In March 2022, the government of India made Aadhaar compulsory for the country’s nutrition programme. Earlier, in November 2021, the government threatened state governments that it would curtail financial support for the scheme, restricting it to only beneficiaries verified through Aadhaar.
A Report by Tapasya/The Reporters Collective (TRC)
In a move that would jeopardise access to nutritious food by poor children and women, the government of India has made it mandatory for beneficiaries of its supplementary nutrition programme—which provides children up to the age of six, pregnant women and lactating mothers with free nutritious food—to have Aadhaar numbers so they are registered on India’s national identity database.
Experts say that the move violates a Supreme Court order that no subsidy or service may be denied for want of an Aadhaar number. India’s national nutrition mission provides free food to 79 million children aged six months to six years and 15 million pregnant, lactating women. Only 23% of children under five have Aadhaar cards.
According to a report by The Reporters Collective (TRC), previously undisclosed official correspondence and guidelines of the ministry of women and child development accessed by The Reporters’ Collective revealed that in March 2022 the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi made Aadhaar compulsory for the nutrition programme. Earlier, in November 2021, the government threatened state governments that it would curtail financial support for the scheme, restricting it to only beneficiaries verified through Aadhaar.
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The Union government followed it up with the states on 23 June, asking them to hasten the linking of Aadhaar identities of beneficiaries to use the free-food programme.
The objective, according to the report by TRC, was to weed out fake beneficiaries and to boost a mobile app that tracks beneficiaries at anganwadis and the services they provide.
Currently, 79 million children between the age of six months and six years benefit from the supplementary nutrition programme. But, only 23% of children below the age of five have Aadhaar, according to official records. Many of them could be denied a legally guaranteed right if Aadhaar is made a prerequisite. (The supplementary nutrition scheme was converted into a legal entitlement in 2013 when the National Food Security Act was passed.)
Under the programme, in order to provide improved nutrition to children up to the age of six years, pregnant women and new mothers, beneficiaries are given hot cooked meals or take-home rations from anganwadi centres where they are registered.
The enforcement of Aadhaar registration for children came despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that children cannot be denied services or benefits for lack of a unique identification number. In addition, an April 2022 Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report also criticised the use of Aadhaar for children below five years of age, said the report by The Reporters Collective (TRC).
Once beneficiaries begin to be dropped for want of Aadhaar cards, millions could lose the benefits of the supplementary nutrition programme, particularly in poorer states, said Dipa Sinha, assistant professor (economics) at Ambedkar University, Delhi.
“While states like Tamil Nadu that have a strong and better-financed child development services framework can support beneficiaries without Aadhaar, poorer states and those entirely dependent on central funding will deny nutrition to children and women,” said Sinha, who is also associated with the Right to Food Campaign, an advocacy group responsible for making food a legal entitlement in India.
The union government funds half the cost of the supplementary nutrition programme in several states and union territories, 90% in the north-eastern and Himalayan states, and 100% in union territories without a legislature.
Aadhaar For Nutrition: The Centre’s Push
The Modi government’s intention to enforce Aadhaar for beneficiaries of the nutrition scheme has been clear since 2021.
The women and child development ministry has operated the supplementary nutrition programme in its current form since 2006 under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, which was launched in 1975 and is the world’s largest such programme.
In 2018, the Modi government launched an integrated National Nutrition Mission or Poshan Abhiyaan, to monitor, regulate and implement nutrition-related schemes run by various ministries. The supplementary nutrition programme was subsumed into it.
In 2018, the ICDS-CAS (Common Application Software), built by an Indian private company and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to monitor the outcomes of nutrition schemes, was rolled out under the National Nutrition Mission. It failed, only to be replaced by another mobile app. This one was built by the union ministry of electronics and information technology. It was named the Poshan Tracker.
In November 2021, the union government told states that Aadhaar details of beneficiaries should be linked to the Poshan Tracker by December 15. It said the funds for the scheme from the union government would be based on the data fed into the Poshan Tracker.
In March 2022, the ministry sent detailed guidelines to states on its nutrition mission, including schemes under the ICDS.
The guidelines said, “Only those beneficiaries who are registered at the anganwadi centres are entitled to receive supplementary nutrition. The beneficiaries must compulsorily be in possession of Aadhaar card and shall submit Aadhaar number at the time of registration…”
In other words, only those beneficiaries, including children, who have Aadhaar would be registered for the take-home rations, hot cooked meals and other benefits that anganwadi centres provide.
Beneficiaries would also be required to carry their Aadhaar cards to the anganwadi centre every time they went to collect rations or food, the guidelines said.
On 23 June, the centre again urged the states to link the Aadhaar numbers of all beneficiaries registered with anganwadi centres to the Poshan Tracker.
According to experts, given the UIDAI’s warning that Aadhaar cards or numbers alone are not adequate to confirm a person’s identity, anganwadi workers would have to authenticate every beneficiary’s Aadhaar number along with her or his demographic or biometric information that must be sent online to the UIDAI’s Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) for verification. Demographic details include name, date of birth, address and gender, while biometric information refers to facial image, fingerprints and iris scan.
Most anganwadi workers and the senior state officials we spoke to said it would not be practical to authenticate beneficiaries’ Aadhaar numbers each time they arrive for a meal or for a pack of groceries they are entitled to.
Aadhaar Over Children’s Right To Food
For poor families, getting an Aadhaar card for infants and children may be a challenging task. Even in India’s capital, Delhi, families were worried about the enforcement of Aadhaar for the nutrition scheme.
“We give meals even to children who do not have Aadhaar cards,” said an anganwadi worker at the South Delhi centre where Samidha Khatoon receives food for her children. The anganwadi worker preferred to remain anonymous. “But we have been told by our supervisor that in future, meals will be given only to children who have an Aadhaar.”
The Union government has left it to state officials and anganwadi workers to ensure that the nutrition supplements reach all beneficiaries without disruption while enforcing the Aadhaar and that beneficiaries register with UIDAI for their Aadhaar.
The Global Hunger Index for 2021, a peer-reviewed annual report by international aid organisations, recorded a dip in India’s ranking to 101 among 116 countries, a score that pegged its hunger as a “serious” crisis, despite improvements in some indicators since 2000.
‘Fill Gaps In System To Improve Nutrition’
For 2021-22, the government granted approval to consider 2011 Census figures, anganwadi registrations and number of beneficiaries as reported by the states in reimbursing them for the supplementary nutrition programme. It is unclear if such an approval will be given for 2022-23.
Some states including Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra were given the option of linking beneficiary children’s mothers’ Aadhaar cards to the Poshan Tracker.
“There are two types of errors within the system. One is someone not entitled to receive the benefit of a scheme,” said Yogesh Ranganath, a development practitioner who works on nutrition and access to entitlements. “The other is someone eligible to receive the benefit being shunted out due to the lack of a document, Aadhaar in this case. The latter is the problem that would affect genuine beneficiaries.”
Besides threatening to cut assistance to states, the government has also turned the screws on anganwadi workers. Their incentives hinge on “expeditious inputting of data” in the tracker. The guidelines also thrust on officials and anganwadi workers the responsibility to help beneficiaries get their Aadhaar cards made.
The Reporters’ Collective spoke to senior officials in charge of the supplementary nutrition programme in two other states, and asked them about the Aadhaar linkage and Poshan Tracker-driven oversight mechanism threatening to deny millions of children their right to nutrition support provided at the anganwadis.
At every review meeting, there was pressure on officials to ensure Aadhaar linkage of all beneficiaries, one official said. Most remote areas in his state did not have adequate internet connectivity. “Less than a fourth of children have Aadhaar countrywide. How will it happen? I doubt they would take the actual step of depriving children of food,” he said. “I hope not. Let’s see.”
In an eastern state, an official warned that unless the state found a workaround, the union government’s directives could cause a massive disruption in delivery of rations and food to beneficiaries.
Both officials wished to stay anonymous.
Dipa Sinha of Ambedkar University said the union government’s focus should have instead been on filling gaps in the existing system in order to provide nutrition. She said the Poshan Tracker website and Aadhaar linkage do not lead to any progress in supplementary nutrition programme’s objectives. “The tracker does not show how stunting, wasting and other indicators have improved or otherwise,” she said, “and the unique id has many failings we have seen in other schemes.”
(Tapasya is a member of The Reporters’ Collective, a journalism collaborative that publishes in multiple languages and media. The orginal report was published at https://article-14.com/post/millions-of-children-will-soon-need-aadhaar-ids-to-access-their-right-to-a-nutritious-meal–62bc915131cc9)