Every year, around 7.6 million out of 26.2 million newborns in India do not get registered
By Syed Nazakat in Delhi & Rajasthan
Outside Yashwant Singh’s classroom in Bhindusi village of Tijara in Rajasthan, there is a crowd of children. In this poor, wheat-growing region, children are everywhere. Some are working in the fields, others are running through the streets, climbing trees and walls and a few are playing outside the panchayat office. But to the great machine of India’s bureaucracy they are invisible. Out of 805 families in Bhindusi and five other neighbouring villages, only a few births are registered every year.
However, the government figures claim that Rajasthan has achieved 100 per cent registration of newborns. The number of births, admits registrar Amar Singh Sohni, is much higher. But most of the children are not registered with any civil authority. Not even with the village panchayat which is located just a block away. “The government officials don’t reach the people and people don’t care to register their children,” says Yashwant Singh. “This is a vicious cycle.”
Every year, according to the office of the registrar general of India, around 7.6 million out of 26.2 million newborns in India do not get registered. Without registration, the government is unable to get an accurate knowledge of something as crucial as infant mortality rate—a key tool for a nation’s development planning. Despite being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, India has the largest number of unregistered children in the world. Under the Registration of Births & Deaths Act, 1969, it is compulsory to register every birth within 21 days.
Gross negligence and irregularity in the registration system explain why India is not good at recording births. Under the Registration of Births & Deaths Act, every state is required to submit an annual statistical report to the registrar general office with district-wise details of the number of births and deaths, sex ratio and infant mortality rate. Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, has not submitted the statistical report in the past 15 years, Goa in the past 10 years and Arunachal Pradesh in the past six years. Maharashtra did not submit reports from 2004 to 2007.
At the end of each year, many other states provide a “very brief, sketchy birth registration report which contains little factual information about the status of birth registration,” said an officer of the registrar general of India. The failure of many states to provide the data means that it is not possible to ascertain important figures like the number of children born in a particular district, the sex ratio and mortality rate. Besides, the national birth registration report, which serves as the main component for national public health planning, remains incomplete.
But the problem is not limited to non-submission of annual reports. The figures provided by different government agencies are misleading. Meghalaya, for example, has achieved 100 per cent birth registration since 2005, according to the office of the registrar general. But in an affidavit in the Supreme Court, the Meghalaya government has said that 67.4 per cent children are not registered.
In Orissa, with only 400 registration units for 5,000 villages, children remain unregistered. Yet, the government claims that the birth registration has crossed the 85 per cent mark. “The government figures are misleading,” says Pramod Kishore Acharya, executive director of Orissa-based Committee for Legal Aid to Poor. His organisation has filed a PIL in the Supreme Court against the government. “The state may be manipulating figures to show its better performance,” says Acharya.
What raises a serious question about the reliability of birth registration figures is the disparity of figures in the report of the National Family Health Survey III and the office of the registrar general of India. The ministry of health and family welfare conducted the survey through Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences during 2005-2006.
“NFHS covered only a population of half a million and it is a sample survey,” said Bhaskar Mishra, deputy registrar general of India. His office which functions under the union home ministry, is the authority responsible for the registration of new born babies in the country. But Sulabha Parasuraman of IIPS, says, “The survey is authentic and almost all the government bodies used it for their planning projections. [During our ground research] we were also surprised that birth registration rate was not as good as claimed by various state governments.”
To verify the different state government figures, there should have been a provision for independent monitoring and rechecking. But ironically, neither the registrar general office nor Unicef, which works with it, conducts independent case studies to verify the authenticity of the data. “We have not done any survey in India to verify the accuracy of the government figures,” says Raj Gautam Mitra, planning, monitoring and evaluation specialist of Unicef.
Administrative slackness and ignorance is the main reason why Bhindusi officials like their counterparts in other parts in the country have failed to register their children. A visit to Rajasthan, which claims to have achieved 100 per cent birth registration, reveals the malaise of the registration system. In Nasiyah Jee in Rajasthan, 33 village heads from 191 villages had gathered for their first meeting on July 15, 2010, after winning the local body elections. Many of the village heads worked as sub-registrars.
The aim of the meeting was to train the panchayat secretaries (registrars), village sarpanches and health workers in their duties and educate them on the importance of registration. Chav Khan, the president of sarpanches of 191 villages, did not allow sub-divisional magistrate Ramesh Bhardwaj to speak. “We are without salaries for the last six months. We were supposed to receive a monthly salary of Rs 3,000 and Rs 300 as panchayat meeting allowance. But we have not received a single penny from the government. How can we work without salaries?” he said.
Many of the village heads are ignorant of registration procedures. Says Bhardwaj: “It was their first training meet. I was disappointed with the way they boycotted the meeting. They should have at least allowed me to speak. These are the kind of things which make our job more difficult.”
According to Sneha Siddham, programme manager of Plan India, an NGO which works with the registrar general office in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Mumbai and Delhi to promote birth registration, different researches show that unregistered children belong to the poorest and most marginalised sections of society. “Lack of registration further marginalises their lives,” says Sneha. “Those most at risk include children of internally displaced persons, children who have lost their parents, including children orphaned by AIDS, children born to illiterate parents and street children.”
The question of gender discrimination is the most sensitive and complex aspect associated with birth registration. According to a report by Unicef, up to 50 million girls are missing from India’s population as a result of systematic gender discrimination. Today there are less than 93 women for every 100 men in the country. “This mass slaughter of the girl child needs to be stopped. This can be done through a regular monitoring of reliable data on sex ratio at birth at every district and village level,” says Sneha.
Though Uttar Pradesh has one of the lowest levels of registration, the dubious distinction of the lowest performing state belongs to neighbouring Bihar. “To families in our villages, babies come from God,” says Sanjay Kumar, who heads Pithani panchayat in Bihar’s Rohtas district. He says it is the duty of the midwife to inform him about a childbirth. “I inform the panchayat registrar about the birth. He then enters the birth in the register,” says Sanjay, who is a pradhan of 10 villages with a population of more than 20,000. He is not the only one who is overburdened with work. For instance, there is only one registrar for 30 to 35 villages in Uttarakhand.
“It [birth registration] is a low priority work for registrars,” says Kamla, a village health worker. “They [registrars] hardly pay any attention to birth registration. They work where the money is—revenue and house tax.” The failure of the government in one of its basic jobs is not limited to remote areas of the country.
The failure of government in one of its basic jobs is not limited to remote areas of the country. At Bhai Ram Basti near 7 Race Course Road in Delhi, Rakesh Kumar is not surprised to know that hardly any children in his locality are registered. His house is 300m away from the Prime Minister’s residence. Most of the residents of his locality are descendants of people who migrated to Delhi from poor hamlets in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar 90 years ago. “We and our children don’t figure in the government records. That is why there has been no developmental work in this area,” says Rakesh.
In Delhi, like many other places in the country, it is the responsibility of the local authorities to register newborns. If a delivery takes place at hospital the medical officer registers the birth and the parents, along with a hospital certificate, approach the registrar for a birth certificate. But if the delivery takes place at home, the head of the family or the closest relative reports the birth to the village sarpanch who informs the sub-registrar or registrar. The latter, in turn, visits the village to confirm the birth.
If the registration is not done within 21 days of the birth, the family has to produce an affidavit stamp paper to obtain the birth certificate. But if a child is not registered within a year then the process becomes complex as one has to apply to the district magistrate with an affidavit for birth registration. “Any birth or death which has not been registered within one year of its occurrence shall be registered only on an order made by a magistrate after verifying the correctness of the birth or death and on payment of the prescribed fee,” says Mishra.
Anita of Bhai Ram Basti, a mother of four, says she is lucky that her son was born in hospital and that his name was registered by the staff. Says Anita: “I’m being told this [birth certificate] is an important document for my son.” But her three daughters, who were born at home, don’t have birth certificates. “As they were born at home, we did not know how to register them.” Her husband had to bribe the school authorities to admit the three girls.
Mishra, who heads the registrar general of India’s campaign for birth registration, says his office is working to pursue officials at the local level to register children. His office has also launched a countrywide awareness campaign to drive home the virtues of registering. “Our success will be based on how much demand we are able to create for birth registration and a birth certificate,” says Mishra.
Delhi has made the birth certificate mandatory for admission to schools run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. For those children who are not registered and don’t have birth certificates, a provisional admission is granted after accepting an affidavit by the guardian, subject to submission of the birth certificate later on. The Gujarat government has gone a step ahead and made the birth certificate mandatory for registering marriages. At the heart of the whole exercise is to give official identity to every kid in the nation.
At Bhindusi, as sun climbs higher, the sunlight strikes the school building painting everything in gold. The students are coming out of their classes for the lunch break. Others are playing and some are working in the field. Master Yashwant Singh moves towards the classroom. He harbors the hope of good education and career for his students. “It is their fundamental right to have their birth registered,”said Yashwant. “It will be good for them and for our village”.
The sharp contradiction of birth registration figures provided by the National Family Health Survey III and the office of the registrar general of India raises several questions.
States/UT NFHS III RGI
Bihar 5.8% 20.3%
UP 7.1% 45.3%
Jharkhand 9.1% 37%
Rajasthan 16.4% 81.5%
MP 29.7% 65.2%
Arunachal 32.4% 75.4%
J&K 35.8% 66.5%
Orissa 57% 88.3%
Delhi 62.4% 100%
Haryana 71.7% 90.8%
Punjab 76.8% 100%
HP 89% 100%
Kerala 89% 100%
Gujarat 86% 96.6%
Tamil Nadu 86% 99.7%
Maharashtra 80% 88.1%
AP 40.3% 73.4%
[Source: NHFS III and registrar general office]
(Feb 7, 2011 THE WEEK)