Nationwide NRC -The Devil at the Heart of India’s Draconian Digitalization: CP Geevan

GUEST POST BY C. P.  GEEVAN

NPR and NRC – An Enigmatic Clarification

It was difficult to miss the smugness with which the Home Minister of India (HM) addressed a TV show he had orchestrated through one of the infamous godi (lapdog) media after the central cabinet had approved Rs 39.41 billion for updating the National Population Register (NPR) and Rs 85 billion for Census 2021 operations.The show was meant to dispel the misgivings about the link between NPR and the nationwide NRC—National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC). In meetings across the country and within the Parliament, the HM had been proclaiming or rather threatening to carry out NRIC. However, his enigmatic statements did nothing to allay the grave fears people across India have about NPR, given the government’s obsession and resolve to identify what they call illegal residents. There is no doubt that instead of pressing concerns such as unemployment, alarming fall in per capita consumption and an extraordinary economic slump, of late the single-minded focus of the regime is on dividing the Indian people into different categories, branding, imprisoning and even throwing some out of India.

The HM’s assertions with barely concealed contempt for the nationwide protests and ethical concerns did not clearly spell out how and when the NRIC will be carried out or what is the link between NPR, Census and the NRIC. Almost sneeringly he stated that the NPR will be some kind of child’s play! He said it will be a ‘simple’ technology-based enumeration, where all the data collection will be in a hassle-free manner, from home or online. In the meantime, many states, about ten, have stated that they are against the NRIC and the implementation of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This has happened against the background of massive protests against the CAA, which incorporates religion-based criteria for citizenship and by implication relegates Muslims practically into a different category inferior to the majority community.

Was the demeanour of the HM mere bravado or is the central government now in a position to carry out major tasks without the cooperation of the state government are relevantquestions.The answers depend on an understanding of the status of federalism, which evidently has been severely eroded. The digitalization was imposed on Indian people at great cost – huge economic losses from the extremely coercive methods used and the financial shock to economy from demonetisation. Although the official objectives for demonetisation changed repeatedly, one striking feature is how like a blitzkrieg it forced almost everyone into the net of digitalization. It is difficult to assume that all these frenzied and costly measureswere without a larger purpose.

The current situation, with the cloud of CAA looming over every corner, the threat of carrying out NRIC targeting certain segments of Indian society ever present and the NPR enumeration all set to begin, presents a scenario a lot more scary than that of demonetisation that accelerated digitalization. Just like demonetisation, it affects every single individual and family; this time the dangers are more than loss of livelihood. It threatens citizenship and poses risks to privacy. The giveaway, as it were, about the role of digitalization in NRIC was the HM’s overconfidence in the ability to carry out NPR as tech-driven effort.

NPR, Aadhaar and NRIC

Various reports on the plans for NPR confirms that seeking details of the “place of birth of father and mother” as well as information on existing identifiers like Aadhaar will be included in NPR data. Apparently, the authorities claim that they did not receive significant adverse feedback from the sample respondents.At the early stage, individuals were registered separately in Aadhaar and NPR. This was so because the former was being piloted in some states while the latter was rolled out as a nationwide project. The very legitimacy of Aadhaar was questioned in the beginning by those who have become its aggressive promoters from 2014. They wanted to junk Aadhaar and elevate NPR as the primary registry.The official press release of the Home Ministry on July 22, 2015 states that the Government has sanctioned more than Rs 9.51 billion to update NPR and ‘seed’ the Aadhaar number in the NPR database, i.e., link the two databases.

The Hindutva Far Right government has cleverly managed to get almost all Indian residents to enrol in multiple centralised databases using coercive methods hardly used in any democratic nation that respects civil rights and privacy. After the NPR was initiated in 2010, it was updated in 2015 and the plans are to update it in 2020 along with the house listing phase of Census 2021 during April to September 2020. In 2010 also, the work on NPR was integrated with the preparatory work of the Census 2011. Currently, the NPR and Aadhaar are synchronised databases with nearly 1.19 billion individuals listed in NPR and more than 1.25 billion in Aadhaar out of India’s population of over 1.37 billion.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.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.The new data fields added to the NPR 2020 aligns it perfectly with the basic needs of NRIC database.

The website of the Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India (RGCC) states that the NPR is a registry of all ‘usual’ residents in India. The term ‘usual’ means anyone living or likely to live in India for six months or more, irrespective of citizenship. 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 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 RGCC states that the Citizenship Act 1955 amended in 2004 by inserting Section 14A empowers the central government for the following:

  • Compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue National Identity Card
  • Maintain a National Register of Indian Citizens and for that purpose establish a National Registration Authority
  • The RGCC to act as the National Registration Authority and the Registrar General of Citizen Registration

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 Rules, 2003 under two rules:

  • 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 NRIC, 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 of NPR states unequivocally that it is compulsory for every citizen of the country to register in 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.

There is no doubt that as with Aadhaar and demonetisation, the central governmentwill not hesitate to terrorise people to enrol in NRIC. It is evident that considerable work on NRIC has already been completed. The government is sure to make full use of data mining and sophisticated database management capabilities to fast track the work on the NRIC. They are bound to tap the expertise and services of information technology giants who stand to make windfall gains from this. Civil rights and human rights activists had always feared that the Aadhaar will provide the metadata to link multiple databases. The linkage of Aadhaar to other databases opens nightmarish scenarios of curtailing basic rights of individuals and unprecedented options for coercion being used to ensure enrolment in the NPR and subsequently to comply with the requirements of NRIC.

Draconian Digitalization

For a long time, it was not too clear why India’s digitalization became an excessively coercive process where the state was treating citizens like individuals in a giant detention camp. India was not evolving or progressing naturally towards greater digitalization. Instead, it was being pushed through in a draconian manner. After the nullification of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the indecent haste with which the CAA (2019) was passed and NRC became the pseudonymfor intimidation, different pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. The Nazi-style move towards assigning identity and identification of every individual became the top priority after the Modi regime ascended to power. Unfortunately, civil society failed to connect the dots on India’s digitalization landscape from 2014 onwards. The foundation for Nazi-style identification drive had been laid through the changes to citizenship rules in 2003 and 2004. It is not clear how the Hindutva platform that did not enjoy brute majority in parliament then could get such draconian changes made. These changesmandate NPR andNRIC byvesting virtually unlimited powers to the centre for realising it. The coercive pathways of digitalization make it abundantly clear that NRIC is at the heart of the draconian digitalization drive.

An unnoticed aspect of this draconian digitalization concerns the options the states opposed to CAA and NRC have if they wish to restrict or stop the related activities. The non-BJP political leaders seem not to havefully comprehended the challenges posed by the depth and extent of digitalization, which not only strengthens the move towards NRIC, but has also almost completely marginalised the role of the state government in related activities. The states have been oblivious of the rapid weakening of the federal structure through digitalization. The centralised digitalisation has rapidly eroded federalism in combination with numerous financial regulations. For example, digitalization-based GST virtually ended the limited fiscal autonomy the states had.The aggressive digitalization has almost entirely eroded the role and autonomy of states in many domains of governance including that of establishing NRIC.

If the states opposed to CAA and NRIC want to stop the implementation of the draconian process, they need to think of strategies that takes into account the role of digitalization. They must consider the options they have for extending support to any mass scale civil disobedience to boycott NPR and to activities that can challenge the coercive measures the centre may use to carry out integrated operations of NPR in 2020 and Census of 2021. To go beyond rhetoric and walk the talk, they will have no option but stare at the ugly face of a digitalization that has hollowed out federalism.

C. P. Geevan is a former senior scientist and independent researcher based in Kochi

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