Should the National Popular Register be a Priority Exercise of India?

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National Population Register (NPR) is a list of “usual residents of the country”. A “usual resident of the country” is one who has been residing in a local area for at least the last six months, or intends to stay in a particular location for the next six months. It will be carried out across all states in India except the state of Assam because of the recently concluded NRC.

The exercise of updating the NPR will be carried out alongside Census 2021 and it will be conducted by the Office of the Registrar General of India under the Home Ministry.

I believe that the whole exercise of NPR and NRIC should not be a priority because India has a long history of so-called illegal immigrants and they are very small in numbers as compared to the massive total population of India, and a different modus operandi needs to be adopted for identifying them. As planned by the union government, the NPR and NRIC are a national wide exercise where it is every usual resident’s responsibility to prove that he/she is an Indian citizen which is a case of impossibility due to historic administrative lapses of non-issuance of documents for births, marriages, and deaths all over the country.

Constitutional Provisions Related to Citizenship

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The Original Citizenship Act of 1955 was amended in 2003, by introducing ‘Section 14A’ to create the National Register of Indian Citizen (NRIC); and codified a set of rules called ‘The Citizenship Rules-2003’, Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards (also referred to as ‘2003 Rules’) provided for National Population Register (NPR) based on the data gathered from all the residents so that NRIC is prepared.

The Citizenship Rules 2003, authorizes the officials and local registrar to designate ‘doubtful citizen’ or mark ‘D’ in the NPR to those who are unable to show any document or convince the investigator that he/she is an Indian citizen. The names of the marked persons will be not be included in the final list of NRIC. Although the Union Home Minister delivered many statements in the Parliament that categorization of ‘doubtful citizen’ will not be done during the process of verification and preparing the Local Register of Indian citizens, many of the experts have commented that those statements are baseless because it is contrary to the provisions given in the statute. Further, the preparation of NRC in the state of Assam which has already progressed substantially has highlighted how a ‘D’ mark in NPR will lead to exclusion of names in the final NRC list.  As a result of which, the fear of getting labelled as ‘doubtful citizens’ leading to exclusion from NRIC can only be removed by amending the Rule-2003, thereby excluding such requirement altogether.

Census and Population Counts in India

The term ‘census’ has not been defined in the main body of the Census Act of 1948 whereas it is stated in the introductory part and ‘statement of objects and reasons. The Census Act, 1948 legislation empowers the data collecting authority and functionaries to make physical visits to every dwelling and household to ‘stencil’ or mark a household number; and canvas a pre-determined questionnaire for eliciting data and information.

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The census of India data is collected both at the level of the household and through an individual listing of all its members and considered robust for population counts, age and sex structure, and also for understanding levels of education, health, and economic status parameters.  The Census of Indian operation which is administered through a ‘Registrar General’ under the Ministry of Home Affairs, collects, analyzes, and utilizes data under the legal provision of the Census of India Act of 1948.

Are NPR and NRIC Interconnected?

Rule 4 of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003 provides for using the NPR data to make the NRIC under Rule 4(3). Once NPR data is collected, the government will not ask the citizens whether to convert that data into NRIC or not. After taking the NPR data, the government will not do another house to house enumeration to collect other data for NRC. Note, however, that the NPR data collected is usable mandatorily for the preparation of NRIC. Hence, the legal interpretation can be that the NPR itself for all practical purposes is the NRIC operation. The Central Government has successfully created confusion in propagating that first they will do NPR and then NRC. This explanation is incorrect. The NRIC is mandated to be finalized only with the NPR, with in-house scrutinization as a matter of routine activity.

Since the NPR data definitions, data units, and units of data analysis are not yet made public, it will be pre-mature to reach out to the masses for data collection, the data which may become useless. Although the NPR was prepared from 2011 to 2015, the issues relating to its use and utility, etc. were not debated or discussed with experts, academics, and the masses.  Needless to state that the notifications to undertake the exercises of NPR as well as census had to be put on hold by the authorities due to the global pandemic Covid-19 and consequential lockdown.

Fears over CAA

The Citizenship Amendment Act passed by the Parliament on 11th December 2019 allows citizenship on basis of religion to six apocryphal communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who entered India on or before December 31, 2014. There are apprehensions and fears that the CAA, followed by a country-wide NRC, will benefit non-Muslims excluded from the proposed citizens’ register, while excluded Muslims will have to prove their citizenship. Though the government has categorically denied that the CAA and the NRC are linked.

Conclusion

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The issuance of the National ID cards or a Register of Citizens is one that has been tried and then ultimately scrapped by various developed countries such as the UK, for reasons of huge cost and concerns over breach of privacy. The interest of the State in ensuring services to those who need it most and the interest of the individual, whose privacy and citizenship is of paramount importance and requires a very delicate balancing act. The threat of loss of Citizenship is sought to be used to abrade the privacy of individuals.

On top of that, this threat puts at risk, a sizeable religious minority in the concerned country. So, the way forward can only be a simple, concrete, and unambiguous set of parameters that will let a bonafide citizen, marked doubtful under the 2003 Rules, to challenge and set right the improper declaration as doubtful. The utter complexity of the diverse demography of India requires that minimum facts ought to be needed to be proved.

The more that will have to be acknowledged will lead to more fear and confusion amongst ‘doubtful’ individuals and their families and resultantly among the minority communities. This will also result in arbitrariness and bias on the part of adjudicating authorities and will result in obvious miscarriages of justice that will choke the judicial system for years to come, all the while burdening the national exchequer with the cost of maintaining the framework of detention centres and tribunals and their staff members.


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