Anara Devi, a 50-year-old domestic help in Delhi and a migrant from Uttar Pradesh is the first working woman in her family. When her granddaughter was born last year, Anara Devi wanted her to have access to the best school facilities.
For this, she tried signing the child up for Ladli, a Delhi government scheme that provide financial assistance for a girl's education till secondary school. However, Devi’s granddaughter was turned away because the eight-month-old was not enroled in Aadhaar, a project that aims to assign a biometrics-based number to every resident.
The Delhi Women and Child Development Department officials would not allow her benefits under the scheme without an Aadhaar number.
Devi said her daughter-in-law had given birth in the government-run Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi. “But they insisted on an Aadhaar for her,” she said, showing a copy of the birth certificate. “We missed out on Rs 11,000 benefit despite my granddaughter having been born through an institutional delivery.”
The Aadhaar or Unique Identification project was run under an executive order from 2009 when it was launched till this year. State governments, including the Delhi government, effectively made the Aadhaar mandatory for several schemes. In Delhi, it was made mandatory for the Ladli scheme, leading to exclusion of children like Devi's grand daughter.
After several cases were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the legal and constitutional validity of the project, the court passed orders in October 2015 allowing the voluntary use of Aadhaar in only five schemes. In March 2016, National Democratic Alliance passed the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits, and Services) law.
The new Aadhaar law states that the government can ask residents to produce an Aadhaar number for accessing any "subsidy, benefit or service". The law states that "if an Aadhaar number is not assigned" to an individual, they may use alternate means of identification. During the debate in parliament, however, legislators pointed out that when a government agency asks for an Aadhaar number mandatorily, a beneficiary has no choice but to get an Aadhaar number.
The government aims to cover the entire population, especially infants and children, under Aadhaar by March 2017.
Driving enrolment up
More than 98% adults in India are enrolled in the centralised Aadhar database and the government's focus has now shifted to children.
The Prime Minister’s Office has asked for five major central schemes for children to be linked to Aadhaar, reported the Economic Times on August 22.
Of 23.4 crore Indians who do not have an Aadhaar number till now, 92.7%, or 21.7 crore, are children, the report said. Of this, children below the age of five have the lowest enrolment rate, at 23%.
“Aadhaar enrolment for adults is nearly complete,” a senior official in the Cabinet Secretariat told Scroll.in. “The focus will now be on children.”
The Centre now plans to link to Aadhaar the mid-day meal scheme for schools; the Integrated Child Development Services scheme, which provides supplementary nutrition to infants; Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan for universal education; and the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, to safeguard rights of children.
However, gauging from the challenges that families in Delhi face while getting their children enrolled under the biometric-based identification scheme, this is not going to be an easy transition for beneficiaries.
Struggle to get registered
In Lal Gumbad camp, a slum in Delhi’s Sheikh Sarai area, Jia Devi and Ram Laali, whose husbands work as daily wage labourers in the national capital, had fared only marginally better than Anara Devi.
They had to travel 650 km to their village in Raebareli district of Uttar Pradesh, to get their daughters enrolled under Aadhaar.
“The staff at the Aadhaar enrolment centre at the Saket court in Delhi turned me away, saying my daughter is not even a year old, so we rushed to our village to get her enrolled so that she could avail herself of the Ladli scheme,” said Jia Devi, holding her 11-month-old.
Ram Laali said she had enrolled her three-year-old in Aadhaar in Delhi a year ago, but when they did not receive her Aadhaar number by post even months later, they were worried she would be left out of government schemes. “We then took her to our village as it would be easier to enrol there a second time,” said Ram Lalli.
Suneeta, a migrant from Rajasthan, said she had to make four trips with her two infants, aged three and five, to an Aadhaar agent’s shop in Delhi’s Khirki before she could get them enrolled.
She needed her children to have Aadhaar numbers so that her family could get their full government rations.
Under the National Food Security Act, 2013, low-income households are entitled to five kilo per head of subsidised foodgrains every month, from ration outlets. However, since the Delhi government has linked food ration to Aadhaar, beneficiaries have to enrol even infants under the identification scheme so that the family can get its full per-capita entitlement.
At Jagdamba camp, an adjoining slum, residents shared similar stories of having to make repeated trips to enrolment centres to get their children enrolled.
Laxmi Chauhan, a home-maker in her 20s, said both her husband and her son cannot get their five-kilo share of subsidised food grains because they do not have an Aadhaar card.
“They both enrolled, but we never received their Aadhaar card,” she said. “My son Vansh was two years old when we got him registered. When I tried to sign him up a second time, the staff said ‘iski toh already slip cut hui hai’ (they have already issued a slip for him). But if I show a print out of the enrolment slip to officials while trying to avail of the government schemes, it has a photo of a two-year-old. He is six years old now and officials say this is not the same boy.”
She added in exasperation: “What should I do – make him look as small as he does on the enrolment ID slip?”
Nearly all families reported having paid bribes ranging from Rs 30 to Rs 300 to sign up at privately run enrolment centres and for updating any details, such as change of address, on Aadhaar.
Consent of children
The Unique Identity Authority of India or UIDAI that issues Aadhaar numbers recognises that children below the age of five cannot give their biometric information as their finger prints and irises are yet to be fully developed.
So for children below 5, the UIDAI captures only the image of their face, and makes it mandatory for both parents to submit their Aadhaar and the child’s birth certificate. One parents’ fingerprint has to be submitted as a digital signature.
The children then have to enrol again once they turn five, when their biometric information will be captured. They have to enrol a third time and update their biometric data when they turn 18.
Officials believe linking schemes to Aadhaar allows better monitoring. “For instance, once an infant is enroled, delivery of nutritious meals in anganwadis [a government-run centre that provides meals and non-formal pre-school education to children] and vaccinations can be monitored,” said an official in the Cabinet Secretariat. “Aadhaar will also allow better monitoring of pre-natal care, check-ups of pregnant women.”
Child nutrition experts said making Aadhaar enrolment contingent on birth certificates will lead to large-scale exclusion of children from social schemes.
“In villages, births are noted in anganwadis and panchayats, but nearly 50% of families in North India do not have birth certificates and will get excluded,” said Dipa Sinha, an activist with Right to Food campaign.
Sinha said the government is ignoring the real problem and is focusing on something that need not be priority. “The main problem in mid-day meals is not of duplicate beneficiaries but of the quality of nutrition, and low budgets for the scheme,” she said. “How does linking the scheme to Aadhaar fix this?”
Legal experts raised concerns that enroling children in a biometrics-based database amounts to a violation of of their privacy as they are too young to provide informed consent.
One of the major concerns around Aadhaar has been that biometrics data is continuously being collected and centralised under the project even while India lacks a privacy law. The Supreme Court is set to form a constitution bench to examine the contours of the right to privacy flowing from the government's arguments in the Aadhaar case.
“After all the claims made about respecting citizens’ consent, how does the government explain collection of data of minors who cannot give such consent,” said Chinmayi Arun, executive director of Centre for Communication Governance at the National Law University, Delhi. “Is there a system in place to purge their data without trace if they decide at the age 18 that this is too grave a violation of their privacy?”
Dr Usha Ramanathan, a legal scholar, criticised the government for making Aadhaar mandatory for schemes covering infants and small children. “Already, Delhi has recorded instances where financial benefits and vaccinations were denied to infants under these schemes,” said Ramanathan. “By pushing Aadhaar on to infants, the government seems to be focused only on completing its database.”
Ramanathan added that the government was experimenting on infants and children with untested technology.
In a recent interview to Business Standard, ABP Pandey, director general of UIDAI, said that research was underway on whether the print of infants’ heel was more fully developed, and hence, more suited for capturing as biometric data during Aadhar enrolment.
During the Rajya Sabha debate on the Aadhaar Bill in March, finance minister Arun Jaitley too had spoken of this. “The fingerprints of a two-year-old will evolve and change,” he said. “Twenty years later, on his Aadhaar biometric details, those fingerprints would not be valid. Now, some of the experts who came, said, fingerprints would evolve and change, but there is one new information, as a part of biometric information, which doesn't with age. It is the printout of the heel…”
Said Ramnathan: “They themselves admit that they are experimenting with biometrics. What gives government the authority to experiment on anyone? The only group that will benefit in this process is technology manufacturers.”
Arghya Sengupta, research director at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, which assisted the government in drafting the Aadhaar law, passed as a money Bill in March, said that the concerns around children’s consent as well as exclusion could be addressed through regulation.
“The baseline principle has to be that enrolment cannot be without consent and in the case of children, consent will have to be through parents or guardians,” said Sengupta. “Whether someone will have the right to rescind consent on becoming an adult is something that will have to be seen. Such a provision can be made through regulation.”
He added: “I am hopeful that there will be a robust grievance mechanism. The law should be a tool for inclusion, not exclusion.”