In the last week of 2019, the Union Cabinet approved Rs 39.41 billion for updating the National Population Register (NPR) and Rs 85 billion for Census 2021 operations.
This was followed by a TV show in which the Union Home Minister obfuscated on the link between the nationwide NRC — National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) and the NPR exercise that will be carried out along with the Census 2021.
The HM made it look as if NPR has no link with NRIC while all the official documents state unequivocally that NPR is a step towards NRIC. HM stated nonchalantly that the NPR is a ‘simple’ technology-based enumeration in which all data will be collected in a hassle-free manner from home or online and there is ‘nothing to worry’.
As it has happened too many times before, when government says there is no need to worry, while some need not, many must. Besides, citizens have every right to know the details if they must share their personal data with the state.
It is neither comforting nor convincing when the government asks citizens to cooperate without full disclosure. It is worse when those at the top speak in different tongues at different times, often contradicting themselves and the official documents available in the public domain before they have made these statements.
As per news reports, the NPR data collection schedule used at the trial stage, seeking details of the “place of birth of father and mother”, is likely to be finalised as the authorities claim that they did not receive significant adverse feedback from the sample respondents.
One of the biggest paradoxes of India’s official digitalisation effort linked to governance is the controversial enterprise known as Aadhaar, the supposedly infallible biometric identity database of every Indian resident, not citizen.
As with India’s Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), the biometrics-based Aadhaar is claimed to be totally secure in the hands of the state. Nevertheless, it may be recalled that its very legitimacy was questioned in the beginning by those who have now become its aggressive promoters.
Introduced as a device to eliminate leakages in the government’s welfare spending in the social sector, it has the potential of being used as the key metadata to track almost all transactions of each citizen.
The BJP which opposed Aadhaar when they were not in power at the centre weaponised it soon after they ascended to power at the centre. Curiously, after opposing Aadhaar initially when it was used in a limited way, they forced almost all residents in India to enroll in it using several coercive rules soon after coming to power at the centre.
At the early stage, people of India were registered separately in Aadhaar and National Population Register (NPR) because the former was being piloted in some states while the latter was a nationwide project to create a list of those ordinarily resident in India. Currently, NPR and Aadhaar are synchronised databases.
As per the information in the public domain, after aggressive initiatives, currently, nearly 1.19 billion individuals are listed in NPR and more than 1.25 billion in Aadhaar out of India’s population of over 1.37 billion.
Those considered as usual residents in NPR are anyone living or likely to live in India for six months or more, irrespective of citizenship.
For a long time, the enumeration process of Aadhaar and NPR was carried out as two unrelated exercises. Prior to the Census 2011, enumerators collected details needed for NPR from each house. The Section 14A added in 2004 to the Citizenship Act, 1955 empowers the Central Government to compulsorily register every citizen of India, issue a national identity card and maintain a National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC). Grave concerns have been raised by civil rights activists questioning the preparation of NPR because they recognise it basically as a crucial step for preparing NRIC and not as having much to do with the Census itself.
The FAQ for NPR given on the official website of the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner states that the Citizenship Act 1955 amended in 2004 by inserting Section 14A provides for the following:
1) The Central Government may compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue National Identity Card
2) The Central Government may maintain a National Register of Indian Citizens and for that purpose establish a National Registration Authority
3) On and from the date of commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, the Registrar General, India, appointed under sub-section (1) of section 3 of the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969 (18 of 1969) shall act as the National Registration Authority and he shall function as the Registrar General of Citizen Registration
4) The Central Government may appoint such other officers and staff as may be required to assist the Registrar General of Citizen Registration in discharging his functions and responsibilities
5) The procedure to be followed in compulsory registration of the citizens of India shall be such as may be prescribed.
Note that as with Aadhaar, the legalese itself is coercive and the methods that may be used are virtually unbounded. In fact, not only will the central government compulsorily try to register every citizen of India, it can also employ practically any procedure for that purpose.
It explains that the procedures to be followed for creating the NPR have been laid down in the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003 under rules 3(4) and 4(1):
Rule 3(4): The Central Government may, by an order issued in this regard, prescribe a date by which the population register shall be prepared by collecting information relating to all persons who are usually residing within the jurisdiction of local registrar.
Rule 4(1): The Central Government shall, for the purpose of National Register of Indian Citizens, cause to carry throughout the country a house-to-house enumeration for collection of specified particulars of each family and individual, residing in a local area including the citizenship status.
The official website states unequivocally that it is compulsory for every citizen of the country to register in a National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) and that the NPR is the first step towards preparation of the NRIC. It states that out of the data set, the subset of citizens would be derived after verification of the citizenship status and therefore it is compulsory for all usual residents to register under the NPR.
It explains that the NPR would include in addition to basic information about the individual information relating to the parent and key biometrics for all persons aged 5 years and above.
The NPR register will comprise of three data elements: a) demographic b) biometrics and c) Aadhaar. It is obvious that with NPR synchronized with Aadhaar, and the Aadhaar serving as a link to almost all other databases, this massive digitalization vests unimaginable capabilities with the state.
Within Parliament and outside, the Home Minister and leaders of the ruling party have declared belligerently that NRIC will be rolled out nation-wide to identify the so-called ‘illegal’ residents and expel them. The terms and language used — ‘termites’, ‘infiltrators’, ‘intruders’, ‘enemies’, etc. —are deeply disturbing and unambiguously threatening. The statements after country-wide protests have
broken out are confusing and provide no clarity.
For example, without revealing any details or even a hint of the enlisting rules, the advertisements assert that no Indian citizen will be excluded from the nation-wide NRC, the NRIC. However, it is precisely the NRIC process that will distinguish citizens from so-called ‘non-citizens’.
All those identified as ‘non-citizens’ will be subject to CAA, which discriminates based on religion. The NPR of 2020 will compile a list of all residents and it will be used to classify residents into different categories - from likely citizens to probable
The Census 2021 that follows it will provide supplementary demographic data. The combination of data fields from revised NPR datasheet, Census, Aadhaar and numerous other databases created as part of the digitalisation drives can help in a quick progression towards compiling the NRIC.
An impression has been created by many TV shows that this process will be cumbersome, too expensive and likely to take a long time to complete. These inferences have been drawn from the experience of NRC exercise in Assam, which took a long time and was very costly due to many reasons.
First, the rules and institutional arrangements for NRIC could be somewhat different from the NRC. Second, the NRIC is going to use many of the existing large national databases - EPIC (Electors Photo Identity Card), Census (2011 and 2021), last Socio-Economic (Caste) Census, BPL list, MNREGA, Aadhaar, PAN (income tax), GST (indirect tax), ration card, the telecom users list, banking, various benefit schemes, and so on. There will be clarity about the precise rules for NRIC only after the details are notified. Regarding the second, i.e., the databases, there is a tendency to completely overlook it.
The government has cleverly managed to get almost all Indian residents to enrol in these databases by carrot and stick policies and aggressive rules. The work on the National Population Register (NPR) has been going on since 2010. It was updated in 2015 and the government plans to update it again along with the house listing phase of Census 2021 during April to September 2020.
The new data fields added to the NPR 2020 aligns it perfectly with the basic needs of NRIC database. Since all these are digital databases, we must recognise that much of the initial work relating to NRIC is likely to be completed very quickly at a lower cost than projected in TV newsroom discussions.
Going by the experience with Aadhaar, central government is likely to use coercive methods to force everyone to participate in NRIC after the initial phase.
Perhaps, a significant portion of the work of NRIC has already been completed. For NRIC, the government will make full use of data mining and sophisticated database management capabilities tapping the expertise and services of information technology giants who are likely to gain financially from it and thus get rewarded well.
It was always feared that the Aadhaar will provide the metadata linkage across all databases. It carries the risk of being used to curtail civil rights and for tracking dissidents or political rivals of the ruling party.
The linkage of Aadhaar to other databases creates the horrendous
possibility of ‘deleting’, or ‘deactivating’ individuals from all the databases simultaneously based on an exclusion list of Aadhaar IDs created through cross linking of multiple databases for profiling and classification of Indian residents.
When we connect the dots in India’s digitalization landscape from 2014 onwards and the aggressive approach in enlisting every resident in Aadhaar, there is little doubt that the devil driving the frenzied digitalization was the determination to establish NRIC.
The changes to citizenship rules of 2003 and 2004 and the various rules that enforced the use of Aadhaar have been consistent with the overall goal of establishing the NRIC. While this is almost obvious, it went largely unnoticed. While many non-BJP political parties have said they will not cooperate with the central government for the work on NRIC, it is not clear whether they have really understood the challenges posed by the depth and extent of digitalization which unmistakably strengthens the progress towards NRIC.
The coercive digitalisation resulting in hyper centralisation has almost completely marginalised the role of the state government wherever digitalisation prevails.
Despite the federal structure of India, the kind of digitalization aggressively promoted by the centre, combined with numerous financial regulations including the GST,
has virtually eroded almost completely the role and autonomy of states in many domains of governance. That includes the role state may play in establishing NRIC.
The big question is of how the states opposed to CAA and NRIC can go beyond rhetoric to making their stand influence implementation of NRIC and CAA.
The author is a former senior scientist and independent researcher based in Kochi. Views expressed are the author’s own