Linking midday meal to Aadhaar wrong

The government’s decision to make Aadhaar mandatory for children to avail midday meals in schools and nutrition under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme as well as for disabled students to get scholarships is wrong and ill-conceived. The decision was notified this week and it has given the students only a few weeks to comply with it. Aadhaar has been made mandatory for 11 services under a number of ministries like health and child welfare, too. The government says the decision has been taken for the sake of transparency and efficiency in the working of the programmes. The midday meal programme covers 10 crore children in 11.5 lakh schools, and most of these children are unlikely to have Aadhaar numbers. To send lakhs of such children for registration in the next few weeks is not a good idea.

The midday meal programme has played a great role as an enabler in school education. It has attracted lakhs of students to schools and reduced dropout rates. It has done much to improve literacy, and is among the best social welfare schemes in the country. The scheme might suffer a setback if it is insisted that all beneficiaries should have Aadhaar cards. The condition might turn out to be a disincentive as many parents may not be able to get the cards for the children. Efficiency and transparency are not very relevant in the case of the programme in which beneficiary fraud has hardly been reported. Most of the irregularities and deficiencies in the working of the programme have been found to be related to food adulteration, hygiene and logistics. These cannot be addressed with the Aadhaar card stipulation. If a child without the card eats a meal, what is the problem? The government might want to increase the enrolment in the Aadhaar card scheme, but the meals of school children and scholarships of disabled students should not be used for that.

Importantly, the government notification is in violation of the Supreme Court order which has laid down that Aadhaar card is not mandatory for receiving government subsidies and that ‘no person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhaar’. It has also said that the card scheme is voluntary and cannot be made compulsory till the court takes a final decision on the matter. The constitutional validity of the scheme is yet to be decided by the court. Aadhaar is a useful tool and it should be used to facilitate welfare schemes, not to disrupt them and deny benefits to the people.

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