Among the many conceits of the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens is this: that only “illegal immigrants" need fear not having the proper documentation. News reporting from Assam has exposed repeatedly that this is not necessarily the case, with women and the poor bearing the brunt of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in that state.

Official India data suggests that even at an all-India level, when it comes to paperwork, the poor and marginalized are most likely to be further marginalized by any process that demands legacy data (which prove ancestry) or documentation. The prime example is the birth certificate, which the richest and the most privileged social groups are likely to possess, according to data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), which recorded the responses of more than half a million respondents to a range of questions relating to health and demographics in 2015-16.

As of 2015-16, 80% of children under the age of five had their births registered (meaning that the birth had been registered with the municipality or panchayat’s Registrar, typically by the hospital). However, just 62% had birth certificates, the legal document under the Registration of Birth and Deaths (RBD) Act 1969 that the Registrar gives to the child’s legal guardian if they request it.


A decade before this, birth registration and certification was even lower. According to the previous round of NFHS conducted in 2005-06 round, just 41 percent of children under the age of five had their births registered with the civil authorities then, and just 27 percent of children under the age of five had a birth certificate.

The longer the delay in registering the child’s birth, the harder it gets to obtain a birth certificate; according to the RBD Act. Any birth which has not been registered within one year of its occurrence can be registered only on an order made by a magistrate of the first class or a Presidency Magistrate and on payment of a penalty. This suggests that for older generations, the chances of having or obtaining a birth certificate is quite low compared to younger persons.

Privilege also plays a huge role in determining who has proper documentation of their birth and parentage and who doesn’t. Better educated parents and those who are better off are more likely to get their children a birth certificate. Sikhs are the most likely and Muslims the least likely to have birth certificates among religious groups. Forward caste Hindus are the most likely and Adivasi children the least likely to have a birth certificate among caste groups.

Other data sources have shown the same trends. Using data from the 2011-12 India Human Development Survey, Itismita Mohanty and Tesfaye Alemayehu Gebremedhin found that women with greater autonomy - those with better control over their own mobility and some access to resources - were more likely to be able to take on the travel and direct and indirect costs that might be involved in the birth certification process. Other factors that raised the probability of having a birth certificate included institutional deliveries, higher parental education, mother’s access to antenatal health, higher household income, belonging to the forward/general castes, and being Hindu compared to being Muslim.

Living in a richer state where all of these variables are more likely to operate is also a strong determinant of the birth being ‘legal’. The NFHS data shows that the share of women who say that their children under the age of 5 had their births registered was lower than the official Sample Registration System data on birth registrations. While the SRS system says that 15 states and Union Territories had achieved 100% birth registration by 2016, household surveys conducted by the NFHS in 2015-16 and the IHDS in 2011-12 did not find 100% registration in a single state.


This burden on the most marginalised is evident in other crucial documents as well. In 2004-05, 51.4% households in the poorest quartile and 58.4% in the next quartile did not possess either an Antyodaya Anna Yojana or a Below Poverty Line (BPL) ration card, an analysis of National Sample Survey data found. This despite the fact that these schemes were specially targeted to the poorest of the poor.

One of the arguments that proponents of citizenship tests have been pushing is that such identification favours the “legal" poor as against the “illegal poor". What they fail to realise, however, is that the poor first and foremost have the most trouble proving that they are legal.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.

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