It’s past noon and work at Sassoon docks, in South Mumbai, is on in full swing. Trucks are moving out to supply seafood to different parts of the city, and fishermen are mingling around a nearby tea stall.
Thirty-five-year-old Maqbul loads crates of fish into the daily shipments that leave for the city's restaurants. His father came to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh over three decades ago. “He was not educated, but he sent me to school. I couldn’t find a job for months after I passed 12th standard, so he got me placed under his old boss here,” says Maqbul, as his shift supervisor points to his watch, signalling him to dispatch the order.
He doesn’t flinch at any question and is aware of the debate around the amended citizenship Act.“I am educated and my father isn’t, but neither of us has a birth certificate. Around 50 of us working in this fishery do not have our birth certificates. There is no time to run around for these things; we are busy fending for ourselves.”
Amid talks of State governments beginning the implementation of a National Population Register (NPR) from April 2020, followed by a possible nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) the question of documentation is keeping many awake at night.
BusinessLine went around Mumbai's fishing communities, small traders and village communities to record how feasible it is for people from various socio-economic and demographic groups to arrange documents that prove citizenship.
Dock helper Laksmi Nonthal spoke to this reporter while returning from her shift. “I’m 66 and I came from Andhra when I was 22. My voter identification card should be proof enough because my husband and I have voted in every election after coming to Mumbai. My children were born here but we did not get their certificate issued. I have kept their leaving certificates from school.” One of her daughters works at a nearby cooperative bank and a son is unemployed.
Lack of clarity
There is a lack of clarity with regard to the documents that will be accepted as proof of citizenship. Home Minister Amit Shah had said in a media interview that Aadhaar, Voter ID and other government documents do not prove citizenship. However, the tweets from the ministry’s handle and an FAQ circulated by the government contradicted this. The tweet said that the list is ‘likely to include’ common documents such as Aadhaar, voter ID and so on.
“During my father’s time, home births were prevalent; some people would approach panchayats to get their child’s certificate made and some wouldn’t. That is why supplementary documents that are valid proof of identification should be considered as well. Where will we go otherwise?” said Laxman Dhanur, a middle-aged fisherman. “Our primary concern right now is different; business and yield are down and diesel prices have increased because of some talks of war in Iran; this affects transportation costs and thus our livelihood,” he added.
Birth-certificate registrations have seen a surge in many States in the last month. States differ in their rates of birth registrations and the disparity can be traced further between the urban and rural population and low-income groups.
Under the Registration of Deaths and Births Act, 1969, it is mandatory to register childbirths, but according to a report by data analysis firm IndiaSpend, 38 per cent of children under 5 in India still do not have a birth certificate. Some of the reasons for this are lack of awareness, inaccessibility to registration centres for some sections of the population and no immediate requirement of birth certificates to avail social services provided by the government.
“Our population is already huge, and infiltrators from Pakistan and Bangladesh are coming and getting Aadhaar cards, building two-storied settlements in slums, the government has done a good thing. It is mandatory to get a birth certificate made these days; only people who have entered illegally would not have it,” said 70-year-old Anil Lakshman Kulkarni, caretaker of the Sai temple at the heart of Wadavli village in Chembur.
Another challenge is the lack of awareness about the issue in these communities, with a sizeable section of males, females and elderly unaware of any such law or procedure having been rolled out.
SB Yadav, a spice trader in Dharavi who moved from UP in 1974, believes that there will not be any such exercise and has full faith that the government will not knock on his door for his papers. “Humko poora Vishwas hai sarkar pe, ki aisa kuch nahi hoga, yeh Sab bhay phaila rahein hain khamakha,” (I have full faith in the government that nothing like this will happen, people are spreading fear for no reason.)
“A lot of people in my village do not know anything about this people need to be told about the government’s policies,” said Francis Martin from Wadavli village. The trickle-down of information about government schemes, policies and rights of citizens remains a challenge on the ground.
(The writer is interning with BusinessLine's Mumbai Bureau)