Off the record, 7m births- Times of India 29 April 2012

,TNN | Apr 29, 2012, 05.47 AM IST

The figures are staggering, but an amazing number of births go unregistered in India each year. It's the main reason why benefits of child welfare schemes do not trickle to kids who need them the most. 

The deadline to achieve universal birth registration in India passed two years ago, and the country is still playing catch-up . According to Unicef 's State of the World Report 2012, the births of just 41% of India's children under five years have been registered. A closer look at the rural-urban divide shows more disturbing data — only 59% of urban children and just 35% of rural children have been registered. 

But why should BR, a state subject, matter at all in a country which continues to battle with more critical issues like high infant mortality and child malnutrition? Well, for one, BR is an important source of demographic data for socio-economic development and population control — the first identity for a new-born . It is mandatory under Indian law to register all new-borns within 21 days of birth, but of the estimated 26.2 million children born in the country every year, more than 7.6 million reportedly go unregistered. 

The major reasons for that are ignorance, illiteracy and poverty. Experts say that the high percentage of home deliveries (59%, according to NFHS-3 or National Family Heath Survey) and the large floating population in urban areas, street children and orphans complicate the issue. There's systemic failure, too. For instance, in 2003 a national campaign was begun to issue birth certificates, but it lost direction soon after. "The campaign was meant to be in three phases. Today, there is no information about the third phase. It was not a sustained campaign. It's become a bit of a joke," says Bharti Ali, co-founder of Haq, Centre for Child Rights. 

Haq's 2011 report 'Twenty years of CRC (convention on the rights of the child)' points out: "The government's apathy in the importance of birth registration is reflected in the availability of data on birth registration . 

Different sources suggest different levels of both births as well as death registration . For example, in 2007 the NFHS-3 found that 41.5% of Indian children aged 0-4 are registered. For the same period, a survey carried out by the office of the registrar general of India indicated that 62.5% of children were registered, a difference of approximately 20 percentage points." 

A number of development programmes, including mater nal and reproductive health, immunization programs, need accurate , up-to-date fertility and mortality data. In the absence of reliable numbers, asks Plan India executive director Bhagyashri Dengle, "How can we know how many children are there of school-going age, for instance? How does the government allocate resources for development programmes without such data? A statistician would just have to anticipate the numbers." 

At the individual level, people don't realize the importance of a certificate till the need arises. "The birth certificate is required for school admissions, health insurance for the poor, for employment in the formal sector. We see so many cases where children remain in lockups because their age cannot be verified," says Bharti. 

Moreover, much of the available data is not gender-specific , which makes it difficult to highlight the specific situation of girls. "Without a birth certificate, how do you prove a girl is a minor to prevent child marriage?" asks Bhagyashri. With no proof of victims' age, crimes against minor girls often go unpunished . Targeted schemes for children such as the Ladli Yojana and other such conditional cash transfer schemes cannot be accessed by the needy for lack of age proof. 

Bharti asks, "If we can have house-tohouse census and regular national polio immunization drives, why can't we ensure 100% birth registration with a house-tohouse drive?" Another problem is that birth registration does not necessarily ensure a birth certificate. Currently, the certificate is issued only when the record of birth is shown to the issuing authority and an application is made. In rural areas, people are forced to make several visits to the local municipality or panchayat, spend several hundred rupees and lose workdays to get a birth certificate. They just give up. 

Experts recognize the gravity of the situation . Chairperson of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Shantha Sinha, says, "It's unbelievable that an average 20 births that occur in a village annually cannot be registered. The responsibility of frontline people like anganwadi workers, who need to inform the gram panchayat about the births, has to be fixed. And that, in addition to awareness campaigns." 

There's hope, though, as some of the worst performing states have shown marked improvement. Rajasthan, which had 22.6% BR of both adults and children in 1996, improved to 83% in 2007; MP too has improved its overall BR from 45% in 1996 to 73% in 2007. "It needs to be seen as a basic right and a certificate of citizenship," says Sinha . Only then, perhaps, would BR be seen to be as important as getting a new car registered .