Coming as it does against the backdrop of widespread protests against the new citizenship law, the government’s decision to approve funds for updating the National Population Register is set to become another political flashpoint and stoke fears that the database could be used to build the controversial National Register of Citizens.
While two-state Governments, Trinamool Congress-ruled West Bengal and Left-ruled Kerala, have already issued orders stopping the NPR exercise in their respective states, the main opposition Congress, which is in power in four states and the union territory of Puducherry, appeared undecided and divided and was hence silent. The Congress, especially the Gandhis, had been very critical of the Government over the citizenship law and the NRC.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar asserted that the Census exercise had no relation with the NRC. The Home Ministry issued a statement saying “there is no proposal at present to conduct a nationwide NRC based on the NPR data,” and that the exercise will not seek documents from individuals in every household.
Many in the Opposition said that the NPR, in itself, was little more than a counting exercise but given the deep distrust and tension around the new citizenship law and the NRC and the new query in NPR on parents’ birth, it could a key stepping stone towards the NRC.
“It is surprising that the Prime Minister on Sunday said that they are not going ahead with NRC. And today, the Cabinet has allotted Rs 8,500 crore for NPR. What is NPR? The Home Ministry’s latest annual report says NPR is the first step towards the creation of the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC),” former Minister of State for Home Ajay Maken told The Indian Express. He was in charge of the first NPR exercise which was carried out in 2011.
Explained: Why NPR isn’t NRC
Referring to Home Minister Amit Shah’s remarks Tuesday evening in an interview to ANI that NPR data cannot be used for NRC, Maken said: “It is a big lie, it is a bigger lie than what Modi had said on Sunday. They are doing NRC in the garb of NPR…The Congress never brought NPR to the extent of linking it with NRC.”
But the Congress officially did not react.
The idea of NPR actually dates back to the UPA regime and it was put in motion in 2009 by then Home Minister P Chidambaram. At least two members of the Congress Working Committee saw nothing wrong in the NPR exercise while another senior leader said the party’s state governments should not carry out the exercise since they have taken a position against the NRC.
“NPR is basically a first step towards the NRC…if we have said no to NRC publicly, our state governments should not do it. NPR means the database is with you..you just have to do the purging,” a senior Congress leader told The Indian Express.
But another leader said that NPR is “not necessarily a precursor to the NRC.”
“This is a constitutional requirement, the requirement of law…you have the office of the registrar general of births and deaths…that is a national institution and they are supposed to undertake this exercise to update the population register..” he said. Another leader said “it has been going on for years…was done as part of 2011 census.”
“NPR is first step of the National Register of Indian Citizens, which is the other name of nationwide NRC. It’s important to understand the link between NPR & NRC. NPR is a collation of all ‘usual residents’ living in India. Under the Citizenship Rules, 2003, a National Register of Indian Citizens is to be produced after filtering citizens from non-citizens. How is this filtering done? First a local officer “verifies” the list & issues notice to “doubtful citizens” from list of local residents.
“These ‘doubtfuls’ must now prove their citizenship. Following this, a draft list is published. If you think your inclusion in the draft list is enough, it’s not. Because the rules permit objections to the inclusion of any name on the list. Presumably, anyone can file an objection. The decision of your Indianness is made by an officer summarily. NPR also collects sensitive personal information of every Indian, including passport details (~5.5% of Indians have passports),” said Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi in a series of tweets.
The CPM appealed to all Chief Ministers, who have opposed the NRC, to ensure that the NPR exercise is abandoned in their states. The Home Ministry statement, however, goes against its own assertions in Parliament and in its latest annual report where it has been specifically mentioned that NRC would be conducted on the basis of NPR data.
In November, 2014, then Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju had told Parliament just as much. In a written reply to CPI MP from Kerala Dr T N Seema in the Rajya Sabha, Rijiju said, “The NPR is the first step towards creation of National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) by verifying the citizenship status of every usual residents.”
He had, however, added that NPR is a register of all the usual residents which include citizens and non-citizens as well. He had said there was no proposal to merge the existing Aadhar database to the NPR under consideration of the Government. The upcoming NPR exercise would be asking for Aadhar number from residents, however.
In its latest statement, issued after the Cabinet approval to NPR, MHA has said that the objective of conducting NPR is to “prepare a credible register of every family and individual” living in the country apart from “strengthening security” and “improvement targeting of beneficiaries under various Central government schemes”.
“No biometric data is being collected. No documents is being sought during the house-to-house enumeration,” the MHA statement added.
It said the NPR data would be connected to various government schemes to ensure “transparent and efficient delivery of social benefits”. This could be implemented in various sectors ranging from financial to disaster management, it said. It said the NPR data could be useful in targeting beneficiaries in banking and insurance sectors, admission to schools and universities, agricultural debt, land, assets, national security, public distribution system, health, child marriage etc.
It also said that NPR data has been used in the past for targeting of Central schemes and other enumerations. “The Socio-economic caste census was conducted on the basis of NPR data. Family-wise data of NPR was used for better goal setting for schemes such as Ayushman Bharat, Jandhan Yopjana, Pradhanmantri Awas Yojana, Ujjwala Yojana, Saubhagya Yojana etc,” the MHA said. It said several states such as Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha and Mizoram had been provided the NPR data for PDS.