Who's afraid of NPR?

Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s statements that Indians have nothing to fear from the National Population Register (NPR), which is set to begin countrywide from March 2020 through September (except Assam), and that there is no link with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are misleading on several levels. The impression that is being sought to be created is that the NPR is a benign enumeration exercise for the Census, as it was in 2010. There is, first, a critical difference with the decadal census exercise. The Census is conducted under the Census Act, 1948, and is done on the basis of self-declaration by people, without any verification. The NPR, however, is a coercive exercise; it is compulsory for everyone to share data, and there are penalties stipulated for non-cooperation. The NPR is defined as a database of usual residents in an area demarcated by the Registrar General of Citizen Registration, and it defines “usual resident” as someone who has resided in a local area for the past six months or more or a person who intends to reside in that area for the next six months or more. Second, the rules for both the NPR and NRC were framed in 2003 under the Citizenship Act, 1955. The Registrar General’s office is responsible for both exercises. The rules also explicitly state that the NRC data will be duly verified by the data from the NPR. In effect, the NPR forms the foundation for the NRC.

 

The government has clarified that no documents or biometrics will be required for the NPR. This should be reassuring, but the concern that arises is the level of discretion vested in local officials if the NRC exercise follows, as the government had stated several times (including in Parliament) until Prime Minister Narendra Modi denied it at a rally in New Delhi recently. The rules empower the local register to mark out a category of “doubtful citizens” after the verification exercise, and duly inform the individual or family concerned. This level of discretion raises the spectre of arbitrary exclusions of the kind that were seen in the Assam NRC exercise and opens the door for corruption. Even more worrying, the rules enable any person to file objections against the inclusion of someone in the local register of citizens, widening the ambit for abuse even further. The exercise becomes all the more fraught for those who are poor and uneducated.

 

The demographic details under the 2010 NPR required roughly 14 kinds of data, such as parents’ name, nationality, occupation and address. The 2020 exercise has added the requirement of the date of birth and place of birth of one’s parents. Apart from pointing to yet another link between the NPR and NRC, the significance of this new data requirement is that, following amendments to the Citizenship Act in 1987 and 2003, the citizenship status of the parents determines whether someone is an Indian citizen by birth. Indeed, when the Census data and a near nationwide Aadhaar database (verified via documents and biometrics) already exist, it is difficult to understand the need for the NPR, still less for the government to spend Rs 3,941 crore for this exercise unless it is the starting point for determining citizenship within the ruling party’s political paradigms.



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