Home minister Rajnath Singh’s directive to the Registrar-General of India to identify Indian citizens through the National Population Register (NPR) within a three-year deadline, is turning the spotlight on two apparently unrelated issues: illegal immigrants and the Aadhaar project’s future. Though the BJP made illegal immigration from Bangladesh an election issue in Assam and West Bengal, the new government’s first diplomatic initiatives have also been directed towards that country. While Rajnath is yet to specify how he plans to deal with illegal immigrants — deport them or treat them akin to Nepali citizens who enjoy legal resident status — he must proceed with care, lest it blow up on the Indian government’s face. Since Independence, people have crossed over from Bangladesh to India for political and livelihood reasons; it is unclear yet whether Bangladesh will accept those that India might label as Bangladeshi nationals in this exercise.
In 2003, while amending the Citizenship Act 1955, the NDA government had inserted provisions for a National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) as a subset of the NPR. However, the UPA government announced the Aadhaar project in 2009 through the Unique Identification Authority of India under the Planning Commission prompting the Home Ministry, miffed at being excluded, to initiate NPR enrolment in 2010 through the Registrar-General. A controversy over the duplication of efforts especially in biometric data collection ensued. While the Aadhaar project was touted as a game-changer in the government’s efforts to plug leakages and directly reach out to beneficiaries through cash-transfers, few were convinced. Concerns over non-existent legislative backing, costs, privacy, entrusting operations and data storage to private entities, and the liberal criteria for enrolment whereby all residents, including illegal immigrants, appeared eligible for government subsidies were raised.
While the last reason agitates the BJP most, the Centre must realise that the NRIC will face difficulties in identifying all genuine citizens. With even voter-id cards under suspicion, it will be left to the introduction system by neighbours and the discretion of officials conducting door-to-door visits to ascertain who and which documents are trustworthy. But internal migration, illiteracy and homelessness are rampant and many Indians have no documentation to prove citizenship. Without ensuring complete registration, using the NRIC, like the Aadhaar, for access to public services is untenable. The Centre must also be mindful of the failed attempt at updating the 1951 National Register of Citizens through a pilot project in Barpeta district in Assam in 2010. It led to a serious law-and-order situation after Muslims cried foul alleging attempts to tag them as Bangladeshis. Deporting illegal immigrants makes for political rhetoric but the fears of causing a humanitarian disaster while implementing it are very real. Other countries like the US have also grappled with the moral implications of punishing the children of illegal immigrants who cannot be held responsible for their parent’s actions.
Despite Aadhaar being optional and NPR mandatory, the former has raced far ahead in data collection, having enrolled around 64 crore people, owing to perceived economic benefits and various authorities unilaterally declaring it mandatory. Suggestions have been mooted to merge the two databases to save time, money, effort, and the cash-transfer idea which the BJP favours too, but legal questions persist on sharing personal Aadhaar data with the home ministry, without permission from those enrolled. Rs8,000 crore has already been spent on both projects despite uncertain benefits. The NDA government must learn from the UPA’s mistakes or risk repeating them.