Rajiv Narayan has had several run-ins with the authorities of his son's school in Bengaluru. "It started around a year ago, when the school asked for the Aadhaar number of all the students in the school," says the 44-year-old resident of the city.
Rajiv sought to find out why the school authorities had made such a request. "I questioned them about it, but all they would say is that the Education Department had asked for it and that it had to be compulsorily followed.”
Rajeev was not alone. Thousands of parents across Karnataka were asked to hand over their wards' Aadhaar details last year to fall in line with the Student Achievement Tracking System (SATS), a statewide database created to keep track of the progress of every student funded by public money.
The project took over from the Unified District Information for Education (U-DISE), a central government database project, which recorded data of schools and students. A 17-digit U-DISE number identified students by their district, block and school code, besides the year of admission. But the system caused problems whenever students shifted schools.
The SATS was introduced in its place and was first piloted in the Udupi and Vijayapura districts before it was scaled-up to all the districts in the state earlier this year. Under the project, each student was given a 9-digit number that enabled the state government to keep track of the student’s academic achievements, attendance record and execute online transfer of certificates.
How Aadhaar was enforced through SATS
Aadhaar, the biometrics-based database, assigns a unique 12-digit number to every resident of India under the statutory authority of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). According to BK Basavaraj, Director of the Public Instruction Department, “Collection of Aadhaar numbers of students in the state was done for SATS. This was done to ensure that students don't leave the education system and also to measure their academic progress.”
Basavaraj confirmed that the collection of Aadhaar numbers is not mandatory for all the students in the state, but admitted that the state government is encouraging 100% enrollment into the Aadhaar scheme. “We have not made the collection of Aadhaar numbers mandatory. We are only encouraging students to give their Aadhaar numbers or enroll themselves into the Aadhaar system,” he says.
However, school principals across the state revealed that the collection of the Aadhaar details was not an option but a decree that had to be compulsorily followed.
“We are bound to collect it and we have to do it. They (the Public Instruction Department) tell us that it is mandatory and we cannot question them about it. For all entries related to the student, the Department now asks for the Aadhaar number of the student – to open student bank accounts, issue examination hall tickets and so on,” says Myrtle Lewis, a school principal from Udupi.
Myrtle’s words are backed by several other school principals in the state, including those from the cities like Mangaluru and Bengaluru. “All incoming students are asked to submit Aadhaar cards, or we have told them to apply for Aadhaar cards and show proof of it before enrolling. The Education Department sent their officials around 2 years ago as an exercise to enroll all the students in Aadhaar. Since then, we have made it a requirement," says Shobha Nagaraj, Principal of Sudana Residential School in Puttur, Dakshina Kannada.
The project, which was launched with the aim of keeping a record of the progress of every student funded by public money, was then extended to students in government-aided and private schools, using various means. The database has already collected the details of over 84 lakh students out of the 1.16 crore students studying in Class I to X in both aided and private schools in the state. The number accounts for 72.4% of all students in Karnataka. These details are stored on a single online platform.
Is Aadhaar mandatory for students to be enrolled in SATS?
As per the rules, furnishing Aadhaar details can be made mandatory when a student is receiving benefits from the state, like free education, textbooks, bus passes and so on. This is specified in Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act and in ‘The Karnataka Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill 2018’ passed earlier this year.
The act however goes on to say, "Provided that if an Aadhaar number is not assigned to an individual, the individual shall be offered alternate and viable means of identification for delivery of the subsidy, benefit or service."
In repeated orders, the Supreme Court has stressed that an Aadhaar card link cannot be made compulsory to avail government welfare benefits. The apex court is currently hearing a case that challenges the constitutional validity of Aadhaar. The decision in this case will impact all Aadhaar-related cases currently in courts in the country.
Moreover, an RTI reply by the Ministry of Human Resources Development, dated 8 June 2018, further pointed out that an Aadhaar card was not a mandatory requirement for U-DISE. The CBSE, in a notification in 2016, has also stated that the Aadhaar number was an optional requirement.
RTI Photograph - Via Twitter | Faiz Masi
“If you are receiving benefits from the government, then Aadhaar is required, but otherwise nobody should force you to give Aadhaar,” reiterated a government official, who didn’t wish to be named, and who previously worked with SATS in Karnataka.
Even though Aadhaar is not a mandatory requirement to be enrolled in SATS, school principals in both aided and unaided schools say that it is the only government identification that the Education Department actively accepts while enrolling students.
Parents of students claim that school authorities, under pressure from the Education Department, repeatedly try to coerce them into divulging the Aadhaar details of their wards. “The schools do not give us an option. They mandatorily ask for Aadhaar details and, in spite of asking questions and being directed all the way to the Block Education Officer, I was told that there was no other option,” says Rajiv.
No Aadhaar or no enrolment’
In conversations with several school principals, teachers and parents in the state, it became evident that the working principle in schools gave no room for parents to withhold Aadhaar details. A few schools in the state have even set a deadline for parents to submit the Aadhaar details before June 30 for the current academic year, citing various reasons that ultimately boil down to complying with SATS regulations. “My child’s school asked us to provide them the Aadhaar details. The school claimed that the ICSE council has mandatorily asked for it. I have served the school a notice today about the same,” says Nakul, a resident of Bengaluru. Similar cases have also been reported by parents and school authorities in Pune, Vijaywada and several other parts of the country.
Photograph of note issued to parents at a school in Bengaluru
The mass collection of Aadhaar numbers on a single platform also poses a security risk, say security experts and digital rights activists. “The UIDAI does not store anything. Apart from the fact that they have the Aadhaar number and they have basic demographic data, they don’t have anything else on an individual. The risk is always with third parties, which, in this case, is the Karnataka State government,” says Kiran Jonnalagadda, co-founder of Internet Freedom Foundation and a digital rights activist.
The Andhra Pradesh government was recently accused of potentially leaking the Aadhaar data of at least 1.34 lakh citizens in the state, along with details like their religion, caste and bank details, among other things. The leak was reported by independent researcher Srinivas Kodali, who also believes that the hoarding of Aadhaar data is a security risk.
“The data stored by the state government is supposed to be encrypted, but we do not know whether it is encrypted at all, which makes it insecure,” says Srinivas. Activists and parents fear that similar leaks could lead to the Aadhaar data of students falling in the wrong hands. Similarly, several other leaks have been reported from databases storing Aadhaar information across the country, including states like Gujarat and Punjab.
Apart from data leaks, the misuse of Aadhaar numbers has been reported in several parts of Karnataka. In Canara School in Mangaluru, Aadhaar numbers were printed directly on the identity cards of students, an error that the school authorities admitted to.
“This year, we have collected the Aadhaar numbers as per the Education Department’s request and printed the numbers on ID cards, but from the next year we will not be putting it,” says Joi Rai, principal of the school.
Unconcerned by privacy and data security leaks, the state government appears convinced in ensuring that all 1.16 crore students in the state are within the ambit of their database whether it has officially made Aadhaar mandatory or not.
“The government is looking to ensure that when a student leaves a school, they are admitted in another school ,” says an official working with the project, who did not wish to be named, before adding, "The target is to reach 100% enrollment in the state.”