Being able to accurately identify who is a citizen of your country is a very useful thing. From national security to public service delivery, from voting in elections to borrowing books from public libraries – having irrefutable proof of an individual’s citizenship can make the state more effective and empower the citizen in substantial ways. So, count me as among those who think that putting an unambiguous proof of citizenship in the hands of citizens is a good thing. Most developed countries have them; India should too.
I hadn’t put much thought into exactly how we could do this until ten years ago, after a debate with one of the designers of what was then called the Unique Identification (or UID) project. To my criticism that the UID design should have included a citizenship field, my friend effectively told me that proving citizenship is practically impossible because birth registration rates in some of our most populous states in 2008 were around 60 per cent. One generation ago, an even smaller fraction of the population would have registered births. In other words, when hundreds of lakhs of people in India didn’t have even a birth certificate, accurate determination of citizenship was a far cry. Creating a proof of identity for a country of 130 crore people was hard enough; creating irrefutable proof of citizenship was next to impossible.
Impossible to start from where we are now
Authoritative, unambiguous and readily available documentary bases are the foundations to establish any measure of fool-proof citizenship documentation. But our grandparents at best had horoscopes, if they had any documents at all; many even in our parents’ generation — especially women — didn’t pass high school and so don’t have school leaving certificates; names are spelled differently in different documents; women would often be renamed in their marital homes; and perhaps half the kids of my generation — born in the 1970s — didn’t have birth certificates.
Illiterate citizens, who may not have any documents, authorities may allow them to produce witnesses or local proofs supported by members of community. A well laid out procedure will be followed.#CAA2019
— Spokesperson, Ministry of Home Affairs (@PIBHomeAffairs) December 20, 2019
The Narendra Modi government can build a “well laid out procedure” to establish citizenship, but to the extent that they rest on such weak foundations, it’s going to have huge problems. Consider an analogy: If the original resolution of your digital photo is poor, no amount of magnification will make it better. You can fill in the missing details, but only at the cost of authenticity. A process as important as establishing citizenship must allow for a credible process of appeal. Political and practical considerations might also call for a process to entertain objections to your citizenship claim from others.
To believe that you can put more than 100 crore people through a process like the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on such shaky documentary foundations is to ask for vastly more trouble than is worth the benefit of creating a list of authentic citizens.
Start with birth certificates
Instead of a retrospective approach, a far better way to unambiguously establish citizenship would be to do it prospectively. Instead of trying to pursue the impossible task of processing 130 crore people in a few years, a far better way would be to ensure that all newborn citizens have unambiguous documents of citizenship. This means paying attention to the birth registration process. Here, there is good news.
According to a report published by the Registrar General of India in 2016, India is making good progress in terms of birth registration – 86 per cent of all births in India were registered in 2016, compared to 74.5 per cent in 2007. The states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Uttarakhand had already achieved 100 per cent registration of births. So had the union territories of Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Delhi, and Puducherry. This is impressive and shows that the problem of documentation is solving itself.
If the governments of Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Sikkim, and Uttar Pradesh — which have the lowest birth registration rates — can be persuaded to improve their performance, the challenge of authenticating citizenship will become a lot more tractable. If it is truly concerned about addressing the citizenship documentation problem, the Modi government would do well to go into a mission mode on birth registration.
A corruption-free registration
Why don’t parents register their children’s births when it has been mandatory to do so under the Registration of Births and Deaths Act of 1969? The oldest cause is perhaps lack of awareness, which might still exist in some pockets. Another cause might be cultural norms, where children are named weeks after birth.
Under the registration rules, a birth certificate is issued free of charge if done within 21 days of birth, and need not include the name of the child. A fee is charged for registration between 21st and the 30th day. Any registration after that involves a lot of paperwork and running around multiple government offices, including to a Magistrate of the First Class if a year has passed since the birth. I’m sure these rules were framed for good reasons, but what they mean in the real world is uncertainty, discretion and corruption. So, corruption is certainly part of the reason why birth registrations are low. Finally, it is quite possible that socially weak communities might be deterred or denied access to registration facilities in some parts of India.
If the government were to make the process of registration of births (and deaths) efficient, accessible to all and corruption-free, India can attain 100 per cent birth registration within a few years. In a couple of decades, everyone will have birth certificates and determining citizenship will be a lot easier. Of course, it won’t be perfect. Of course, it’ll take a long time. But then, it is a fallacy to believe that it would ever be possible to accurately count to the last citizen. The alternative to a slow and reasonably accurate method is not a drastic process with greater inaccuracy that gets mired in interminable procedural and judicial delays.
We shouldn’t underestimate the risk of popular resentment from registration processes. Even if Luke got the date and the details mixed up in his apostolic zeal, a Jewish rebellion against a Roman census roughly two thousand years ago ended up changing the course of history.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.