Aadhar and Child Protection in India: Access for the Poorest Remains Elusive

Cute Indian schoolgirls seated at desks
Cute Indian schoolgirls seated at desks
Schoolchildren in Hyderabad, India 2017 FXB photo by Ayesha Mehortra

By Elizabeth Donger and Ayesha Mehrotra

Every afternoon Meera walks around her neighborhood in Digha, a slum area on the banks of the Ganges in India’s Bihar State, knocking on the empty doorframes. A community protection volunteer with the nonprofit Aangan Trust, she targets families that she knows do not have Aadhaar cards, the national biometric ID card. She explains to parents that Aadhaar is essential for their children’s future, getting them into school, and connected to government benefits. She invites each one to a nearby event she has organized where a local government official will explain the system and register undocumented families.

There is a fierce ongoing debate in India around whether the government can and should make Aadhaar cards mandatory for accessing welfare schemes. This debate is incomplete without an account of the significant barriers that poor Indian families face in accessing and using Aadhaar at the local level: lack of awareness, corruption and grindingly complex logistics all play a part.

Recent figures reported in The Economic Times indicate that there are 234 million Indians not registered with Aadhaar, 92.7 percent of which are children. Only an estimated 23 percent of children below five years of age and 65 percent of children aged between five and eighteen have Aadhaar. Little public education has gone towards explaining Aadhaar’s usefulness for children to families or administrators. However, over the past month, citizens were informed that their children will need Aadhaar cards, among other things, to receive free school meals, ration cards for the poor, primary healthcare, or elementary education under government schemes.

On October 10, 2015, India’s Supreme Court ordered that “the Aadhaar card Scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other.” However, the Government has continued to expand Aadhaar programs during the ensuing judicial battle. In March 2016, Parliament passed the Aadhaar Act, which requires any individual receiving any subsidy, benefit or service from the Consolidated Fund of India to either provide proof of Aadhaar or, if not assigned one, make an application for enrollment.  The highest court has since reiterated its former ruling that Aadhaar should remain voluntary. This dramatic mismatch between judicial and political discourse has caused widespread confusion in the press and among implementing agencies.*

Aadhaar cards were introduced by the Indian government in 2009. They are technically free for all legal residents of India. According to the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI), adult applicants must go to the nearest Aadhaar card center, fill out a form, then wait an estimated 60 to 90 days for their Aadhaar card to arrive. They need an identity document and proof of address but, if they do not have these, they need an “introducer” appointed by the Registrar’s Office, who will sign an affidavit free of charge to verify these details.

In order to register a child with Aadhaar, UIDAI stipulates that the parent or guardian must introduce the child using their own Aadhaar card, their proof of identity and proof of address, and the child’s birth certificate. The youngest children do not submit biometrics, and their cards are linked to those of their parents. They provide biometrics and receive their own card when they enroll again at five and then again at their third enrolment on their 18th birthday.

For low-income Indians in Digha and elsewhere, the reality of this process is far different. During a research visit by Harvard FXB to the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in February 2017, nonprofit workers and community members stated that local government officials impede access to Aadhaar through minimal outreach to communities and demanding bribes for enrollment. Ward members seldom leave their offices to seek out poor constituents without documentation. According to an Aangan staff member, “There is so little awareness among local government officials about the different schemes that can help the common man, that they do not understand the importance of Aadhaar. They do nothing to facilitate access.”

In turn, these community members avoid what they consider a corrupt and intimidating bureaucracy. Unforeseen costs mean that Aadhaar can often be prohibitively expensive. There were multiple reports of brokers offering to help rural and illiterate families access the system, charging roughly Rs. 150 ($2.30) for their services, or “introducers” charging up to Rs. 200 ($3.10) to sign the necessary affidavits. The World Bank last estimated in 2011 that 21.2 percent of India’s population live on less than $1.90 a day.

According to the Child Protection Volunteers in Varanasi, many low-income Indians are not aware of the benefits of Aadhaar. Adults and many children work long grueling hours in brick kilns and textile workshops, on farms and scrap heaps. It hardly seems worth it to lose several days of work to make the long journey into the office of a government official, whose computer may not be working that day and whom you may need to bribe, in order to access a card you are not sure you need.

Even for those who do make the journey, the requirement that children must have a birth certificate to receive Aadhaar excludes a huge number outright. UNICEF statistics indicate that 38 percent of births in India between 2010 and 2015 were not registered. This may partially explain the low enrollment rates for children.

For India’s most marginalized, the implications of these systemic practical and bureaucratic failures are serious. Government officials assure the public that children without Aadhar will not be denied benefits, but will simply be enrolled in Aadhaar.  But who will do this enrollment?  Existing challenges remain unacknowledged. Without Aadhaar, children in need can be excluded from programs that ensure their access to basic education, healthcare, and protection. Missing children and trafficked children without cards are harder to track and reintegrate: FXB heard one report of a child rescued from exploitative labor who was not handed over to waiting parents by the Child Welfare Committee for a full week because the child did not have Aadhaar.

Even once enrolled, Aadhaar is no panacea to the challenges facing vulnerable citizens in accessing social protection. The system usefully eliminates several middle-men in the delivery of programs and services, yet many of the same barriers to access remain. This is starkly clear from looking at the rate of uptake on social protection programs. Although states release scarce data on expenditure, research shows that in 2015-16, the Minority Welfare Department in Uttar Pradesh used barely 25 percent of the funds allocated to government welfare schemes for minorities. Data for the year 2014-2015, the most recent available, show that Prime Minister Modi increased the nationwide allocation of the two funds meant for Dalits and Scheduled Tribes by 25 percent, though the amount left untouched increased by 250% from the previous year.

The nonprofit Aangan Trust runs a prevention program that addresses this problem. Their model runs in 75 communities across 6 states. At its core are the Community Protection Volunteers (CPVs), local women like Meera that are trained to identify families and children without Aadhaar, help them navigate the application process, connect them to social protection schemes, and build trust between communities and local government officials.

First the CPVs identify families without ID documents using a survey that they conduct on a mobile app with over 300 families. These parents are invited to a meeting where the CPVs describe how the ID will allow their children access to government schemes, in turn helping them to avoid harms such as child marriage, child labor, and trafficking. The CPVs then host Community Help Desks, which bring together both community members and local officials to help register people for identity documents and government welfare schemes.

Meera and her fellow CPVs regularly show up at the offices of local officials, including health workers, school officials, and police. They provide them with information on local risks and needs, and physically bring into the office those in need of services. Over time, they build relationships of mutual respect that create accountability and mitigate instances of bribery.

Aangan has registered over 250 children with Aadhar in the small community of Digha alone, and over 20,000 nationally. Meera has first-hand experience of the benefits of the Aadhar card. She and her teenage daughter Dharamsheela got their Aadhaar cards two years ago. Meera opened a bank account and now receives financial support for her daugher’s schooling, as well as regular incentives to delay her daughter’s marriage to 18. Dharamsheela told FXB that she has decided to learn German.

Undoubtedly, Aadhaar will play an increasingly central role in child protection in India. Whether it serves to benefit or to exclude India’s most vulnerable children depends on effective action to address challenges in access and use. Investment in initiatives such as that by Aangan Trust, which build local capacity to take advantage of existing child protection systems, may hold part of the answer.

Elizabeth Donger is a research associate at FXB focusing on issues of distress migration and child policy.
Ayesha Mehrotra is a research assistant at FXB.
They have recently returned from a research trip to India.

*Note: An earlier version of this blog reported that India’s Supreme Court ruled again in March 2017 that Aadhaar must remain voluntary. The court in fact reiterated their previous October 2015 ruling.