THE Modi government is determined to coerce people to join the Aadhar Unique Identification Number by making all sorts of government schemes and services available to citizens only on the basis of Aadhar.
The latest instance is the notification issued by the human resource development ministry making Aadhar compulsory for children to avail the mid-day meal scheme in government schools. Not only that, all the cooks and staff who administer the mid-day meal scheme will also have to be registered with the Aadhar number.
The imposition of Aadhar for the mid-day meal scheme is an attack on the right to food for children. The entitlement for food for children in schools cannot be hedged by any conditionalities. If a child is deprived of food because of the lack of an Aadhar number, it would be abhorrent.
What is shocking is the blatant disregard for the Supreme Court’s repeated orders that Aadhar cannot be made mandatory for availing government services and benefits. A five-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court headed by the then chief justice of India had, in its order dated October 15, 2015, stated: “We impress upon the Union of India that it shall strictly follow all the earlier orders passed by this Court, commencing from 23.09.2013. We will also make it clear that 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”.
An interim order of the court had stated that the Aadhar card cannot be used by the government for any purpose except the public distribution system and for distribution of cooking fuel such as kerosene and LPG. The Modi government has been contravening this order by extending the Aadhar as compulsory for MNREGA, distribution of pensions and other government schemes. The latest is the decision of the railway ministry that Aadhar verification would be mandatory for concessions for senior citizens in the railways from April 1, 2017. The railway ministry has also announced that Aadhar based online ticketing system would be introduced in this financial year.
The making of biometric authentication mandatory for MNREGA workers has led to many being denied wages because of the failure of the fingerprint identification; the same problem has occurred for accessing foodgrains by public distribution system cardholders. The UID scheme is being enforced for excluding people from their entitlements.
There are serious concerns about the way the biometric data stored is being used. The US companies which were contracted for the data collection were given free access to the data. These companies are linked to the intelligence and security agencies of the US.
The concerns about privacy of the data of individuals led to the bench of the Supreme Court recommending that a wider constitution bench be set-up to go into the whole issue of Aadhar and its mandatory use. Unfortunately, such a constitution bench has not been set up though sixteen months have passed.
In the face of this delay, the government is pushing ahead and making Aadhar, de facto mandatory. It is reported that the government is planning to make Aadhar mandatory for 50 more schemes in the next few weeks.
Faced with criticism over the drive to make Aadhar mandatory for several welfare schemes, the central government has resorted to prevarication. The government issued a statement on March 7, 2017 which clarified that no one will be deprived of their benefits for lack of a unique identity number and the benefits will be given till a UID number is assigned.
So under the mid-day meal scheme, the schools have been asked to collect the Aadhar number of the children beneficiaries and in case a child does not have the UID number, the school authorities will have to provide for enrolment and till the number is assigned, the benefits will continue. This will just add to the burden of the school authorities and lead to harassment of children and their parents.
The government should forthwith withdraw the order making the Aadhar identification compulsory for children for mid-day meals in schools. It should observe in letter and spirit the Supreme Court directive not to make Aadhar mandatory for government schemes and benefits till a final verdict is given in the matter.
(March 8, 2017)