The Union cabinet has approved a budget of Rs 3,941 crore to update the National Population Register – NPR – and Rs 8,500 crore for the 2021 Census. The separate budgets alone tell you how the NPR and the Census are two different things. The NPR is not a precursor to the Census, contrary to popular perception.
The Census has been around since 1872. The NPR first found mention in Indian laws in 2003 — in an amendment to the Citizenship Act by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. The first NPR exercise began in 2010. Since the NPR requires going to every Indian and asking them questions, a job the Census of India does well, the NPR was assigned to the same agency that carries out the Census: the Registrar General of India. That is all. That doesn’t mean India needs the NPR for the Census.
How NPR was born
India has long felt the need to issue verifiable identity documents to its citizens, particularly in border areas. The need was highlighted by the Kargil Defence Review Committee. That’s how the NPR was born as an idea in 2003. The need was evident again when India started worrying about coastal security after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008.
But the NPR does not issue identity cards. As enshrined in the Citizenship Rules issued in 2003, the idea was to collect everyone’s details through the NPR, verify claims of citizenship according to the Citizenship Act, thus creating a National Register of Indian Citizens, and lastly issuing all these verified citizens an identity card.
But the Vajpayee government lost the 2004 election and the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government came to power in 2004. This government decided it will carry out the NPR, and separately issue biometric identity cards under a new law. Hence, we have the Aadhaar card.
Make Aadhaar the NPR
Today, nearly 125 crore Indians have an Aadhaar card/number, as against an estimated population of 130 crore. All that the Narendra Modi government has to do is to make it compulsory for every Indian to enrol for Aadhaar.
Currently, enrolment for Aadhaar is voluntary, but giving your details to the NPR is compulsory. Doing so will save us the money on the NPR, the nearly Rs 4,000 crore sanctioned recently. This might help us save the Rs 3,000 crore we’re currently slashing in the school education budget because the government of India is facing ‘funds crunch’.
There are other good reasons why we need to immediately shelve the NPR.
NPR could kill
First, the NPR exercise being undertaken by the Modi government feeds directly into its stated claims to carry out an all-India NRC, isolating those who may not have the right documents to prove their citizenship. We know from Assam that this would be a meaningless exercise endlessly causing harassment and suicides. When even a Kargil war veteran and the family of a former President of India couldn’t prove their citizenship, do we really think this is a feasible idea?
To make a bad idea worse, the Modi government has amended the Citizenship Act to selectively grant citizenship to “refugees” from three neighbouring countries on the basis of their religion. The ruling BJP has repeatedly made it clear it intends to use this clause to give citizenship to those who may be declared non-citizens, illegal immigrants or foreigners through the NRC. That would only leave Muslims to be declared stateless. The NRC has driven people to suicide.
That the NPR 2020 (unlike the NPR 2010) wants to know the date and place of birth of both your parents is proof enough that the government wants to use this data to, later on, ask you to verify your citizenship claim. Verifying citizenship is not a practical idea since many of us won’t be able to find documents showing where and when our parents or grandparents were born. If we are shelving the idea of the NRC, we won’t need the NPR. Why do you need a toy if you don’t want to play with it?
We don’t need the NRC, and so, we don’t need the NPR.
The idea of the NPR as a live directory, as already discussed above, can be served by Aadhaar. It will only need amending the 2016 Aadhaar Act. For instance, Aadhaar numbers are already being issued for newborn babies and recorded with death certificates.
There’s a second reason why we need to shelve the NPR. As currently planned, the NPR is a super nightmare. With the 2020 NPR, the government wants to know details such as your passport number, Aadhaar number, driving license number, and so on. It is supposedly voluntary to give these details. But how many enumerators will tell the masses that they don’t have to give these details if they don’t want to? We have seen how the public was forced to enrol for Aadhaar despite it being ostensibly voluntary.
The Supreme Court’s privacy and Aadhaar judgments have placed a number of restrictions on the government use of Aadhaar data. It is feared that the government is duplicating the Aadhaar exercise (the NPR will even issue a number for every person), so that it can find a way of skirting the restrictions around Aadhaar data usage.
One of the scariest misuses of personal data by any government is for potential voter targeting. With the delimitation exercise a few years away, just imagine the misuse possible. Constituencies could be demarcated on the basis of people’s religious, class or other categorisations. And since Aadhaar will collect phone numbers too, easy targeting of voters for the ruling party would be a boon.
If that sounds like a conspiracy theory, note how the previous Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh allegedly stole Aadhaar, voter ID, caste, government scheme beneficiary and other data of some 3.9 crore voters. Such a breach of privacy is a great indignity and would have been a much bigger public scandal in any other country.
The NPR will only make such political misuse of public data easier. The Modi government is about to bring a privacy law that is in itself a scandal. It gives the government very wide powers to access your private data. It does not have strong safeguards to prevent the breach of privacy by the government itself, or redressal in case such a breach is identified. The bill is weak when it comes to the biggest culprit of violation of privacy: the government itself.
Given the situation, this is a very bad time for the Modi government to be centralising a host of personal data in the NPR. There have been privacy concerns around Aadhaar due to the use of biometrics. Now imagine the government creating a 360-degree profile of you with your Aadhaar, including details such as your occupation, marital status, family tree, and so on. The proposed NPR is a Himalayan threat to citizen’s privacy.
Views are personal.