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Aadhaar a must for nutrition schemes in Maharashtra

MaharashtraThose looking to avail a nutrition scheme in Maharashtra will need an Aadhaar card. This follows a notification from the state’s department of Women and Child Development.

More than 500,000 women and 6.1 million children under six years old in Maharashtra receive free meals and nutritional supplements through the state’s 97,287 anganwadis. Anganwadis are mother and child centres established by the Indian government in 1985 as part of its Integrated Child Development Services.

To avail services from the centres, beneficiaries will now have to provide an Aadhaar number. If they do not have one, officials are responsible for ensuring they follow the procedure to obtain one.

Aadhaar: A controversial history

Aadhaar. By Sulthan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Aadhaar Card. Image credit: Sulthan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Aadhaar is a biometric identification system. Launched in 2009, it has enrolled 1.12 billion Indians to date and has become heavily integrated into daily life. Citizens are encouraged (or, in some instances, compelled) to use Aadhaar to open a bank account, apply for a passport, file tax returns, make digital payments and avail welfare payments.

Aadhaar has been used extensively in healthcare schemes and is expected to be a cornerstone of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s National Health Protection Scheme, or Ayushman Bharat. However, Aadhaar has not been without controversy. The Maharashtra nutrition scheme beneficiaries is likely to cause many of the issues surrounding Aadhaar to resurface.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that government benefits should not be denied to those who are not enrolled under Aadhaar, as it is a voluntary scheme. This ruling has been cited by those protesting the decision in Maharashtra, who claim it is a violation of that precept. Critics also say it will make nutrition indicators in Maharashtra worse.

Malnutrition in Maharashtra

Maharashtra is India’s wealthiest state. It is home to Mumbai – India’s richest city, home of billionaires and Bollywood, and the country’s commercial and industrial capital. However, the state is falling behind on public health. It allocated just 0.49 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to the health sector in the 2017-18 period. In the 2018-19 budget, the state government cut its allocation for its health insurance programme for the poor by more than half.

This means Maharashtra is grappling with a number of public health crises. Malnutrition is arguably the most prominent, with much of the state’s progress on the issue being undone in the last decade.

The fourth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) for 2015-16 revealed that, since NFHS-3 (2005-06), the percentage of children under five suffering from wasting has increased from 16.5 percent to 25.6 percent. The percentage of children aged 6-23 months who receive an adequate diet is just 8.5 percent in urban areas. In rural areas, it’s just five percent. More than half of children aged between six and 59 months are anaemic. The same is true of 49 percent of pregnant women.

Bringing in Aadhaar cards for nutrition schemes is reportedly in a bid to make the entitlement programme more efficient and transparent. However, it may prove to be an unnecessary obstacle between Maharashtra’s malnourished and the help that they need.

Activists have said they will seek to have the notification overturned, even if it means taking legal action.  Purnima Upadhyay of KHOJ, an organisation which is part of the Maharashtra Malnutrition Project, said “We will approach the High Court if the state government does not withdraw this”. 

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