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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Of deaths and births

Perhaps our statistical discrepancies are symptomatic of the transition from an informal to a formal system.

Written by Bibek Debroy |
Updated: January 21, 2016 12:01:34 am

Since 1969, there has been a Registration of Births and Deaths Act. This makes the registration of births and deaths compulsory (within 21 days of the incident). In T.S. Eliot’s “Fragment of an Agon”, two-thirds of the facts, when you come to the brass tacks, are birth and death. Perhaps understandably, we are more concerned with birth than death. Faced with a relative’s death, most of us are familiar with the nuisance of obtaining a death certificate. Typically, a death certificate requires the registration of death.

Whose responsibility is the registration of death? As with birth, there’s a civil registration system (CRS). From a registrar general in New Delhi, it flows down through state-level chief registrars to district registrars and village/ town registrars. But within that stipulated 21 days, who informs the registrar? If death occurs in a hospital, nursing home, medical institution, hostel, hotel or boarding-house, the institution is responsible. If death occurs at home, the head of the family or any other family member has the responsibility. Keepers of burial grounds and crematoriums must inform the registrar. Finally, there’s a residual category, where a dead body may be found abandoned in a public place. Then the responsibility devolves on the sarpanch or SHO of the local police station.

Births and deaths aren’t the only components of vital statistics. For instance, there are marriages, divorces and adoptions. We may look upon this as civil registration now and even codify it. However, in many Western countries, this was linked to the church. You were baptised in church, married there and buried there. Usually, our religious institutions had no such role. There has been an emphasis on shifting births from homes to institutions, with cash incentives for institutional delivery through the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) — or the Janani Shishu Suraksha Yojana (JSSY) — and similar state-level schemes.

There’s nothing similar for institutional death. Based on the civil registration system, we have data for 2013 — 85.6 per cent of live births are registered, but only 70.9 per cent of deaths are registered. However, there has been a sharp increase in death registration and states like Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab and Tamil Nadu do rather well. With the exception of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Lakshadweep, all Union territories do exceedingly well. As is to be expected, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh are a problem. The registration of infant deaths, especially if they occur at home, is a problem. I wonder if the efficiency of the civil registration system (not just deaths) is a function of the differences in the registration machinery across states. In some cases, it’s routed through health departments. But elsewhere, it is the planning, economics and statistics department. In rural areas, sometimes (not always), panchayats and revenue departments are involved.

Burial grounds and crematoriums can also be involved in the registration process. In the Seventh Schedule, Entry 10 in the State List mentions “burials and burial grounds; cremations and cremation grounds”. But these can be rural or urban. Under Article 243G of the Constitution, state governments can delegate powers to panchayats, “including those in relation to the matters listed in the Eleventh Schedule”. Sure, delegation isn’t restricted to items mentioned in the Eleventh Schedule alone. But the Eleventh Schedule has no mention of burial grounds and crematoriums. Contrast this with municipalities, Article 243W and the Twelfth Schedule. Entry 14 in the Twelfth Schedule mentions “burials and burial grounds; cremations, cremation grounds; and electric crematoriums”. (On a broader issue, I have always wondered why the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments are not much more in harmony. For that matter, why not a single amendment?) For rural India, no data on burial grounds/ crematoriums exists. Land use classification puts these in a motley category of land not available for cultivation. Approved works under the MPLADS include the construction of crematoriums and structures on burial grounds/ crematoriums. Presumably some database exists there.

One should be on surer ground with municipalities, Delhi being a test case. Sections 389 to 392 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act (1957) give assorted powers to the MCD for “burning and burial grounds”, mirrored in Sections 300 to 303 of the New Delhi Municipal Council Act (1994). How many cremation grounds are there in Delhi? In 1999, the Delhi government’s annual report on the registration of births and deaths said there are 271 cremation grounds. Today, across the three (north, south and east) corporations, the MCD reports an aggregate of 63 cremation grounds. What happened to the others? Have they been closed down in a process of modernisation of crematoriums? Has their management been handed over to NGOs, so that they are no longer counted under MCD jurisdiction?

In the National Capital Territory, Census 2011 tells us there are still 112 villages, concentrated in the northwest and southwest districts. There are 110 census towns, too, which aren’t statutory towns yet. Is the discrepancy in numbers because some part of Delhi’s geographical area is outside the MCD and NDMC domain? In 1997, a committee (under the MCD) was set up to examine the conditions of cremation grounds in Delhi. I thought that report would give me an answer. But as far as I can make out, that report was never submitted. Cremation grounds in Delhi, as elsewhere, seem to attract attention
only when there are negative reports or PILs. For instance, there’s a case going on now about the supplies of wood by the MCD to crematoriums.

Perhaps such data problems are inevitable and are only symptomatic of transitions from rural/ informal to urban/ formal systems.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal

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