The recent notification of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, making Aadhaar compulsory for midday meals in government schools, has attracted the criticism it deserves. This notification serves no clear purpose other than to force children to get enrolled under Aadhaar. The government, unfortunately, managed to create the impression that the notification had been retracted, when nothing of the sort has happened.
This is just the latest in a series of attacks on child-related rights during the last three years. A few examples, not exhaustive, are as follows.
No maternity entitlements
First, the Central government has violated women’s right to maternity entitlements under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013 for more than three years. Under the Act, every pregnant woman is entitled to maternity benefits of ₹6,000, unless she is already covered by maternity schemes in the formal sector. The Economic Survey 2015-16, in a welcome chapter on “Mother and child”, made a strong case for maternal and early-life health programmes, including maternity benefits, noting that they “offer very high returns on investment”. Yet, the Union Budget that followed, for 2016-17, did not make any provision for maternity entitlements beyond the pilot scheme (for 53 districts only) initiated by the previous government. This was all the more startling as the Central government had assured the Supreme Court in writing, on October 30, 2015, that this scheme — Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana — would be extended to all districts in 2016-17.
On December 31, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proudly announced that pregnant women nationwide would soon be getting maternity benefits of ₹6,000. He projected this as a “new scheme” (sic), without any reference to the NFSA, perhaps hoping that the victims of demonetisation would appreciate the gesture. With the Prime Minister finally endorsing maternity entitlements, things started moving after that, but not much: the allocation of ₹2,700 crore in the 2017-18 Union Budget is barely enough to cover a fourth of all births, even with the proposed 60:40 ratio for Centre:State funding. Word has it that the Central government may restrict the benefits to one child per woman, against the law. Further, there is still no sign of the said scheme. Quite likely, the government will take its own time to roll it out, and spend even less this year than the measly allocation of ₹2,700 crore. So much for maternity entitlements under the NFSA being “a promising opportunity to improve nutrition during pregnancy”, as the Economic Survey 2015-16 aptly put it.
No money, no eggs
Second, the Central government is giving short shrift to the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) , a critical programme that was making good progress until it was hit by Budget cuts in 2015-16. The initial Budget cut was about 50%. This was so mind-boggling that the government’s own Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, criticised the cuts in public, mentioning inter alia that they had made wage payments a “month-to-month suspense”. The cuts were partly reversed later on, but, meanwhile, they had done much damage and sent a disastrous signal down the line. State governments were not amused.
For instance, in a letter sent to the Central government on July 15, 2016, the Government of Odisha complained that salary payments to anganwadi workers were held up by Budget cuts, while planned schemes for pre-school education and medicine kits “could not be taken up”.
Third, the midday meal scheme is also being starved. Like ICDS, the midday meal scheme received shock treatment in the 2015-16 Budget, with an initial Budget cut of 36%. The allocation for midday meals in this year’s Budget, ₹10,000 crore, is still 25% lower in money terms than the corresponding allocation four years ago (in real terms, the decline would be even larger). The Budget cuts, of course, must be seen in light of the fact that the share of States in the indivisible pool of taxes was raised from 32% to 42% in 2015-16. The question remains why the axe fell so heavily on children — no other schemes were hit so badly in 2015-16, with the possible exception of drinking water and sanitation.
And then there is the issue of eggs. Many State governments are now providing eggs with midday meals in schools (and sometimes also in anganwadis). This is a real breakthrough, considering the high nutrition value of eggs. Had the Central government taken this forward as a matter of national policy, millions of children would be better nourished today. But here is an interesting pattern: most of the major States where eggs are still off the menu in schools and anganwadis are States with a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, and vice versa. The BJP States, it seems, are not willing to antagonise upper caste vegetarian lobbies. No wonder the Central government is maintaining a studied silence on this matter.
Fourth, plans are afoot to scrap the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY), a scheme of conditional cash transfers aimed at promoting institutional deliveries. Recent data clearly show a surge in institutional deliveries in the last 10 years or so (e.g. from 39% in 2005-6 to 79% in 2015-16 according to National Family Health Surveys), and it would be surprising if this had little to do with JSY. Incidentally, the decline of maternal mortality has also accelerated in recent years. Yet the Central government is now planning to phase out JSY. In a presentation made at Vigyan Bhavan on February 22, 2017, the Secretary, Women and Child Development, explained that JSY would be “subsumed” under the maternity benefit scheme from next year, as the latter provides a “higher amount for institutional delivery”. In other words, maternity benefits will be made conditional on institutional delivery, in violation of the NFSA, and further, this linkage will be taken as an excuse to discontinue JSY, even though maternity entitlements and JSY serve distinct purposes.
Last but not least, Aadhaar is now being made compulsory for all these schemes — midday meals, ICDS (yes), maternity benefits, JSY, you name it. This is being done in the name of curbing corruption, but no credible evidence has been given that identity fraud is a serious problem in these schemes, or that Aadhaar is the best possible solution. Rather, this seems to be part of the blind drive to make Aadhaar ubiquitous and universal, regardless of the possible damage. The imposition of Aadhaar on midday meals and related schemes exposes, once again, the claim that Aadhaar is a voluntary facility. It also shows that the Centre has no respect for Supreme Court orders, and that the Supreme Court, for some reason, does not mind.
These examples suffice, I hope, to illustrate the Central government’s harsh treatment of children. Somehow, their well-being is not seen as an important part of the “sabka saath, sabka vikas” project. When I asked a senior official of the Finance Ministry, some time ago, why the 2015-16 Budget cuts had fallen so heavily on children, he said that this pattern had not come to his attention. The cuts, he added, were made in a hurry and the details had not been “thought through”. I mention this anecdote because it illustrates how easily children can fall off the policy radar. It is not that anyone is hostile to them, just that they have no voice.
The silver lining is that there is still some action for children at the State level. For instance, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Telangana have introduced maternity entitlement schemes with their own resources, without waiting for the Central government. However, the indifference towards children at the Centre may percolate to State governments sooner or later. That would be a tragic loss, not just for Indian children but also for the entire nation.
Jean Drèze is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University