The Narendra Modi government is discussing a new schedule for starting the update of the National Population Register (NPR), Census, and house listing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has ruled out start of the controversial enumeration from April 1.
The COVID-19 scare has come as the last straw on the camel’s back with a dozen States and Union Territories opposing NPR update in the format proposed by the Centre. There is no way enumeration teams can go from door to door to collect data when the country is on lockdown.
A quarter or two
The first phase of NPR was to take place between April and September. That will now be postponed by at least three months, highly placed government sources said. If the COVID-19 lasts longer, the exercise may be put off by six months.
The ₹3,941 crore allocated for NPR and ₹8,754 crore allocated for Census may be utilised in the meanwhile for more pressing tasks linked to fighting the epidemic.
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The postponement also gives another window to consider the views of several State governments that are not keen to start the NPR exercise in the format prescribed by the Centre.
No push from Centre
When people are being asked to stay at home, nobody can even think of the counter-productive measure of sending enumerators on a house-to-house mission. Therefore, the Centre is not even asking States like Tamil Nadu, that have not notified NPR, why they have not done so.
In other words, the Modi government feels that the political opposition that was building up strongly is now backed by a medical emergency and there will be no point pushing for the start of NPR,
Census, and house listing from the beginning of the next financial year.
Different states; different reasons
The political opposition to NPR from various State governments is on the basis of different reasons while a common thread of insecurity among minorities, especially Muslims, runs as the core of the
arguments being advanced against the Central government’s format for 2020 enumeration exercise. Congress-ruled States like Punjab, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and the Union Territory of Puducherry have refused to start the NPR exercise as mandated by the Centre.
The Trinamool Congress-ruled West Bengal and the Left-ruled Kerala are also part of the anti-Modi coalition of opposition parties that have been opposing most policies of the NDA Government.
Others also not in sync
Even other State governments like Navin Patnaik-run Odisha are not in favour of going ahead with NPR from April 1. Though the BJD has been support the Modi government on various issues, the state too has sought the postponement of the NPR.
The Navin Patnaik government has written to the Centre, urging it to put off the enumeration, the sources said. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, run by parties that are not part of the Opposition alliance, are also not fine with NPR in its current format. YSR Congress leader Jagan Reddy and TRS supremo Chandrasekar Rao have made it clear that they do not want to go ahead.
Postponement suits all
Therefore, the postponement of NPR in the current circumstances suits all the parties concerned, including the Centre. NDA partners like JD(U) and the AIADMK have also not support the proposed format of the Modi government.
It is very clear that Tamil Nadu Chief Minster Edappadi K. Palaniswami and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar are concerned over the NPR impact on the forthcoming assembly elections in their States. No wonder Tamil Nadu government has sought deletion of half-a-dozen questions listed for the enumeration and openly stated that it was not notifying beginning of the NPR exercise from April 1.
On the other hand, Bihar government is insisting that it will not go by the 2020 NPR criteria set by the Centre. It will stick to the 2010 version.
The Delhi government, run by Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP, who fought the BJP without any alliance in the Delhi Assembly Election, has also expressed its opposition with a resolution approved by the State Assembly.
CAA, NRC mix-up
While the NPR is only an update of the enumeration done in 2010 with some additional information included in the exercise, political opposition has not differentiated between the Natioanl Register of
Citizens (NRC) implemented in Assam following a Supreme Court order; and the Citizenship Amenedment Act (CAA) – approved by Parliament.
Anti-CAA protests in various parts of the country, including the Shaheen Bagh sit-in that has been ended by the Delhi Police forcibly after Section 144 was imposed in Delhi to counter the spread of COVID-19, have seen fiery speeches that portray CAA-NPR-NRC as a linked strategy of Hindutva forces. One is often mixed up with the other in the political discourse against CAA.
The controversial NRC in Assam has also rubbed its negativity on the NPR, making it a political hot potato even though it is only an update of what happened in 2010.
Controversial ambit expansion
The Centre has also contributed to the cause against NPR by expanding the scope of the information to be collected during the 2020 enumeration.
The Opposition has accused the government of nefarious designs in asking for Aadhaar number, Passport details, mobile phone numbers and driving licence details in addition to the information collected in 2010.
The additional information sought from citizens may be later used against them, is the charge against the government and critics have gone to the extent of pointing out that the Modi regime wants to achieve through NPR what it could not with Aadhaar due to an adverse Supreme Court ruling.
Safety of enumerators
Due to violent anti-CAA protests, there were apprehensions about safety of enumerators and COVID-19 scare has only added to the fears.
What happens if enumerators are attacked by people, mistaking them for doing something linked to NRC?
Though the government has clarified in Parliament that it was not doing an NRC now, an atmosphere of mistrust persists and it is likely to the put safety of enumerators in question as and when the exercise begins.
With Coronavirus adding medical risk too, the Home Ministry and the Registrar General of India have been considering various options including self-enumeration and online enumeration verified through a One Time Password (OTP) sent to the concerned citizen’s mobile phone for validation.
If Covid-19 pandemic fears and the resultant social distancing compulsions do not go away soon, use of technology and avoiding person-to-person contact may find more emphasis in managing the forthcoming NPR.
Doubts to be cleared
Before setting a new date for NPR exercise to begin, the Centre may go in for further clarifications to dispel apprehensions about this becoming the first step for a nation-wide NRC as alleged in political circles.
Home Minister Amit Shah has already emphasised in Parliament that no one would be marked ‘doubtful’ in the NPR exercise and answering questions like details of the place & birth of grandparents would be optional. It has also been said that no documents would be sought to back the information provided for NPR.
However, this is an emotional issue and it is not easy to clear the fears unless a concerted effort is made nationwide by the Central government in collaboration with all State governments.
Though it has delayed the start, the corona clampdown has provided a good opportunity to avoid problems during the enumeration.