New Delhi: Samidha Khatoon, 20, a homemaker and resident of south Delhi, relies on an anganwadi centre that is a five-minute walk away to make sure her two infants, aged six months and 18 months, are fed nutritious meals.
Samidha, whose husband is a day labourer, said neither child had an Aadhaar card yet. If the Aadhaar card was made mandatory for her children to get the pulses and cereals they are entitled to, the little boy and girl would risk losing most essential nutrients in their daily diet.
In a move that experts said would jeopardise access of the poorest children and women to nutrition, the union government 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.
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.
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 correspondence, 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.
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.
Workers at anganwadis, the government-run welfare centres for children and mothers, where food under the ICDS schemes is provided, are required to feed into the tracker details of registered beneficiaries, their health status, and the delivery of services to them. The government began to monitor all services offered at the anganwadis through this 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.
A Warning From The National Auditor
While generating Aadhaar for any person above 5 years of age, biometric details—fingerprints, iris scan and photograph—are captured along with other details. A unique number is generated against this data.
The number alone does not confirm the identity of the Aadhaar holder. According to UIDAI regulations, the number along with the demographic or biometric information has to be confirmed first by online verification against a central database.
For children below five, biometric data can’t be captured as fingerprints are not well-formed. Aadhaar numbers for children are linked to their demographic information, facial photograph and either parent’s unique identity.
In an April 2022 report on the functioning of the UIDAI, the CAG said that as the UIDAI could not capture biometrics of minor children below five years, “the basic condition for the issue of Aadhaar, the uniqueness of identity, was not being met”.
To the CAG, the UIDAI admitted that in the absence of biometrics, demographic data and photographs do not efficiently remove duplicate Aadhaars.
Despite the CAG’s finding that Aadhaar cards for children below five years “served limited purpose considering the costs involved”, the government continued to push state governments to enforce Aadhaar linkage for children who are anganwadi beneficiaries.
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.
For Samidha’s husband, a day labourer who struggles to put aside Rs 500 in monthly savings, it is a toss-up between a day’s wage and queuing up for an Aadhaar card. The free meal helps them stretch their budget a bit longer, but a day off work would set them back considerably.
Reflecting the reality of Samidha and millions like her, 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.
“My husband goes to work and I am the only one taking care of the children,” Samidha said. “I can’t get their Aadhaar made by myself. We also do not have the money that is required for it.”
Aadhaar enrolment and mandatory biometric updates are free of cost, but there is a fee to update demographic and biometric information, Rs 50 and Rs 100 respectively. Apart from the cost, the poor often find the official process daunting and often find they have no option but to engage agents for a fee to help them obtain Aadhaar cards.
Rashmi Singh, PhD, an IAS officer and former special secretary-cum-director of women and child development department of Delhi, said that while Aadhaar helps in streamlining the delivery of government schemes, it was indeed a challenge to ensure 100% enrolment of children under five. The enrollment in this age group was relatively low, she said.
“We are not denying nutrition to any child,” she said. “Registration in Poshan Tracker can be done without Aadhaar. But we are trying our best to achieve maximum Aadhaar enrollment,” Singh told The Collective.
The Reporters’ Collective sent detailed queries to officials in the women and child development ministry about the reason for making Aadhaar compulsory for a scheme affecting millions of children. No reply was received.
‘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.
“We are being asked to verify Aadhaar for all beneficiaries,” an anganwadi worker in Delhi told us in April, on the condition of anonymity. She showed us messages in Hindi posted by her seniors on a Whatsapp group that read: “Everyone should get Aadhaar verified. Without Aadhaar, THR (take-home ration) won’t be filled.”
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. )