The central government has issued a notification that poor women who deliver babies in healthcare facilities will no longer get maternity entitlements under the Janani Suraksha Yojana unless they enroll for Aadhaar, a 12-digit identity number linked to biometrics.

Under the Janani Suraksha Yojana, women who have institutional deliveries in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha and Assam have been getting Rs 1,400 if they are from rural areas and Rs 1,000 if they are from urban areas. For other states, where institutional delivery rates are more than 25% of the total deliveries in the state, women are entitled Rs 700 in rural areas and Rs 600 in urban areas.

In 2014-’15, more than one crore women availed of this benefit under the Janani Suraksha Yojana, which aims to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality by promoting institutional delivery among pregnant women. In 2014, some state governments had started asking beneficiaries of the scheme for their Aadhaar numbers. Such action was taken on the basis of executive orders issued by the governments and not on the basis of legal notifications.

As per the Ministry of Health and Family Affairs notification of February 9, women beneficiaries have been given 50 days to enroll for an Aadhaar number, that is by March 31, 2017. In the interim, pregnant women will have to show proof of having enrolled in the identity scheme, in form of an Aadhaar enrollment slip, or an application for enrollment to the concerned department, along with another proof of identity such as a voter ID card, or ration card.

Manoj Jhalani, joint secretary in the health ministry, said that nobody will be denied entitlement under the scheme. “The women can convey to the department that they want to get an Aadhaar,” he said. “The department will help them get an Aadhaar. There is a window period of six to seven months for the women to apply for Aadhaar after they discover they are pregnant.”

Why the switch to Aadhaar?

By the government’s own admission, there has been no significant duplication or cases of bogus claimants under the Janani Suraksha Yojana. For several years, benefits have been given in form of account payee cheques. More recently the money has been given to beneficiaries as online transfers of cash into the women’s bank accounts.

“We have not any conducted any systematic study to check if there is any leakage or pilferage in the scheme,” said Jhalani. “So far, we have only anecdotal evidence that in some facilities women were given cash and they were not given full amount.”

He then explained that Aadhaar has been made mandatory with a goal to link the women’s bank accounts with the unique identity. The entitlement will be transferred to the bank accounts directly, he said.

Health activists say the notification has created an additional requirement to accessing the scheme. So far, pregnant women were not required to produce any document to get this entitlement if she delivered in a public hospital.

“If she delivered in a private facility, she had to show a Below Poverty Line card,” pointed out Dipa Sinha, assistant professor of economics at the School of Liberal Studies in Ambedkar University in Delhi.

In the past few weeks, the government has made proof of enrolling in Aadhaar mandatory for children to get their midday meals at schools. Various ministries have made Aadhaar mandatory for beneficiaries in more than 12 schemes – for school children to access to primary and secondary education, for six categories of scholarships for the disabled people, and for aid to women rescued from trafficking. Apart from these, people who get wages from the government like Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs and other contract health workers also have to produce Aadhaars to access their wages.

“The schemes related to women and children are already underfunded,” said Amrita Johri, an activist with Satark Nagrik Sangathan. “Making Aadhaar registration mandatory will make it even more difficult for these women to access entitlement.”

She added that the experience of beneficiaries in schemes such as the public distribution system or ration system where Aadhaar has already been made compulsory in several states, showed that genuine beneficiaries faced exclusion because of Aadhaar authentication failures.

“There are frequent electricity and internet failures not just in rural areas but even in a place like Mehram Nagar in Delhi, where we work,” said Johri. “Beneficiaries get rejected because of data entry errors in Aadhaar linking, they have to make multiple trips to ration shop to keep trying for Aadhaar authentication. Now with this, pregnant women will also have to undergo hardship for accessing their entitlements.”

She pointed out that Aadhaar Act lacked a block or district-level grievance redressal mechanism.

Aadhaar case in court

The activists described the notifications making Aadhaar mandatory a violation of Supreme Court’s interim orders.

Between 2013 and 2015, the Supreme Court passed three orders saying the government cannot make having an Aadhaar number a precondition to access public services. In October 2015, the Court limited Aadhaar’s use to six specific schemes, and only on voluntary basis. Health ministry schemes were not among these six schemes.

In March 2016, the government passed the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits, and Services) Act, which allows it to ask for proof of Aadhaar for any subsidy, benefit or services flowing out of the Consolidated Fund of India. Till such the Aadhaar number is assigned, a beneficiary will be permitted use of an alternate identity proof. According to recent notifications, the government is demanding the Aadhaar enrollment slip as the alternate identity proof, which means that the beneficiary has no choice but to enroll in Aadhaar.

Six months after the Aadhaar Act was passed, the Supreme Court passed another interim order on October 14, 2016 reiterating that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory. The case is now pending before a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court.