Assam NRC
People in Kamrup, Assam show their documents as their names weren't included in the final NRC | ANI file
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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.


Also read: BJP MP Tejasvi Surya says NRC will be implemented, day after PM said no decision on it yet


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.

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.


Also read: Vajpayee-Advani imagined an all-India NRC and Modi-Shah added a Muslim filter


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.


Also read: Modi govt’s adamant stand on citizenship will push India’s neighbours into China’s arms


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.

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10 Comments Share Your Views

10 COMMENTS

  1. Friends, please don’t be communal instead be logical. At first view to NRC it appears that it is against a particular society but it’s not so. Intact it’s just a act that ensures security in the country

  2. NITIN PAI had the same view on Kashmir that 370 can be nullified. Now he is deliberately spreading misinformation about NRC. Better he leave journalism and join a anti national gang.

  3. Nitin has given good suggestions for the future and for those who are born here. The main issue now is for those who are already here, unregistered, illegal migrants. We should have a scheme where Government declares amnesty for such illegal migrants for 3 or 6 months and those who declare voluntarily are given work permits and are encouraged to return to their country in due course. Those who do not so declare voluntarily will be liable to be identified by Police, detained and deported. The burden of proof to prove otherwise will be on them Once we have a couple of rounds of this exercise, rest of the people should be automatically given citizenship card or reference number.

    It is to be noted that both Bangla Desh and Afghanistan have offered to take back their citizens who are illegally staying in India. From Pakistan, we have mostly persecuted people who as Modi rightly said, come in and register themselves first with Police.

    This amnesty process was recently followed in Saudi Arabia as well and they deported many Yemeni, Sudanese, Indians, Pakistanis etc who chose not to declare themselves under the amnesty scheme. No country can and should tolerate illegal immigrants. Modi should visit Riyadh and study this process and implement it with clear headed objective. No one will object to it.

  4. The main problem is that we as a society are not facing up to our failures. India has a literary rate of 74%. We have to bring that to 99%. Citizenship papers will automatically follow.

    Instead of trying to do this, Modi-Shah are diverting attention to a completely useless and inhumane exercise. Now they are saying that even passports are not proof of citizenship. Have these people been to even elementary school?

    This, if carried out, will damage India for generations.

  5. After a long time it was nice to read an analytical and solution oriented article. For any thing to be managed the measurement is must. Since independence, we never bothered to start serious process of measurements, be it population, jobs or money.
    Unmeasured unidentified situation suited a a small percentage of the population who were in power. BENAMI culture was the creation of this deliberate neglect and needless to say who were the primary beneficiaries. Over years the number of beneficiaries is growing at the cost of the honest taxpayer, hence the crowds seen at the rallies opposing any form of measurement.
    Creating a NRC overnight or in one generation for that matter is a toll order but does it mean we should not even make a beginning despite all the problems, for our future generations?
    Can the NO NRC leaders imagine what will happen to this country over the next few decades?
    Even after a couple of generations the NRC will not be perfect, there will be leakages. The technology has given us Unique Identity Number which is like a name given by Government in addition to the one given by parents.There can be 100s of Nitin Pai but only one with your Aadhar Number, why oppose it.? Make use of that tool and start the process may be over next 10 years everyone will have a Aadhar number. The only way to measure is by identification.

  6. Is the system broken, that it needs fixing with the subtlety of a sledgehammer ? Barring Bangladeshis of an older provenance, most now assimilated productively into our economy, are there even a million illegal immigrants residing in India, the way there are possibly eleven million, including half a million from Hindustan, living in the US ? We have 200 million Muslim citizens. Is this exercise meant to put the fear of Allah into them ? Think of Malayalis and Maharashtrians and Biharis, living peacefully on their homesteads for generations, centuries, now put to this horrendous, onerous task of fishing out papers of identity, including of parents and grandparents. In some ways as catastrophically ill advised as Demonetisation. Governance is serious business.

    • Why you idiot dont write with your Arabic name. 200 million? Must of them converts who should be told to ghar wapsi. Rest those who follow arabic culture must be conveyed to leave for those countries with that arabi culture.

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