New Delhi/Bengaluru: Any document related to the date and place of birth can be submitted to prove citizenship for National Register of Citizens, the government has said, but a large number of Indians, especially older citizens, do not possess birth certificates, an IndiaSpend analysis shows.

Three in five children (62.3%) under the age of five had their births registered and possessed a birth certificate in 2015-16, according to National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), the latest data available. This is an improvement from 26.9% in 2005-06.

Those born before 2005 have a lesser likelihood of possessing a birth certificate--the first evidence of a person’s legal identity--as registration rates have improved in recent years, data suggest. Children belonging to the poorest sections, scheduled castes and tribes, and families with no schooling are more likely to not have a birth certificate, our analysis shows.

Birth certificate most commonly used in Assam’s NRC

The government has said that birth certificates are ‘acceptable’ as proof of the date and place of birth in relation to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), among a list of other documents which is “likely to include” voter cards, passport, Aadhaar, licenses, insurance papers, school-leaving certificates and documents related to land or home.

This was stated in a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release published on December 20, 2019, and contradicts what Union home minister Amit Shah had said in an interview--that Aadhaar, voter card and passport are not enough to prove citizenship.

“If you do not have the details of your birth, then you will have to provide the same details about your parents,” the PIB release said. “But there is absolutely no compulsion to submit any document by/of the parents.”

“It [birth certificate] was one of the most popular linkage documents which are admissible as per NRC for children,” said Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer based in Assam’s Guwahati, about the recently concluded NRC exercise in the state. “For children whose age is below 18, who have not voted, or who do not have any board [school examination] certificate, the birth certificate is the only document to provide linkage with parents.”

Many births and deaths still unregistered

Currently not every birth and death is registered in the country. States that have poor infrastructure in registering infant deaths also have a significantly higher infant mortality rates, wrote Shamika Ravi, director of research at Brookings India, a think-tank, and Mudit Kapoor, associate professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), in The Indian Express on December 26, 2019.

Given the existing variation in registration of births and deaths in the country, “existing government infrastructure is not conducive to launch NRC. It will lead to chaos, confusion,” they wrote.

As for other documents: Children below the age of 18 are unlikely to have a voter’s identification card. If they have not taken the Class 10 or 12 board exams (and hence do not have those certificates), then the birth certificate is their only proof of place of birth. “In Assam after the final draft was out, 40 lakh people were left out,” said Wadud. “Of this, a large number were children because their parents could not provide their birth certificates.”

Across the country, children without birth certificates, mostly the marginalised, face challenges getting admitted to private schools despite the Right To Education Act specifying that no documents are needed for school admission, said Dipa Sinha, assistant professor, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University Delhi. “Linking proof of birth to any entitlement especially as important as citizenship is going to be scary,” she said.

Unregistered ‘invisible’ children

It is mandatory to register every birth and death within 21 days under the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969; however, only 84.9% of all births and 79.6% of all deaths were registered in 2017, the latest figures by the Civil Registration System of the Office of the Registrar General of India show.

Children whose births have never been officially registered remain invisible, according to UNICEF.

India is among the five countries--the others being Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Pakistan--that are home to half of the world’s 166 million children whose births have not been registered, according to a 2019 UNICEF report. In India, nearly 24 million children under five did not have their births registered in the last five years, UNICEF estimated.

A birth registration provides a child legal recognition for existence and a birth certificate is the proof of that process, often the first and the only evidence of legal identity for the child.

They should go hand in hand but depending on the location of a child, a birth could be registered without the child having received the birth certificate.

A baby not registered at birth might still be accounted for later. “They will be counted in the census if, and only if, they have survived,” said Kapoor from the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI). “With high infant mortality rate (IMR) and under-5 child mortality, many children might never be counted.”

“Birth registrations picked up only after institutional deliveries increased in the 2000s,” said Sinha of Dr B.R. Ambedkar University Delhi. Before that, most births occurred at homes or health systems without institutional linkages with birth registrations.

Many adults born before 2000 would not have birth certificates or school-leaving certificates, or would have multiple documents showing different birth dates (issued by different authorities, often based on guesswork). “None of this was out of any bad intention but simply because their parents did not possess their birth certificates,” Sinha said.

Why aren’t all births registered?

The process of birth registration is simple if a birth occurs in a health facility where a medical officer is in charge. There are local authorities who can register the births at the municipality and panchayat level as well. Community-level workers too can notify the registrar in case of births. There are provisions to register births, even home-births, and even after the prescribed 21-days’ period from birth.

As we said before, the overall birth registration rate in India 2017 is 84.9%, up from 76.4% in 2008, according to 2017 Vital Statistics of India based on Civil Registration System report, the latest available data.

This rate was 56.2% in 2000, which means a little more than half of those born in 2000 would have their births registered.

There are nine states and union territories that have a birth registration rate lower than the national rate. Four of them are large states including the most populous one of Uttar Pradesh (61.5%), as well as Bihar (73.7%), Madhya Pradesh (74.6%), and the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (78.8%).

Only 20 states and union territories gave information about issuance of death and birth certificates in the 2017 CRS report. Those that did not give reasons such as lack of adequate staff, software glitches and network issues.

While 79.4% of children under five have their birth registered as of 2015-16, only three in five children in that age-group (62.3%) had proof of that registration in the form of a birth certificate, according to NFHS-4. That is, one in six children under five (17.4%) had their births registered, but did not have birth certificates.

There are many reasons for births not being registered--the infrastructure in some countries is poor or the families cannot afford to travel to the nearest registration centre.

Also, there is no immediate demand for a birth certificate for any social services provided by the government. “Most vulnerable children live in far-flung areas or in remote areas where there are few registration units,” the planning, monitoring and evaluation specialist for social policy at UNICEF India told IndiaSpend on email.

“We don’t pay attention to any type of registration--birth or deaths. This is why we did not know we had missing girl children,” said a senior public health official who wished to stay anonymous. “Unless you register the birth you don’t know the growth rate, the success of family planning programmes or the number of stillbirths.”

If a birth is not registered and the family requires a birth certificate at a later stage, the birth can be registered later, Kapoor said.

With NRC, there has been a six-fold increase in the number of applications for birth certificates in the Malegaon municipality in Nasik, Maharashtra; similar increases have been observed in Surat and Modasa in Gujarat and in Kolkata, The Indian Express reported on December 29, 2019.

Assam too saw a spate of applications for birth certificates. “They were given the birth certificate when they applied for one, even after 15 years of birth,” said Wadud, the human rights lawyer from Guwahati. But due process was not followed in many cases, due to which the certificates were later cancelled and the individuals left out of the NRC.

Poorest, vulnerable more likely to not have birth certificate

In India, 77% of all children under the age of five living in urban areas had their births registered and possessed birth certificates, according to NFHS-4. The corresponding figure for rural areas is 56.4%. This figure drops with household wealth: While 82.3% of children under the age of five in the richest wealth group had their births registered and possessed a birth certificate, only 40.7% in the poorest wealth group did.

Further, nearly every fourth child (23%) belonging to the poorest wealth group did not have a birth certificate despite their birth being registered as compared to 10.5% of the richest, NFHS-4 shows.

Among scheduled caste and scheduled tribes, only 60.2% and 55.6% had their births registered and possessed birth certificates as compared to 71.9% of ‘other’ castes denoting the least disadvantaged group.

Also, only two in five (41.4%) children with mothers having no education had their births registered and had a birth certificate, compared to three in four (77.6%) children whose mothers had 12 years or more of education.

“The ownership of the birth certificate may be low because parents or guardians in India have a tendency to collect [birth] certificates at later dates as and when it is required for various purposes,” said Chandra Shekhar, professor, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai, clarifying that it was his personal opinion. He added that birth registration is already 99% in some states and will be higher if analysed for children born a year or two before the survey.

(Yadavar is a special correspondent with IndiaSpend/HealthCheck and Shetty is a reporting fellow with IndiaSpend.)

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