I am not usually an opponent of Aadhaar, India's controversial scheme to give a unique identification number to all residents of India, with their biometric information seeded into it. Any fears that I may have about privacy or surveillance or misuse are overridden by my experience that what the poor want is to be counted, not the opposite. People are willing to line up for documents that will establish their identity and help them avail of schemes, in my experience. Corruption and leakage hurt the poor the most, and any scheme that seeks to count them in, establish identity and reduce corruption has my support. But not this time.
In a February 28 notification, the Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry has decided that students will need to sign up for Aadhaar by June 30 in order to continue to be eligible for the Mid Day Meal scheme.
The MDM is the world's largest school feeding programme, and provides a hot, cooked meal to every student in primary and upper primary schools in India. Research shows that the scheme improved enrolment especially for those from disadvantaged groups, reduced drop-out rates, improved child nutrition and ensured better child academic performance.
Undoubtedly, the MDM suffers from serious problems, including varying quality of meals, poor storage of supplies, inadequate assistance to school staff, siphoning off of provisions and delayed provisions; in the worst tragedy in the scheme's history, 23 children in a Bihar school died after the supplies used for the meal were poorly stored and got mixed with an insecticide. What the scheme does not suffer from is beneficiary fraud, of the sort that even the Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) suffers to an extent. Forcing students to enrol for Aadhaar, then, is simply that - a means to force enrolment into a system that was statedly voluntary, and whose non-compulsory nature has been reiterated by the Supreme Court. It is disingenuous in the extreme to bring in Aadhaar to solve the Mid Day Meal's problems.
Although over a billion Aadhaar cards have been distributed, there is ample evidence that neither coverage not usage and authentication run without glitches. The 2016-17 Economic Survey notes research that shows that some states face massive rates of authentication failure; 49% in Jharkhand and 37% in Rajasthan, for instance. Just this week The Times of India reported that in Kotra, a backward settlement near Udaipur in Rajasthan, residents were being forced to climb trees to authenticate their biometrics because the Point-of-Sale machines only caught intermittent network connectivity on treetops.
Aadhaar database and authentication errors can sound like technical glitches, but in the lives of the poor they are far more; missing a day's wages because the machine could not pick up a weather-beaten worker's fingerprint can be life or death for people living on the edge. Imposing this rule, in contravention of the Supreme Court's orders, in circumstances where beneficiary fraud is not the biggest problem, and in a situation where well-documented technical problems could disrupt a scheme that provides over 100 million children sometimes their only nutritious meal of the day is misguided and worse, criminal.