The School Education Department of Tamil Nadu has issued a circular pushing for Aadhaar enrolment for school students under the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan. This despite the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled that Aadhaar enrolment cannot be made compulsory. According to data on the Tamil Nadu government website, in 2017-2018, there were 58,474 schools and over 1.23 crore students under the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan scheme in the state.
The circular, issued on August 2, states that the schools must collect Aadhaar details of the students and the details must be linked to the Educational Management Information System (EMIS). It also mentions that students whose Aadhaar details have not yet been collected by the schools must be brought to Aadhaar enrolment centres and be issued an Aadhaar number. It is not clear yet whether it is applicable to only government schools or to government-aided and private schools as well.
The directions have sparked a row, with some sections of the stakeholders batting for the move and others vehemently opposing it and questioning its legality.
‘A welcome move’
Sheela*, a resource person, who works in the government education sector, says that the seeding of Aadhaar numbers into EMIS is nothing new. “It has been there for quite a while now. I think the process is being expedited now by issuing this circular,” she says.
Adding that this is a welcome move, Sheela says that the Aadhaar-seeded school registry has helped the state government keep track of the freebies and other items supplied to schools.
“The government of Tamil Nadu gives a lot of free items to students like school bags, shoes, etc which adds value to education. Though these are not subsidies technically, these are items which the government needs to keep track of. In the previous years, there have been instances when the government had no clue about the number of such items supplied to schools. In my knowledge, linking Aadhaar has helped the state government in accounting for these items properly,” she points out.
She also says that the long-term goal for Aadhaar seeding is to help parents to access all necessary documents related to their child’s schooling online. “This helps to create a digital profile of every student to figure out the learning outcome of the state education system. Also, the state government is planning to integrate all the documentation of the student to the EMIS so that parents need not run from pillar to post for want of papers,” she explains.
However, not everybody shares her optimism when it comes to mandatory Aadhaar linkage.
‘Compulsory Aadhaar seeding illegal’
Advocate S Prasanna, an independent Aadhaar researcher and a lawyer, says that seeding the Aadhaar details of school children for any purpose is illegal, more so without parental consent.
“As per the SC judgment, Aadhaar number must not be asked as a pre-requisite for issuing scholarships. The Supreme Court has penned down a separate section for Aadhaar enrolment for children specifying these points,” he points out.
The Supreme Court judgment states that even under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, there is no requirement for a mandatory Aadhaar enrolment and that no child shall be denied the benefit of the schemes if he or she is unable to produce Aadhaar details.
Fears of data safety
While the legality of the seeding process is being debated, researchers are worried about the data being sold to private entities. The fear was amplified recently when the Economic Survey 2019 stated that the private sector may be granted access to select databases for commercial use.
The Economic Survey report talks about the possibility of using test scores of students, demographic characteristics of each district and publicly available data so that a private firm may be able to uncover unmet needs in education and cater to these needs by developing innovative tutoring products tailored to the specific needs of specific districts. The survey stated that these products would not only create profits for the private sector but also monetize data and generate revenues for the government, in addition to improving education levels and social welfare.
“Alternatively, datasets may be sold to analytics agencies that process the data, generate insights, and sell the insights further to the corporate sector, which may, in turn, use these insights to predict demand, discover untapped markets or innovate new products. Either way, there is tremendous scope for the private sector to benefit from the data and they should be allowed to do so, at a charge,” reads the document.
Independent researchers cite this while talking about the state government’s proposal to make it compulsory to government school students to furnish Aadhaar details to their school authorities.
D Ravikumar, a Member of Parliament from Villupuram constituency in Tamil Nadu had introduced a Private Members’ Bill in the Lok Sabha during the Budget session to bring in a data protection law. The bill, known as The Personal Data And Information Privacy Code Bill, 2019, specifies consent for data collection, disclosure of the data thus collected, surveillance by state and data protection measures.
Speaking to TNM about the bill, Ravikumar says, “Aadhaar enrolment can be only voluntary. They (TN school education department) have no agency to do this. The government is very fast in bringing an amendment to Aadhaar Act but it’s been months since the Supreme Court directed the Centre to bring adequate data protection regulations. The government has not done it yet.”
Srikanth, a Chennai-based independent Aadhaar researcher, also conveys similar fear over the state government pushing Aadhaar enrolment of students through their schools.
“Beyond linking the data, what the government can do with this information is creating an educational profile of the student. This would lead to implications in the education opportunities available for students, like educational loans,” he says. Adding that this data will end up being a source for many other commercial activities, he says, “Arguing that students studying in aided schools are in some way enjoying govt subsidy is not solid ground for Aadhaar.”
The officials of the Tamil Nadu school education department could not be reached for a comment on the circular. The story will be updated as and when the officials respond.
(*Name changed on request)