Proposed amendments to a key parliamentary bill will change the way Indians register births and deaths. It is a much-needed and overdue overhaul—but could give the government the power to monitor its citizens from cradle to grave.
How do we register births & deaths right now?
A super-brief history: When the Constitution was being framed, the registration of births and deaths was first made the exclusive responsibility of the states. But the final draft put the matter on the Concurrent List—giving both the union and state governments the power to register births and deaths. But there was no law on the matter until 1969—when the Registration of Births and Deaths Act was passed. The aim was to bring some measure of uniformity to the chaos created by each state following its own system.
Reporting rules for individuals: All Indians are required to report a birth or a death. The responsibility of reporting varies by location. For example, if it happens at home, then it's the job of the head of the household—or that of the medical officer if it occurs in a hospital. Births, stillbirths and deaths have to be registered within 21 days of occurrence. But there is only a modest fine of Rs 50 if you fail to do so.
Reporting rules for states: The law requires all states and union territories to maintain databases on the Civil Registration System (CRS)—which is administered by the union government. But states vary considerably in how they record and maintain this information:
17 States and UTs use the portal to register births and deaths. Others—including Gujarat, Punjab, New Delhi, and Jammu & Kashmir—either maintain separate portals or update the portal partially. Some States have digitised and integrated their data with individual State Resident Data Hubs (a storehouse of Aadhaar details, demographic data and photographs.)
A broken system: Multiple studies have shown that our system of recording births and deaths isn’t working:
A 2010 paper described the birth-and-death-registration system as marred with “incompleteness”, with “poor quality of data on causes of death recording” and a “lack of proper implementation at lower geographical units”.
India has the most number of unregistered female deaths in the world. And our overall track record isn’t stellar—though estimates vary wildly. According to the 2022 study, only 48% of male and 36% of female deaths were registered in India. A separate paper put the numbers at 85% and 74%, respectively.
Also this: The numbers swing wildly from one region to another. Bihar, for example, has a very inefficient system that requires people to stand in line for hours. A 2022 study revealed a vast range across the country. Mumbai recorded the highest number (100%) of deaths of women—while Kurung Kumey in Arunachal Pradesh recorded the lowest (5%). And that’s because of “unequal socio economic development, lack of awareness and lack of health facilities.” On top of that, the central registry is only sporadically updated by states.
Why this matters: To this date, the government doesn’t have any real-time data on how many citizens there are in any given district. It still has to rely on sample surveys to craft welfare policies—such as census data—which was last collected in 2011—and a handful of specific projects, such as the National Family Health Survey.
Ok, what will this new bill do?
The bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on Tuesday—and will soon become law since the government has the needed numbers in the Rajya Sabha. It will make some good and overdue changes—but raises two key worries about privacy and access, respectively.
An army of registrars: First, it establishes a new hierarchy of registrars. At the top: the registrar-general of India—followed by state registrars, then district registrars and so on. It allows local officials to appoint ‘sub registrars’ in a disaster or an emergency—to make the collection system more responsive and agile.
A real-time database: As of now, states submit annual reports to the registrar general. The bill will require them to share digital access to their databases—so that the national registry can be automatically updated in real-time—with no need for human intervention. Example: you can be automatically added to the national electoral rolls when you turn 18. The automation will streamline many processes that are currently bogged down in bureaucratic reporting requirements.
Big worry #1: The national database will share its data with a number of other government agencies. Examples: National Population Register—which is the first building block for a pan-India National Register of Citizens. The NRC has sparked angry protests—as it can be used to track and deport people especially in the Northeastern states (see: a good explainer here). The birth/death information will also be automatically added to databases for Aadhaar, ration cards, passports, driving licences etc.
The kicker: is that the government will make a birth certificate mandatory—“a mainstay of daily life—a ‘passport’ which assigns individuals a unified marker governing their mobility, allowing access to basic services such as voting, admission into schools and colleges, and registration of marriage.” And now imagine that the information collected for that mandatory certificate is shared across every national database. Experts therefore worry about “360° surveillance” of Indians from cradle to grave—without any privacy protections in place:
The very idea of these linking databases automatically allows the Ministry of Home Affairs to use information submitted for a specific purpose to be used for a secondary purpose. The purpose of birth certificates is at best is to prove nationality and at worst to prove lineage to a parent. The weaponization of this information without clearly bringing in any surveillance reform is an illegitimate act by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Point to note: There is no law right now that allows this kind of information-sharing across government databases. In fact, The Census Act bars sharing any individual’s data with the state or union government. But thanks to a mandatory birth certificate, the same information can be fed via the national registry to other databases–and bypass the ban.
Big worry #2: This is a ‘back door’ move to put everyone into the Aadhar database. Back in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot make getting an Aadhar ID mandatory—except in very specific circumstances. Over the years, the government has found various excuses to introduce an Aadhar requirement for different welfare schemes—which has often resulted in disaster for Indians without digital access (See: the ration card debacle in Jharkhand).
Digitisation #fail: In India, digitisation of data has often been inaccurate and prone to fraud:
Moreover, inaccurate data plagues the system; attempts to link Aadhaar to voter ID cards resulted in 55 lakh voters being deleted from the system, per media reports, and scams have been organised around issuing fake Aadhaar cards. Names of more than five crore workers were found to be missing from the MGNREGS scheme, the government told Lok Sabha this week. The NRC, which will tap into the database of NPR under the Citizenship Rules, 2003, left out more than 19 lakh people in Assam during the pilot exercise. Tying birth and death registrations with other demographic repositories risks widescale exclusions and misuse of data, experts flag.
And that’s not including the fear of actual manipulation of data toward political ends.
The bottomline: is best summed up by Srinivas Kodali who writes:
What we have here is the proliferation of our identity information across government databases, allowing the creation of complete profiles of the population. There is no law at the moment to allow this or any of the other 100 databases for which the government collects data and shares it with the surveillance complex.
Article 14 has the best and easiest-to-understand explainer—while The Hindu (paywall) offers more reporting on the government’s rationale. Srinivas Kodali lays out a scathing critique of the bill in The Wire.