India has the highest number of malnourished children in the world. You would imagine people in the government would be having sleepless nights thinking of ways to improve the nutrition and health of children.
As it turns out, the government believes children need identity numbers more badly than they need food.
The government has decided that all school children will have to produce Aadhaar numbers to get their free mid-day meal. They have been given time till the end of June to apply for Aadhaar. Until they get the Aadhaar number, they will have to produce another identity document along with proof of having applied for Aadhaar. If a child isn’t able to do that, she could be refused a meal.
For those who don’t know what Aadhaar means – and there are few such people in India, given that 98% of the adult population has been enrolled in the Aadhaar database – it is a 12-digit unique number issued to a person after taking their fingerprints and iris scans. In the case of children, biometrics aren’t mandatory for acquiring an Aadhaar number.
Why is the government so desperate to get children enrolled in the Aadhaar database that it is willing to put one of its most critical nutrition programmes at stake?
More than ten crore children – that’s 100 million – get free mid-day meals in government schools across India. The meals have acted as a great incentive for parents to send their children to school.
In the past, the government has justified the mandatory use of Aadhaar in government welfare programmes, claiming it helps eliminate fake beneficiaries and saves the wastage of public money.
But as reports and studies have documented, this policy has been disastrous – it has resulted in poor people being deprived of the welfare they badly need.
All that this policy has achieved is put pressure on poor people to enrol in the Aadhaar database.
Now the government has taken this policy to its extreme by targetting children. It has declared that it wants to enrol 100% Indians in the Aadhaar database by March 2017. Ninety percent of those still to be enrolled are children.
Making the mid-day meal contingent on an Aadhaar number shows the government cares more about completing its database than filling empty stomachs.