of mid-day meals, the government has recklessly linked it to Aadhaar — something that would lead to exclusion of children from the scheme and worsen the state of malnutrition.

Against this backdrop, it is important to analyse why the government must withdraw its decision.

Firstly, the notification will affect 10.03 crore children of the total enrolment of 13.16 crore in 11.50 lakh schools (as per the data collected during 2015-16).

The decision to link mid-day meals to Aadhaar is violative of the Supreme Court orders and will lead to exclusion of many children. (Credit: PTI photo)

There have been multiple reports of fraud with respect to mid-day meals — fake enrolments of students and teachers in schools to get rations, corrupt ration dealers, mid-day meal thefts by teachers, etc.

There was also a sting operation by a journalist showing that fake IDs can be used to get an Aadhaar number. A latest survey by Child Rights and You revealed that mid-day meals in 27 per cent of schools across Madhya Pradesh were either not being cooked inside a designated kitchen or the schools did not have a kitchen space.

A photograph of two girl students of Class 5 of a government primary school in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur preparing mid-day meals also went viral on social media recently.

According to a 2004 Supreme Court ruling, children in drought-hit areas are entitled to receive mid-day meals even during vacations. But the court’s order on supplying mid-day meals during summer vacations was openly defied by three states.

Instead of appointing independent food commissions as mandated under the National Food Security Act, state governments have allegedly delegated the job to consumer redressal forums, women’s commissions and even child protection commissions.

Funding for the National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education increased from Rs 9,700 crore in 2016- 2017 to Rs 10,000 crore in 2017-2018. Various experts have stated that the budgetary allocation is not sufficient to implement the Supreme Court orders to provide mid-day meals during summer vacations in drought-hit areas.

The scheme has been active since 2013, but the levels of malnutrition in India still haven’t shown any signs of improvement.

During 2015-2016, as many as 24 districts in Jharkhand were declared drought-hit and the children did not get mid-day meals.

The Jharkhand government’s department of home, jail and disaster management had notified the state HRD department six months in advance that the state was affected by drought. Yet, the government did not take any preventive measures to ensure that the children get mid-day meals.

The reasoning behind this apathy reported by various sources is the lack of inter-department coordination. But no measures have been taken to ensure coordination or prevent such future negligence by the state government.

The latest notification states that the use of Aadhaar as identity document will simplify the delivery process. According to the ministry, the move is aimed at ensuring greater transparency and to increase overall efficiency. But the government has not provided any rationale as to how linking Aadhaar would solve issues related to inter-department coordination or compliance with the Supreme Court orders by state governments.

The mid-day meal scheme is a centrally-sponsored programme to boost the universalisation of primary education by increasing enrolment, retention and attendance in primary and upper primary classes. Linking of mid-day meals to Aadhaar will in reality affect these aims.

Elderly people without Aadhaar have been removed from pension lists, NREGA workers have been denied wages due to Aadhaar seeding errors and PDS card holders have been deprived of their food rations because of technical glitches with Aadhaar-based biometric authentication.

Even in schools where the schemes have already been linked, there has been a drop in beneficiaries. Despite all these reports, the government still insists on linking the schemes.

According to nutritional surveys conducted by various organisations, majority of the children from rural India, especially from states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, depend heavily on mid-day meals for nutrition.

Moreover, for Aadhaar, internet access is required to authenticate the beneficiary’s identity. But not all schools in India have access to internet.

The government has not answered how does it intend to complete Aadhaar authentication in areas without internet access, and how children in areas with low connectivity will get an Aadhaar number or mid-day meals.

Children in rural areas generally do not have birth certificates, required for Aadhaar registration, and this would lead to their exclusion from the scheme.

“Numerous studies show that India’s mid-day meal scheme has made an important contribution to higher school attendance, better child nutrition and more effective learning. Mid-day meals also help break the barriers of class and caste by imparting to children of diverse backgrounds a habit of sharing meals,” the Right to Food Campaign (RFC), an umbrella of hundreds of organisations and individuals, said in a recent statement.

But by linking mid-day meals to Aadhaar, the government will undo the progress made by the scheme.

Mid-day meal scheme has made an important contribution to higher school attendance, better child nutrition and more effective learning. (Credit: PTI photo)

HRD minister Prakash Javadekar recently stated that in cases where facilities for Aadhaar cannot be created, the state governments will provide the unique numbers to the students. No action plan, however, has been made available since the announcement stating how the state governments will provide unique numbers to students and how these IDs will be monitored by the government.

On March 27, Congress leader Motilal Vohra raised the issue of linking mid-day meals to Aadhaar during the Zero Hour in Rajya Sabha. “It seems the government has decided to take away the free food scheme from school children.”

Javadekar countered by saying, “I want to tell this House that no one will be deprived of mid-day meals. Everybody will get it and they will get Aadhaar card as well. In cases where facilities for Aadhaar cannot be created, the state governments will provide the unique numbers to the students.”

He added that a large number of beneficiaries already have Aadhaar cards and facilities will be made to enroll the remaining students as well.

Despite the vague statement, this has been interpreted by multiple online media sources to mean that Aadhaar will not be mandatory for mid-day meals anymore.

However, the gazette notification on the HRD ministry website has not been updated nor have any orders been issued withdrawing the notification. Thus, the status of the notification, which should be withdrawn, remains vague.

The government’s decision to link mid-day meals to Aadhaar is violative of the Supreme Court orders and will lead to exclusion of many children. India has an obligation to provide nutritious meals to all Indian children, and without conditionality.

The latest notification could worsen the state of malnutrition amongst children in the country, especially in rural areas. The government must not make rash decisions and risk the lives of millions of children in India.

The malnutrition levels in rural areas show that children in these regions are in dire need of social welfare. And the linking of schemes to Aadhaar would exclude the neediest from the purview.

It will violate their right to food, and India would in turn violate its international commitments.

[Copyright By WAMIKA KAPUR