While defending the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 in Parliament, the Union Home Minister announced that the government will launch a countrywide NRC very soon. This has led to an ideological divide, and a fiery debate across the country.
It is worth noting that the Citizenship Act of 1955 has a provision (point 14A) where: One, the central government may compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue a national identity card to him. Two, the central government may maintain a National Register of Indian Citizens and for that purpose establish a National Registration Authority. Three, on and from the date of commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, the Registrar General, India under sub-section (1) of section 3 of the Registration of Births and Deaths Act 1969 (18 of 1969) shall act as the National Registration Authority and he shall function as the Registrar General of Citizen Registration.
However, in contrast to the important normative question of whether the central government should launch an NRC or not, it is perhaps more important to look at the positive question of whether the central government has the capacity for such an ambitious undertaking. A faulty implementation of the NRC could create a human rights issue of unimaginable magnitude.
To understand issues related to the central government’s capacity to launch an NRC, we focus our attention on the most important activity of the Registrar General of India under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) — the implementation of the Registration of Births and Deaths Act of 1969, whereby every birth and death in the whole of India is to be compulsorily registered. Registration of birth is the right of every child and is the first step towards establishing a legal identity. It was envisaged under this Act that the Civil Registry System (CRS) would be “the unified process of continuous, permanent, compulsory and universal recording of the vital events (births, deaths, still births)”. Closer inspection of data from the MHA report on Vital Statistics of India based on the Civil Registry Systems, 2017 reveals several shortcomings, which are a harbinger of the challenges that the government will face in the implementation of the NRC.
First, there are large variations in registered births and deaths across states. For example, in large and less developed states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, 62 per cent and 74 per cent of the births, respectively, were registered, while only 38 per cent and 43 per cent of the deaths, respectively, were registered. Overall in India, 85 per cent of births and 74 per cent of deaths were registered. Some of the Northeastern states, such as Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh have less than 40 per cent of deaths that are registered. Even in Assam, which has 100 per cent of birth registration, only 66 per cent of the deaths are registered. This clearly reflects the acute poverty of infrastructure across states to implement the constitutionally mandated Registration of births and deaths Act of 1969. Unfortunately, this also suggests that the NRC implemented under present conditions will disproportionately hurt the vulnerable and weaker sections of the society.
Next, to understand the nature of the exercise, we look at the registration of deaths of a particularly vulnerable group — children less than a year old. They are vulnerable because they depend on adults for all their needs and do not have adequate political representation. They are, therefore, neglected by society and the state. This apathy is reflected in their registration numbers. We estimate by using data from the sample registration system (SRS) and comparing it with data from the CRS, that only 19 per cent of infant deaths are registered. In some large states like Bihar, less than 1 per cent of infant deaths were registered, in Uttar Pradesh it was merely 4.3 per cent. Even in states that report high levels of social development, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, merely 62 per cent and 58 per cent of infant deaths were registered. This clearly reflects the impoverished nature of the state to address the identity of the voiceless.
We also found a strong negative correlation between infant mortality rate and proportion of infant deaths that were registered. States that have poor infrastructure in registering infant deaths also have a significantly higher infant mortality rate. Given India’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, it is imperative upon the state to accurately account for all infant deaths.
In light of the severe capacity constraint, if the NRC is to be ever launched then the first step for the MHA should be to strengthen the existing infrastructure to account for at least every birth and death within the country. An unintended consequence of this could be its immediate effect on health and safety policies, which are significantly hampered by the non-availability of regular and reliable data, in particular on deaths. At present, the existing infrastructure is not conducive to launch an NRC. It will only lead to chaos, confusion and exclusion of the weakest and the poorest sections of society.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 26, 2019 under the title “State incapacity and NRC”. Kapoor works at ISI and Ravi with Brookings India.
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