Column: Registering death and birth

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January 21, 2016 12:58 AM

The varying registration machinery across states is one of the reasons why civil registration lacks efficiency.

Since 1969, there has been a Registration of Births and Deaths Act. This makes registration of births and deaths compulsory (within 21 days of the incident). In Eliot’s Fragment of an Agon, two-thirds of facts, when you come to brass tacks, are birth and death. Perhaps understandably, we are more concerned with birth than death. Faced with a relative’s death, most of us are familiar with the nuisance of obtaining a death certificate. Typically, a death certificate requires registration of death. Whose responsibility is registration of death? As with birth, there is a civil registration system (CRS). From a registrar general in Delhi, it flows down through state-level chief registrars to district registrars and village/town registrars. But within that stipulated 21 days, who informs the registrar? If death occurs in a hospital, nursing home, medical institution, hostel, hotel or boarding-house, the institution is responsible. If death occurs at home, head of the family or any other family member has the responsibility. Keepers of burial grounds and crematoriums must inform the registrar. Finally, there is a residual category, where a dead body may be found abandoned in a public place. Then, the responsibility devolves on the sarpanch or SHO of the local police station.

Births and deaths aren’t only components of vital statistics. For instance, there are marriages, divorces and adoptions. We may look upon this as civil registration now and even codify it. However, in many Western countries, this was linked to the church. You were baptised in church, married there and buried there. Usually, our religious institutions had no such role. There has been emphasis on shifting births from homes to institutions, with cash incentives for institutional delivery, through Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY)—or Janani Shishu Suraksha Yojana (JSSY)—and similar state-level schemes. There is nothing similar for institutional death. Based on civil registration system, we have data for 2013; 85.6% of live births are registered. But only 70.9% of deaths are registered. However, there has been a sharp increase in death registration and states like Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab and Tamil Nadu do rather well. With exception of Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Lakshadweep, all Union Territories do exceedingly well. As is to be expected, Bihar, Jharkhand and UP are a problem. Registration of infant deaths, especially if they occur at home, is a problem. I wonder if efficiency of civil registration system (not just deaths) is a function of differences in registration machinery across states. In some cases, it is routed through the health department. But elsewhere, it is the planning, economics and statistics department. In rural areas, sometimes (not always), panchayats and the revenue department are involved.

Burial grounds and crematoriums can also be involved in the registration process. In the Seventh Schedule, Entry 10 in the state list mentions “burials and burial grounds; cremations and cremation grounds”. But these can be rural or urban. Under Article 243G of the Constitution, state governments can delegate powers to panchayats “including those in relation to the matters listed in the Eleventh Schedule”. Sure, delegation isn’t restricted to items mentioned in Eleventh Schedule alone. But Eleventh Schedule has no mention of burial grounds and crematoriums. Contrast this with municipalities, Article 243W and Twelfth Schedule. Entry 14 in Twelfth Schedule mentions “burials and burial grounds; cremations, cremation grounds; and electric crematoriums”. (On a broader issue, I have always wondered why 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments are not much more in harmony. For that matter, why not a single amendment?) For rural India, no data on burial grounds/crematoriums exist. Land use classification puts these in a motley category of land not available for cultivation. Approved works under MPLADS include construction of crematoriums and structures on burial grounds/crematoriums. Presumably, some database exists there.

One should be on surer ground with municipalities, Delhi being a test case. Sections 389 to 392 of Delhi Municipal Corporation Act (1957) give assorted powers to MCD for “burning and burial grounds”, mirrored in Sections 300 to 303 of New Delhi Municipal Council Act (1994). How many cremation grounds are there in Delhi? In 1999, Delhi government’s annual report on registration of births and deaths said there are 271 cremation grounds in Delhi. Today, across the three North, South and East corporations, MCD reports an aggregate of 63 cremation grounds. What happened to the others? Have they been closed down in a process of modernisation of crematoriums? Has their management been handed over to NGOs, so that they are no longer counted under MCD jurisdiction? In NCT (National Capital Territory), 2011 Census tells us there are still 112 villages, concentrated in North-West and South-West districts. There are 110 Census towns too, which aren’t statutory towns yet. Is discrepancy in numbers because some part of Delhi’s geographical area is outside MCD and NDMC domain? In 1997, a committee (under MCD) was set up to examine condition of cremation grounds in Delhi. I thought that report would give me an answer. But as far as I can make out, that report was never submitted. Cremation grounds in Delhi, as elsewhere, seem to attract attention only when there are negative reports or PILs. For instance, there is a case going on now about supply of wood by MCD to crematoriums. Perhaps such data problems are inevitable and are only symptomatic of transitions from rural/informal to urban/formal systems.

The author is member, NITI Aayog. Views are personal

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