Aadhaar Exposed 4 Lakh 'Ghosts' In Mid-Day Meals? Claims May Not Add Up

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Aadhaar card has been made mandatory for accessing mid-day meals


New Delhi:  Soon after the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) issued a notification making Aadhaar card mandatory for accessing mid-day meals, it released data claiming that thanks to Aadhaar, four lakh 'ghost' or duplicate students enrolled with the state education department had been detected.

This discovery was used to bolster the government's defence that Aadhaar can help curb corruption in the school lunch scheme, and ward off criticism from critics who argue that the move is both illegal, and impractical.

A closer look suggests that the government's claims do not quite add up.

Of the four lakh non-existent students discovered, two lakhs are from Jharkhand and a similar number from Andhra Pradesh. Both states have covered nearly their entire student population with Aadhaar; the discovery of these 'ghosts' was the result of that exercise, say state government officials.

But when we checked with officials in education department in Ranchi, they could offer no direct evidence that these 'ghost' children were illegally consuming mid-day meals in government schools.

Mukesh Kumar, State Project Director for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan said that the two lakh duplicate names were discovered as part of an exercise conducted to track children who had enrolled in both government and private schools.

This is a common practice in India where increasingly children are shifting to a rapidly proliferating network of private schools, which in some cases may be unrecognised. As a back-up option, parents retain their admission in government schools.

Private schools allow this, since a higher student body gives them greater chance of acquiring recognition.

"There are so many unrecognized schools, so in the village and panchayat nowadays they are going to impress and attract students, so chances of duplication and manipulation are there," said Mr Kumar.  

This poses a genuine challenge to India's public (and private) school system, but it's unclear how the discovery will reduce corruption in mid-day meal scheme.

Some students, says Mr Kumar, may be using the duplication to wrongly avail benefits of government schemes, like free uniforms, books or even free school lunches. He admits, though, there is no proof of how many are freeloaders.

A visit to a government middle school in Marda block, 40 kilometers from Ranchi, whose records have thrown up three children of the two lakh ghosts underlines that reasons for duplication may be much more mundane.

Vibhakar Mishr, principal of the school says two of the three students had simply moved to other schools and their names have been struck off from the register. That shift, however, may not have been logged in the system. The third student had transferred to the Marda school from a different school three years ago; that school has yet to eliminate his name from the records.

Mr Mishr says there is no question of school demanding funds for mid-day meals for students that have left it.

"When a child comes in, attendance is taken accordingly and only then the required amount of food is made for mid-day meal. One child cannot take food from two places; neither can he or she give attendance in two places," he said.  

The centre, however is dismissive of these examples, persisting with its claims that state's exaggerate school enrollment to extract more funds for the scheme.  

Again, the numbers belie this. Jharkhand, for instance, demands mid-day meals funds for only 54 per cent of children enrolled in school.

Nationally, 20 per cent of enrolled children - that is three crores in all - are not served school lunches.

Reetika Khera, Professor at IIT-Delhi told NDTV that this does not indicate that states are significantly inflating enrolment numbers. "If the state government wanted to embezzle funds, then it would have shown 100 per cent expenditure. But the fact that the states are reporting only 80 per cent or 76 per cent, it suggests that the states are not padding these numbers," the professor said.

In Andhra Pradesh, which has also found two lakh 'ghost' entries via Aadhaar, the reasons appear to be the same - children enrolled in private and government schools.

An audit of the mid-day meal scheme commissioned by the state government found that the main problem was not duplicate entries.

The main problem with mid-day meals, explains Sowmya Kidambi, Director, Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency - a Hyderabad-based government body which conducted the audit - was poor quality of food being fed to children under the scheme.

"Diversion of grains, issues of honorarium and salaries not being paid on time to the cook and helpers, their inability to buy vegetables or to be able to get any kind of credit that is required to feed so many children, were bigger issues," said Kidambi.

Asked how registering children under Aadhaar will help resolve this, Ms Kidambi said, laughingly, she "doesn't know."

Moreover, even if Aadhaar is able to eliminate some degree of ghosts from mid-day meals, it's unclear if those gains outweigh the risk posed by its patchy implementation.

In a number of states, the use of Aadhaar to deliver government benefits, like subsidised food have been bedevilled by issues of last mile connectivity.

In Jharkhand, only two districts are experimenting with the use of Aadhaar to deliver government handouts, and here too officials accept there are problems.

"There are issues like infrastructural constraints. Sometimes connectivity is a big issue, we are trying to resolve these problems also," said Kumar.

Until these wrinkles are ironed out, is it fair to insist that children's meals are linked to a still evolving technology, all the more when its benefits remain unclear?


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