Ranjana Dey’s name did not appear on the final list of the NRC. But she is not surprised. She works at the office of the census, and an exercise like the NRC – of this scale and magnitude – is not alien to her. She knows that from the design to data collection, there are far too many gaps and loopholes for it to be robust.
"Should your citizenship be based on the number of documents you can produce? Are you a citizen only if the Assamese officer who does not understand your language is convinced about it?” she asks. “You have to find something that has maximum objectivity. If the person who is asking the questions is biased, then the questionnaire and the process of information collection itself must have checks and balances built into it against those biases.” But nothing about the process of the NRC suggests there are such safeguards.
“What happened with the NRC pilot?” she asks, rhetorically. An exercise conducted almost 70 years ago – the NRC of 1951, which was fraught with problems could hardly be considered a pilot. In 2010, attempts at a pilot were made in select regions, but they were met with strong opposition. For example, in Barpeta, when hundreds of people came out in protest against the NRC pilot, the police opened fire, killing four and injuring several others. And yet it was simply rolled out. “So now they have to keep changing the NRC collection process to fix things.”
There is now a proposed National Population Register (NPR) in the works. Everyone seems to think it is like the census. “They are mistaken", Ranjana tells us. “They are different, both in purpose as well as application. Both will be maintained by the Office of the Registrar General, who is also the Census Commissioner, but that’s where the similarity ends.”
The census, which is an enumeration exercise conducted every ten years since 1872, collects a wide variety of information related to economic activity, employment, literacy and education, housing, marriage, caste, language, religion, migration, disability and more. It gives a demographic and socioeconomic picture of the population of the country, and the purpose of collecting and analysing census data is that it informs planning and policy, and helps in assessing the impact of existing government policies.
The NPR, in contrast, has been conducted once in 2010 and updated in 2015. While the census is carried out under the Census Act 1948, the NPR is conducted under the Citizenship Rules 2003, which makes it the basis of verification for the creation of the NRC. Unlike the census, the NPR includes demographic as well as biometric details. The new addition in the NPR 2020 form seeks the details of birth of parents, since it is to be the basis for the NRC.
The plan is to conduct both the NPR and the census household survey together. Ranjana is concerned that since people are under the impression the two are the same, the data collected for the census will be affected too. While the Census Act makes it compulsory for the government to keep the data collected during census confidential and anonymous, there is no such requirement of confidentiality for NPR data under the Citizenship Rules. Apart from details of birth, the new form also seeks details such as AADHAR card number, currently optional, Driving License number and Voter-ID.
Far from ensuring fairness and accuracy of the NRC, it would instead create a centralised database with the personal information of every person open to mass surveillance and risk. Several people she knows have been excluded from the NRC list for no particular reason. With large data sets however, there are always patterns to be found and traced. As Ranjana’s insights reveal, all patterns emerging here point to one thing about the data, and that is, that it is not without bias
For instance, if you examine the census of 1971, the age for women’s first marriages across the country was below 18 years. Assam was no exception. At that time the right to vote was granted when you turned 21(It was lowered to 18 years only in 1988). If a woman was married before she could vote, she wouldn’t have her father’s name on the voter’s card.
In the same census, women’s literacy in Assam was below 19%. For places like Cachar, even lower. Since very few women went to school, they would not have had school certificates which could have been another document with their father’s names. If women didn’t have the documents to establish a link to their fathers, how did the NRC account for this?
Among the 14 documents that the NRC sought, married women could present only one – a certificate from the general secretary of the village panchayat which identifies their father. The Guwahati High Court ruled in early 2017 that this certificate was invalid. This left thousands of women with no legal way to prove their parentage. 29,00,000 women were left out of the partial draft NRC in December 2017. The Supreme Court had later overruled the High Court but in the interim, it caused a lot of panic.