The Delhi government has launched a massive data collection drive in the Capital’s schools – and it has immediately run into controversy.

A circular issued by the Directorate of Education on September 11 directs all schools to gather personal information of not only their students but “of all family members”. The details it seeks to collect include names, addresses, educational qualifications and, more controversially, Aadhaar and voter identity numbers. The drive will cover all of the city’s 1,020 state schools and nearly 1,700 recognised private schools. The schools have been given 10 days to complete the exercise.

The circular has drawn opposition from administrators of both public and private schools, not least because the circular is evasive about the purpose of the exercise. It merely states that the intention is “to create a data bank of students of Delhi and to analyse the information so collected for various purposes of the department”. It does not specify what the “various purposes” are.

SK Bhattacharya, president of the Action Committee for Unaided Recognised Private Schools, an umbrella organisation of Delhi’s private school associations, suspected a “political agenda”. “What is the educational purpose this will service?” he asked. “I would have understood if they wanted to know about students’ performances or teachers’ qualifications. What will they do with Aadhaar cards and voter cards? This will probably be used by the government at the time of elections.”

Bhattacharya’s view was echoed by an East Delhi government school principal, who also lamented the “number of teaching hours that will be wasted” in collecting the information.

A data analyst with an opposition party pointed out that asking for voter identity numbers is a “complete give away” that the information will be used for political purposes. Asking for Aadhaar without specifying if the 12-digit biometric-based identity number will be linked to any benefits for students is suspicious as well.

However, Manish Sisodia, Delhi’s deputy chief minister and education minister, claimed the exercise is only meant to determine how many students enrolled in Delhi’s schools are actually living in Delhi. The data bank will not be used by the ruling Aam Aadmi Party for election campaigns, he insisted.

Though the circular directs schools “to collect comprehensive information”, Sisodia said, the disclosure of the more sensitive details is voluntary. Parents are free not to disclose their Aadhaar or voter identity numbers.

According to the government’s estimates, Delhi has around 40 lakh schoolchildren, 16.5 lakh of them in state-run institutions.

Burden on Delhi

Sisodia claimed the exercise was conceived after his visits to state schools showed that even adding 9,000 classrooms since 2015 had failed to relieve crowding. “We have spent so much on education, built so many classrooms but the status remains the same and there are still 80-90 children in a class,” he said. Some two months ago, he ordered a survey of two schools in East Delhi and found that 61% students at one school and 51% at the other were from outside Delhi. “They were from Noida, Khoda, Ghaziabad,” he added. “I am not against kids coming from other states but their own governments are not fixing their schools, are relying on private schools, and the burden is on us. We are using the Delhi taxpayers’ money and if after all that, the burden is the same, I will be accused. The estate branch [which oversees school construction] is going crazy.”

But the data gathering exercise is for all of Delhi’s schools, not just those run by the government or the ones near the city’s borders? Sisodia said students may travel as far as 25-30 km to schools in Central Delhi. “The school on Rouse Avenue [now called Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg] is full of students from Sahibabad [in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh] and the majority of the students in Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, Gokulpuri, is from across the border,” he said.

Sanjay Goyal, the state education director, added that Delhi also has to provide for midday meals, uniforms and books for these children. Collecting different identity documents and for entire families will help “cross-reference” the address provided, he explained.

For the survey of the two East Delhi schools, inspectors were sent to the homes of children. “We found that a single member of the family would get a local address proof, like a voter card, and use that to admit the child,” said Sisodia.

The minister said even if the data collection drive shows a large number of students are from outside the state, those already enrolled will not be affected. But the Delhi government may become “more careful with admissions” in the future, he added.

Bhattacharya of the Action Committee wanted to know why private schools have to participate in this exercise. “It is possible that schools near the borders get students from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh,” he said, “but there is no bar on admitting students from other states.”

Sisodia explained that parents from other states admit children in private primary schools in Delhi and move them into government schools when they get to Class 6. Save for about 430 of them, all schools run by the Delhi government begin from Class 6. The city’s primary schools are managed mainly by municipal bodies but some are run privately as well. They serve as “feeder schools”, their children moving into the government system from Class 6. Sisodia said the private feeder schools have been admitting far more children than they have capacity for. Many of these children do not attend school until they are automatically admitted into government ones in Class 6. “In East Vinod Nagar, I found a school that was running in a single room with space for 20 children but had enrolled over 80-90,” he said.

Blurred lines

The data analyst contended that while it is reasonable for a government to want to know the details of all students in its schools, it is not justified in asking for personal information of their family members. “This is where the executive and party lines get blurred; the voter identity part is a complete give away,” he said. “This sort of data collection is suspicious also because I do not see any mention of why and how the data is to be used. Generally, Aadhaar data is sought where there is some benefit attached – bank accounts are opened, food rations provided. What is the benefit here?”

He rejected the government’s explanation that this is the only way to reliably verify addresses. “To know if you are a resident of Delhi, I do not need your Aadhaar or voter identity card,” he said. There are other documents such as driving licences, utility bills, ration cards. The circular states that the records collected during the drive will be sealed in packets by class and section, and submitted to the principal who in turn will pass them up the chain of command in the education directorate through zonal and district nodal officers. After that an “external specialised agency” will be engaged to verify, digitise and analyse the data. “How do we know this data is secure?” the analyst asked.

Political parties can use such data for targeted election campaigning, a fairly old and legitimate practice. “If you know whose child in enrolled where, for example, you can personalise you campaigning,” the analyst explained. But gathering data legitimately is “expensive and time consuming” because the collectors have to convince people to volunteer information. “My sense is AAP is waking up very late and this is a shortcut [to gather data for campaigning],” he said.