On the morning of April 6, Uzma Begum took her nine-year-old daughter Iram to Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in East Delhi’s New Seemapuri in an attempt to admit her into the government-run school. She had to return home unsuccessful. “Ghar mein bithao [Make your daughter sit at home],” a teacher told Begum.

Iram does not have an Aadhaar number.

This year, the Delhi government made the 12-digit unique identification number one of the four mandatory pieces of information that a child is required to submit for admission into one of its schools. This is the final leg of a two-year-old government campaign in the national capital to push parents to enrol their children with Aadhaar.

The Delhi government justifies its move, saying that Aadhaar enrolment in Delhi is nearly complete and that this is the only viable way to track children through education systems, both public and private. The government argues that the insistence on every child having an Aadhaar number helps prevent duplication in school enrolment – a situation where a child has joined another school without formally withdrawing from the previous one she was attending. This has ostensibly curbed wastage of government funds, even though officials concede they have neither estimates of the extent of duplication eliminated nor of the resultant savings.

Activists counter the assumption that all children are already enrolled in schools. They say that the demand for Aadhaar is a violation of the Right to Education Act. “The Right to Education Act 2009 requires no documents – not even proof of age – for admission,” said lawyer and activist Khagesh Jha. “It exists to remove such barriers.”

Rajiv Kumar of the education non-profit, Pardarshita, added that several children were finding it difficult to enrol for Aadhaar because local enrolment centres “insisted on birth certificates and address proof which many children did not have”.

Jha is planning to legally challenge the Delhi government’s decision to make the production of an Aadhaar number mandatory for school admissions. An order of the Supreme Court in October 2015 specifies that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for any government scheme.

The admission process has already begun at Delhi’s Sarvodaya Vidyalayas, most of which start at the pre-primary level. Admissions into the regular government schools that start from Class 6 begin on April 17, but worried parents of children without Aadhaar numbers are already making enquiries.

Uzma Begum's daughter, Iram, does not have an Aadhaar card or any identity documents. Photo credit: Praveen Kumar Verma.

25 lakh children, 2,700 schools

The push for Aadhaar enrolment in Delhi’s schools began early in 2016.

The three municipal corporations in Delhi run about 1,700 primary schools till Class 5, while the Delhi government runs a little over 1,000 schools, most of which start from Class 6. In 2016-’17, they had between them roughly 25 lakh children enrolled.

Students till Class 8 in these schools are entitled to free books and uniforms. While books are distributed in schools, students get money for uniforms, and in municipal schools, for bags and caps too. The government also gives scholarships to students.

In 2015, the Delhi government moved from disbursing cash for these entitlements to transferring the funds directly into the bank accounts of students. A set of guidelines released in December that year by the Delhi Directorate of Education said that Aadhaar numbers were optional for opening bank accounts. But in 2016, prompted by the Centre to link all benefits to Aadhaar, the Delhi government changed its mind and made it mandatory to link these cash transfers to Aadhaar.

The option of Aadhaar-enabled direct-benefit transfers of scholarships and other entitlements had been pilot-tested in some Delhi districts in 2011-’12, but was not expanded at that time.

“The situation was different then,” said NT Krishna, former joint director, education, Delhi government. “The Aadhaar coverage was not complete and financial inclusion was not promoted as strenuously, so many children did not have bank accounts.”

In 2016, the Delhi government felt that the time was ripe to give cash transfers through Aadhaar-linked bank accounts.

“By March 2017, 96% of Delhi government school students had bank accounts and an equal number had Aadhaar cards,” said Krishna, who oversaw the process of linking the two. He has since retired from the directorate but has stayed on as a consultant to see the project to the end. “In our last meeting with the municipal commissioners, we were told that they had about 80% of their students covered.”

Keen to complete the coverage, the Delhi government has taken the next step: from linking cash transfers to Aadhaar, it has now made school admissions contingent on the child having the unique identity number.

Drop in enrolment

The government’s rationale is that Aadhaar can help save government funds that are wasted on duplication and what they refer to as “ghost children”.

Duplication is when a child moves to another school without formally withdrawing from the previous one. At the primary level, even when a child is absent from class for a long stretch, schools are not allowed to strike their names off their registers. A child is then on the rolls of two schools, both of which get government benefits in her name. The government argues that Aadhaar will help make sure this does not happen.

The term “ghost children” refers to fictitious students invented by school authorities to siphon off government funds. Officials from the Ministry of Human Resource Development have suggested that in three other states, linking Aadhaar helped detect over four lakh “ghost children”.

Notice board at a Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, Delhi, telling parents Aadhaar and bank account numbers are required for admission. Photo credit: Praveen Kumar Verma.

In Delhi, a non-profit organisation, Praja Foundation, noticed a drop in school enrolment figures in December, which it attributed to even the poor moving their children to private schools. But the director of education Saumya Gupta then attributed the drop to the mandatory linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts of children, which had helped eliminate duplication.

Krishna said that he was not in a position to estimate the extent of duplication that Aadhaar may have eliminated in Delhi government schools, or the funds it may have saved the government. “It is too early to say as the process [of linking] is still going on,” he said. “But that it will minimise corruption is the perception.”

However, Krishna also pointed out that the scope for siphoning funds through fictitious enrolments via so-called “ghost children” was limited in Delhi to begin with.

“That is not really possible,” he said, laughing. “The enrolment process is also online. The moment a child joins one of our schools, all the relevant data is instantly entered into our system. A unique identity number is generated, which the child carries right till the end of their school education no matter how many times they change schools within our system. Their attendance is recorded online from the very next day too. It is not really possible to make stuff up.”

This system was set up well before the Aadhaar-linking even began, he added.

But the system’s primary drawback was that it could track only those kids who remained within the schools run or aided by the Delhi government’s Directorate of Education.

“It was useful only locally, and there was no way to track children coming in from municipal schools, joining private ones or leaving the city,” said Krishna. This would change with the introduction of Aadhaar, he said.

Krishna added: “Now hospitals where children are born are authorised to enrol [children into Aadhaar]. In the case of home births, the community’s Anganwadi centres can help. And from that point, we can track where the child is going, through public systems and private, within Delhi and in other states. That tracking is mandated by the RTE [Right to Education Act].”

Private and government-aided schools have also been asked to start linking admissions to Aadhaar. So have Delhi government-funded institutions of higher education.

The case of absentees

But does Aadhaar actually eliminate ghost children?

Once Aadhaar was linked to the disbursal of cash entitlements, a school in Trilokpuri in East Delhi had about 100 “long absentees” deleted from its list. Another school in South Delhi had a few dozen. Principals at both these schools insisted that none of these were ghost children but were “cases of duplication”.

What the exercise seems to have actually captured is the peripatetic lives of migrant workers and their families in Delhi.

“Families are constantly moving,” explained the principal of the Trilokpuri school. “When a labourer earns less over a few months, he sends his family back to the village. Some had moved their children to budget private schools. Till Class 8, we cannot strike off the name of any child for lack of attendance.”

The principal said that he had returned about Rs 68,000 worth of unpaid scholarships and benefits this year, but added that the students never showed up to collect money anyway, let alone for mid-day meals.

“We did have some students who came only when money was distributed and were absent the rest of the year,” conceded the South Delhi principal. “But that number has been very low in Delhi.”

‘Aadhaar is convenient’

A court case related to the delayed disbursal of cash entitlements meant that the Delhi government could not wait till everyone had an Aadhaar-linked bank account to disburse amounts for uniform and textbooks in 2016.

According to Krishna, that time the directorate authorised schools to use regular bank transfers instead of paying via the Government of India’s Public Financial Management System, which requires Aadhaar-linked accounts.

Amounts for benefits and entitlements such as uniforms (till Class 8) and scholarships for students from reserved categories and educationally-backward minorities, are now directly transferred to Aadhaar-linked bank accounts. Photo credit: Raj K Raj/HT.

For students who did not have even a bank account, schools could issue cheques with the permission of the district office of the directorate. “We tried to avoid handing out cash as far as was possible,” he said.

He added that Aadhaar made things more convenient for the administration too as funds could be transferred using a single number instead of entering the account number and details of the bank and branch codes, which increased the scope for error.

Parents apprehensive

But as Aadhaar becomes mandatory for school admissions, none of this flexibility is visible.

Said Kuldeep Yadav, a primary teacher in a Delhi government high school: “Registration for non-plan admissions of students moving from outside Delhi or private schools into the Delhi government system] is online and the module will not accept an application till all details – including Aadhaar number – are filled in.”

Activists from Right to Education organisations said that they are facing complaints from parents who have made enquiries about admission and returned discouraged.

Pardarshita’s Rajiv Kumar has already had about 10 cases brought to him for help, and the non-governmental organisation will complain to the school district’s officials this week.

A good many children managed to sign up with Aadhaar last year after the Unique Identification Authority of India – the Union government agency responsible for rolling out Aadhaar – permitted school principals to introduce their students. Since under the Right to Education Act, schools are required to admit even those children without identity documents, this move meant that students in Delhi government schools without such documents managed to acquire Aadhaar numbers. “That worked for children who were already in school,” explained Kumar. “If Aadhaar is mandatory at admission, many children will be excluded.”

When she took her child to school, Uzma Begum was allegedly asked for proof that Iram was indeed her daughter. Begum has ration and Aadhaar cards, and utility bills, but her daughter has no identity papers.

“Iram was living with my mother in Etah, Uttar Pradesh, because I had fallen ill,” said Begum. “She has just moved back with us and has no identity papers unlike my other children who are in school.”

Begum assembles buttons on jeans for a living. Her husband is a handyman, doing odd jobs when they come to him. The couple and their three older children had signed up for Aadhaar earlier. But their youngest was left out.

To get Iram an Aadhaar number, the parents will now need a note of introduction from the local MLA since her parents have no documents to prove her identity, which is necessary for Aadhaar enrolment. “That alone may take several days,” said Begum. In the process, the parents would end up skipping work and losing wages, and the child would miss school.

The Delhi government organised Aadhaar enrolment camps in its schools last year, and the municipal bodies are organising them in their schools now. But school principals and teachers say that these can only help children already enrolled in school.

For those children without Aadhaar numbers and admission to school, Kumar sees parents making endless rounds of Aadhaar centres and other offices to get their documents in order. He says that for most parents who have not been able to obtain Aadhaar numbers for their children yet, the chances of being able to do so before admissions close are slim.

This is the first part in a series on the impact of Delhi government’s decision to make Aadhaar mandatory in schools.