The social cost of disenfranchisement

The Muslim community is facing unprecedented levels of institutionalised bias. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the NRC are likely to aggravate its distress.

Published : Jan 19, 2020 07:00 IST

Documents submitted by people for inclusion in the National Register of Citizens being examined at the NRC office in Guwahati on August 28, 2019, ahead of the release of the register’s final draft.

Documents submitted by people for inclusion in the National Register of Citizens being examined at the NRC office in Guwahati on August 28, 2019, ahead of the release of the register’s final draft.

The direct budgetary expenditure on preparing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam was Rs.1,221 crore. The indirect damages imposed on the applicants work out to Rs.7,800 crore. Using these figures as a template, it can be estimated that carrying out the exercise across the nation, the National Register of Indian Citizen (NRIC), will require Rs.3,83,874 crore ($53.3 billion). There will be other indirect costs borne by affected households that will have to cope with loss of employment and business income, loss of usual residence, loss of schooling and increased health expenditures. Clearly, the above estimate is an inadequate one.

It is instructive to compare these estimates, such as they are, with budgetary allocations to three crucial Union Ministries. The budgetary allocation for the Human Resource Development Ministry (including the allocation for higher-level education) for the year 2019 is Rs.94,853 crore, which is just about one quarter of the estimated cost of implementing the NRIC across India. Similarly, the budgetary allocation to the Ministry of Health is only Rs.62,398 crore, one-sixth of what an all-India NRIC exercise is estimated to cost.

The cost of the NRIC would be higher than even India’s defence budget for 2019, which was Rs.3.2 lakh crore. This expenditure will not only damage India’s fiscal health but also impact the national gross domestic product (GDP) by about 2 per cent.

The most significant impact will be a drastic decline in the earnings and disposable incomes of millions (Assam is an example) who will be excluded from the citizenship list. Such a scenario will derail the Modi government’s five-trillion-dollar-economy project in the near future.

According to the Census of India data on “Foreign Born who reside in India as on March 1st, 2011”, the total population of India was 1,211 million. Of these, 1,205 million people have reported that they were born within the geographic boundaries of India. Only 5,653,911 individuals reported their birthplace to be out of the territory of India; the percentage of this group to the total population works out to be 0.47 1 . It is expected that this reporting is accurate and that many or most of the foreign-born can also be legal migrants. There is a possibility that some of these people are “illegal migrants”. A quick look at the distribution of the foreign-born across States suggests that most of them live in West Bengal, followed by Assam.

A country-specific analysis suggests that 2.8 million foreigners living in India as on March 2011 were born in Bangladesh. About 0.92 million were from Pakistan and 0.81 million from Nepal. Hardly 6,476 people reported to have been born in Afghanistan. Three of these four (except Nepal) countries are under the focus in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.

Given the smaller number of those “born outside of India” living in most parts of India, it makes no sense to undertake a nationwide NRIC on the lines of the exercises done in Assam. In fact, a different viable and cost-effective strategy can be used to find out all those who have reported as having been “born outside of India”. Since the National Population Register (NPR) data collection will involve a complete census of households and residents, through a review of documents and collection of biometric data, it will be easy to identify foreigners. A small team of officers can undertake the task of verification. There really is no need to establish tribunals and detention centres and to press for a long and expensive legal process to determine the number of illegal migrants.

How to overcome dangers of an all-India NRIC

The house-listing phase of the 16th Census (2021) is scheduled to take place between April and September 2020. Once again, data for updating the NPR will be collected from residents, an exercise that is essential for development and welfare-planning. However, since the Census of India Registrar General (RG) is also the RG for the NPR as well as the NRC, it is but natural that data collected through the Census of India will be used to determine the citizenship of an individual. It is questionable whether the RG Census has the wherewithal to determine the “citizenship” of an individual. Yet, the Citizenship Rules, 2003, assign to it the task of preparing the NRIC.

This author’s observation is that India’s Muslim community is under stress because the official, and often irresponsible, discourse surrounding the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, is highly discriminatory and amenable to be turned against Muslim residents. Murmurs about a boycott of the NPR and the NRIC have begun among the country’s Muslims. It is my suggestion that the people of India seek the following safeguards at the time of sharing their data with government agencies and functionaries.

First, when Census officials visit each home between March and September 2020 for house-listing and NPR data collection, respondents should seek a clearly written statement of purpose and promise that their data, which are being collected during house-listing for the NPR and subsequently at the time of population enumeration, will be used only for the purpose of Census counts, data aggregation and policy analysis. Ideally, this statement must be signed by the President of India. It should be a generic promise, like the signature of the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India on printed bank notes.

Secondly, after serving the written promise, the Census officials must be asked to issue an acknowledgment of the fact that personal data were collected during their visit. The acknowledgment should say that the data will not be shared nor used for any other purpose. This acknowledgment should record the time, date and place of data extraction.

Thirdly, a printed copy of all the data collected must be issued to the individual for her own data file and future use. This data can also be made available to everyone through an online system of data retrieval.

The government, therefore, must change its methodology and identify hotspots or areas where illegal residents are most likely to reside. It would be instructive to recall that a similar effort in the United States to incorporate a question in the census that asked people to state their citizenship was shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Inclusive growth

Muslims constitute the backbone of a number of traditional manufacturing industries. The structure and growth of modern industry, especially textiles, construction, leather, gems and jewellery, and iron and steel, are based on the artisanal skills that Muslim workers carry to this day. A recent estimate undertaken by this author suggests that the Muslim labour force contributes relatively higher value added to the GDP compared with all other socio-religious categories at all levels of education except the topmost.

A discussion of diversity in India is not complete without reference to the country’s highly politicised system of reservation. Reservation grants preferential admissions to publicly funded educational institutions and lifelong permanent employment in government and public sector industries and institutions and also publicly funded programmes to benefit a specific set of the population. The Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) have been identified as groups that have historically experienced deprivation and exclusion and therefore need the support of reservation. However, only specific sub-groups within the S.Cs and the S.Ts are recognised, namely those who identify themselves as Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. Dalit and tribal communities who identify themselves as Muslim and Christian are excluded. Large numbers of Muslims and other minority communities are thus excluded from the benefits of the system of reservation. Their exclusion shows up the political nature of legal categorisation, which in this case discriminates against Indian Muslims and Christians.

The recent 124th Constitutional Amendment (2019) has provided a quota for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), which is incremental to the quotas for the S.Cs, S.Ts and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) 2 . EWS reservation seems to be driven by political calculations and it has been criticised as being ambiguous and difficult to implement. The rationale behind the earlier quotas was to enable a level playing field to the socially deprived and “other socially and educationally backward classes” with constitutional backing. But the current rationale for EWS is rather amusing and strong empirical support is required to implement it fairly. It is also argued that the Muslims of India deserve a sub-quota of at least 45 per cent of the 10 per cent EWS, given their population size and economic and educational backwardness.

State governments in India wield a substantial independent power in many areas of governance, especially those affecting people’s basic needs and human development. Public policies are implemented mostly through State bureaucracies. Solutions for social and many economic issues are worked out at the local level. It is in this context that India and its States need to establish institutional arrangements to ensure equal opportunity and work out an institutional mechanism to reach this cherished goal. Prudent economic and social policies, both at the national and State levels, can yield higher economic growth and prevent India from falling into the trap of the so-called “Hindu Rate of Growth”.

Equal opportunity, the way forward

The Muslim community is facing unprecedented levels of institutionalised social bias, and this can retard its economic contribution. Distressed groups face imminent danger to life, loss of earning opportunities, and exclusion from education, health and social services. The assessment of distress conditions also depends upon the coping ability and mechanism of households to deal with hunger, liquidation of productive assets, distress migration, and so on. This community now is facing the danger of having its assets worn out or rendered worthless because of the absence of other associated inputs. For instance, land that cannot be cultivated because of absence of irrigation; machinery that cannot be used because of lack of electricity; a local glut in agricultural produce caused by the absence of agricultural markets and rural infrastructure, and so on. Distress leaves an indelible mark on the development of children, leading to reduction in labour-market efficiency.

The relationship that people from distressed sections have with their local environment such as the social forces, institutions and the cultural values is marked by vulnerability. To that extent, the newly evolving economic changes could harm their subsistence systems.

To overcome such challenges, public policy should be designed to create equal opportunities. The Constitution resolves to secure to all citizens “equality of status and of opportunity” and directs the government to be proactive about ensuring equal opportunity. The concepts of equality, equal access and equal opportunity are elaborated in Article 14 (right to equality), Article 15 (access to education) and Article 16 (public employment). Article 16 ensures equal opportunity in government employment and forbids discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, and so on. Clause (4) makes provision for the reservation of government appointments in favour of “any backward class” not adequately represented in the services of the state. Backwardness should be determined on the basis of non-arbitrary factors such as those mentioned in the Constitution—religion, race, caste, sex, descent, and residence/place of birth. Backwardness can also be assessed on the basis of non-arbitrary data including occupation, workplace, age and language.

The state is directed by the Constitution “to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life” (Article 38(1)). A 1976 amendment to the Constitution reads: “The state shall, in particular, strive to minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations” (Article 38(2)).

It is in the country’s long-term economic interest to overturn the current social and economic policy of discrimination on the basis of religion and evolve an inclusive policy framework, which is already enshrined in the Constitution.



1. Compare this percentage with the foreign born population in the United States, which was as large as 13.7 per cent in 2017, the highest ever in over a century.

2. “Economically Weaker Sections Quota in India: Realistic Target Group and Objective Criteria for Eligibility”, Occasional Paper 2019. [], US-India Policy Institute, Washington, D.C.

Ab usaleh Shariff was Member-Secretary of the Rajinder Sachar Committee , which was appointed by the Union government in 2005 to study the social, economic and educational condition of Muslims in India. He is now associated with the U.S.-India Policy Institute, Washington, D.C. The viewsexpressed in this article are his own .

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