Why it should be NPR plus Aadhaar, not NPR or Aadhaar

The home ministry under Rajnath Singh looks set to give primacy to giving IDs to citizens based on the National Population Register (NPR) idea and downplaying the Unique Identification Authority of India’s (UIDAI's) Aadhaar number. The ministry sees NPR as more important because the BJP manifesto talked about identifying illegal migrants and deporting them; Aadhaar, fathered by former Infosys founder Nandan Nilekani, focuses on giving IDs to all residents, whether citizen or not.

According to an Indian Express report today (30 June), the NPR enumeration will be fairly detailed and has a three-year rollout schedule, with the end-register being linked to voter IDs. This means one purpose of the NPR would be to delete non-citizens from the voting list – at the very least. Though the biometric database accumulated by Aadhaar (over 600 million people) will be integrated into the NPR database, it is obvious that NPR is being given precedence over Aadhaar in the new dispensation.

 Why it should be NPR plus Aadhaar, not NPR or Aadhaar

Representational image. AFP

However, the NDA would do well to exclude politics from its final decision. It would be making a serious mistake if it chooses one over the other: it has to make both the NPR and Aadhaar systems work together to generate optimum results. In fact, the NDA should use the NPR process to clarify how it will treat illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The right thing to do is to treat them as legal residents - which is what we do with Nepali citizens residing in India - but without voting rights, till they fulfil the requirements of citizenship.

This is where Aadhaar comes in. The main focus of Aadhaar is to give all residents a unique number which enables the government to target benefits to the right persons. The downside is that Aadhaar has no legal standing and affords no privacy protection to the biometric information collected from people (iris and finger prints). This has huge potential for misuse.

The NPR is on more solid ground as it is entirely conducted by government agencies and the latter can presumably be held accountable for information collected by it. However, the NPR will be dealing with huge political sensitivities: if citizenship is going to be established through this process, people will be less cooperative and political parties, ever keen on the marginal illegal immigrant vote, will surely kick up a fuss. The Express report talks of government surveyors going “to each and every house covered under the census exercise of 2011 and ask for relevant documents to prove their nationality.”

Thus, while Aadhaar is of doubtful legality (the Supreme Court is hearing a PIL on scrapping it), NPR has the potential to become a political minefield. It is also not going to be easy even for normal citizens to prove their citizenship (consider how difficult it is to even satisfy bank KYC norms). And illegal migrants who have got themselves into electoral rolls are going to fight tooth-and-nail, using political parties, to remain there.

Is there a middle ground where both Aadhaar and NPR can work together and not raise a stink in the process?

A lot depends on how far the BJP wants to pursue the illegal immigrants issue – and at what cost. While it is a fair point that illegal immigrants should not be allowed to rock the vote, which is only the citizen’s privilege, trying to evict them from the country is simply not possible without a lot of ugliness, and without endangering friendship with Bangladesh – which has been helpful about denying a base for Ulfa and other secessionist forces.

Bangladesh is clearly not going to take back any citizen who crossed over to India in search of a job or who sought refuge due to persecution back home (largely Hindus, Chakmas, etc). Bangladeshi immigrants are thus of two types – the political refugees who are seeking asylum and the economic refugees who come in search of jobs and a better future.

If the NDA is serious about NPR, it has to thus start by accepting that demography is destiny – we are going to get both Hindu and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh due to the sheer pressures of demography and political pressures.

The only way NPR can succeed is if the government gives an assurance that while it will determine citizenship through this process, it will not forcibly evict any Bangladeshi from India: those not given asylum (largely Hindus) will be given work permits (both Hindus and Muslims) even if struck off the electoral rolls. They can be given free entry and exit visas and offered citizenship after a longish period of stay and fulfilling the requirements of the Citizenship Act. In a sense, we will be treating Bangladeshis the same way we treat Nepalis.

This means anyone with an Aadhaar should qualify for either refugee status or work permit, with NPR determining who is eligible for what. The NPR should thus focus more on the areas where immigration has been an endemic issue (Assam, the north-east, Bihar and West Bengal), while Aadhaar can be used for anywhere else and given the same status of NPR.

If this is accepted, the NPR process is unlikely to be finished in three years. It should also be properly legislated, with biometric and other data being treated as sacrosanct and free from prying eyes. Moreover, NPR will have to have a permanent set-up like UIDAI, since citizenship is not a one-shot decision. People will have to be added or subtracted all the time, as new Indians come of age, old people die, and more immigrants (this time, maybe, from Pakistan and Myanmar) entering relatively stable India. Like Aadhaar, NPR has to be a permanent scheme. It would thus be a great idea to use the Aadhaar database to house the NPR, with some digital tweaks.

A modern state is often built by immigrant efforts, and the NDA has to broaden its vision beyond Hindu-Muslim and illegal-legal immigrants. It has to accept that it cannot fight demography; so why not use it to advantage?

The logical end-goal of NPR should be to ensure that no one is illegitimate. It should give illegal Bangladeshis the same rights that we now give Nepalese citizens. Under Article 7 of the India-Nepal Treaty of Friendship of 1950, the governments of India and Nepal agree to "grant, on a reciprocal basis, to the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature."

Time to our neighbours to the east the same privileges as the ones to the north.

Updated Date: Jun 30, 2014 21:41:35 IST