Six months after the central government made Aadhaar mandatory for midday meals in public schools, several states are struggling to enrol their students for the biometric-based 12-digit unique identity number.

Uttar Pradesh government had tabulated the Aadhaar numbers of just 33.5% of the students taking midday meals by September 7, 2017, according to data provided by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development under the Right to Information Act.

Although the process of seeding or linking education benefits with Aadhaar began in some states in 2016, the big push came last March when the central government made possessing the unique identity number compulsory for accessing a range of benefits, including midday meals. The scheme providing cooked lunch to government schoolchildren has been crucial in increasing enrolment and retention.

The announcement in March triggered a country-wide scramble to get children enrolled for Aadhaar, with the ministry tracking the progress, and occasionally prodding state governments to speed things up.

But enrolling children from rural communities and urban migrant populations has proved to be a daunting task. Many rural schools do not have electricity and the agencies hired to enrol children there allegedly showed no interest. Directives to organise enrolment camps yielded patchy results. Then, many children who did submit their biometric information at camps were not given enrolment slips and, therefore, did not get Aadhaar cards. In many villages, parents were compelled to sacrifice several days’ wages making trips to the closest towns for enrolment.

By September 7, only three states and Union Territories had reported 100% Aadhaar enrolment for midday meals – Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Andhra Pradesh. Nine reported over 90% but incomplete enrolment – Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Haryana, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Lakshadweep, Kerala, Goa and Jharkhand.

Of the states with over 20 lakh children in Classes 1-8, Uttar Pradesh’s record appears to be the poorest. Odisha’s is the second worst at 52.8%, followed by Madhya Pradesh at 66.41%, Rajasthan at 70% and Bihar at 74%. Barring Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, and Meghalaya, which are exempt, all states and Union Territories together have about 64% elementary schoolchildren with Aadhaar.

As for the rest, officials from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha have categorically said they are not denying midday meals to children without Aadhaar.

‘Covered much more’

As per the human resource development ministry’s data, of the 1.78 crore children in public elementary schools in Uttar Pradesh – the second highest in India after Bihar’s 2.07 crore – 59.7 lakh have Aadhaar. However, a senior official in Uttar Pradesh’s midday meal authority, requesting not to be named because he was not authorised to speak, disputed this figure saying the state has “covered much more”. “Approximately 60% children have been covered,” he said. “By about May-June, we had covered 48%.”

It has not been easy and the state is still struggling to get the job done. In July, the official said, the Uttar Pradesh Electronics Corporation and the Uttar Pradesh Development Systems Corporation Limited were entrusted with the task of enrolling children. “The plan was to club six-eight schools together and get all their students to go to one school,” he said. “But that did not work. Either the teams or the children were absent.” It was reported in July that the state would provide two computer kits per block for enrolment. “That could not be done either,” the official said.

Different states, same problems

Odisha’s director of elementary education, Chintamani Seth, said all 51 lakh children in the state will be enrolled within this academic session. Other state officials claimed that they have actually covered more children than reported. Pravat Kumar Mishra, assistant director, management information system, said over 90% of the children have been enrolled although only 68% have received Aadhaar numbers so far.

Charulata Mahapatra, of the All Utkal Primary Shikshak Federation, an organisation of primary school teachers, confirmed that schools were being pressed to speed up the enrolment. “My school has received a letter from the collectorate saying we must complete enrolment by October 13,” she said. “But we will not be able to do it.”

In Mahapatra’s primary school in Bhadrak district of Odisha, about 60% children do not have Aadhaar, she said.

Problems faced are near-identical across states. In Odisha, Mahapatra pointed out, many schools do not have power connections, and only the ones that can afford generators can hold enrolment camps. Rajasthan faces the same problem with schools in desert and tribal areas, said Ghanshyam Sharma, the state’s deputy secretary of elementary education.

In Odisha and Madhya Pradesh, enrolment agencies left camps without giving children enrolment slips. “When no Aadhaar card arrived, they went to enrol again at private centres,” said Mahapatra. “They were told their biometric information was already in the system and were turned away.”

Harsh Kumar Maran, of the Shaskiya Prathmik evam Madhyamik Shikshak Sangh, a school teachers’ association in Madhya Pradesh, recounted similar experiences. “Many students did not go to the camps held some years ago and many of those who did didn’t get receipts,” he said. “Now efforts are on at the cluster-level with children from 10-12 schools going to one school for enrolment.” A similar system is now in place Odisha and Rajasthan. In the latter, two schools in every block serve as enrolment centres. In all cases, teachers are responsible for getting the job done.

Screening enrolment

As previously reported, four states have found “fake students” linked to Aadhaar and deleted nearly 5 lakh names from their records. Jharkhand has deleted 2,26,826; Andhra Pradesh 2,15,840; Arunachal Pradesh 42,414; Manipur 13,909. In Manipur’s case, though, there appears to be an error in the human resource development ministry’s RTI response: it mentions the same number of children who have enrolled for Aadhaar. On September 13, Hindustan Times reported that Bihar had detected 13 lakh fake students even before completing the enrolment process. This was also not mentioned in the ministry’s RTI reply.

Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are still far from checking for and weeding out duplications. “We are checking alongside but have not noticed anything,” said Ghanshyam Sharma.

Odisha is not expecting a revelation either. That is largely because in 2005, the state had put in place a “child-tracking system” with a “unique child code” that does practically everything the Aadhaar is expected to do for schooling – help eliminate duplication of enrolment data, weed out cases where children are enrolled in multiple schools and prevent benefit-theft.

“Through the cluster resource centres, each with a dozen schools under it, we track children from birth,” said Pravat Kumar Mishra, the official in charge of the system. “We maintain a village education register and track a child’s movement even from public school into private. Over the past 10 years, we have been able to eliminate over 4 lakh duplications doing this.” Aadhaar, then, was not really necessary. But Mishra still welcomes it. “If there is any duplication left, the biometric IDs will help us detect it,” he said