There is little doubt that a nationwide NRC will be highly disruptive, unless it is structured well.
Here is how it can be made simpler and less disruptive, even painless for most citizens.
Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly asserted that India will create a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). In principle, no one can object to any country wanting to generate a proper list of its citizens, who are entitled to all the rights and responsibilities that come with it. Non-citizens and illegals should be entitled only to the basic protection of life and liberty – and humane treatment – when residing in India.
An NRC makes sense only if it is national in nature – as the botched Assam NRC shows. If non-citizens left out of the Assam list merely run off to some other state and settle down, it would be a mockery of the law. Non-citizens have to be identified everywhere, even if they are not to be deported.
So, if Mamata Banerjee says that she will not allow an NRC to be conducted in West Bengal, she is either afraid of what it might throw up, or being deliberately obstructive of the law. The Centre must move the courts to ensure compliance.
That said, there is little doubt that a nationwide NRC will be highly disruptive, unless it is structured well. Here is how it can be made simpler and less disruptive, even painless for most citizens.
First, the government should set a common cutoff year as close to the present as possible. If, say, the cutoff year is set as, say, 2014, anyone with documents showing birth, residency, property ownership, or schooling in India before 2002 should automatically qualify. This is because one becomes a citizen by naturalisation if one is ordinarily resident in India for 12 years. This cutoff, even though it will allow millions of illegals to become citizens by virtue of having documents dated before 2002, is a small price to pay for making the process smooth.
What the NRC should attempt to do is prevent further arrivals of illegal migrants. Past arrivals cannot easily be wished away without causing needless human misery and also disrupting micro-economies in the states where the illegals reside and work. The problem in Assam was the cutoff year of 1971, which made it near impossible for many to get documents that went so far back in the past.
Second, one should – to the extent possible – combine the process of the 2021 Census with NRC document collection from households. Since Census 2021 will kick off from September 2020, there is enough time to tell people to get their documents ready and hand them over for verification to census workers, who can then remit them to the designated tribunals or benches that look into the validity of the documents.
Third, make the process totally document-free in some cases. As at the end for 2017, for example, the Ministry of External Affairs had issued nearly 74 million passports to citizens, about whom there should be no doubts about citizenship. It would make sense to take these records as correct without the need for passport holders to produce any additional documents. Children of passport holders should, again, automatically qualify as citizens, as long as they have birth certificates with them.
There could be other records, especially property and school and college admission records, which can be accessed by the national NRC officials for confirmation of citizenship without the need for additional documentation.
Fourth, technology should be used extensively for verification. There are digital lockers that house many documents, from driving licences to college degrees and insurance policies. If citizens are told right now to get all their documents authenticated in digital lockers, all they would need to do is provide access to this documentation when the NRC happens.
The DigiLocker is currently underused, and states seeking an NRC should be asked to bring more of their own documents under digital record-keeping between now and September 2020, when the Census will begin.
Fifth, it would be worthwhile to get the support of the Bangladeshi government and get authenticated copies of their own voter and citizenship records. If Sheikh Hasina is guaranteed that no involuntary deportation will take place, and those Bangladeshis currently residing in India illegally will only be struck off voter lists and denied benefits like subsidies available only to citizens, she could be persuaded to cooperate.
In any event, since the main suspicion is that the bulk of the illegal immigration is from Bangladesh, the focus should be on maximum scrutiny of those with this identity. Using artificial intelligence and data analytics, it should be possible to match residents suspected of being Bangaldeshi citizens fairly easily using multiple databases.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill, which seeks to grant citizenship for persecuted Hindus who have entered India illegally upto 2014, is a necessary adjunct to the NRC.
If an NRC has to be done, it should be done painlessly, without making it highly disruptive.