Low levels of birth registration in several Indian States is keeping millions of children beyond the ambit of social security programmes

Once a baby is born, the birth certificate is the first legal document of his or her existence. It can be used to access school admission, procure a ration card, bank account, and many other official documents in later years.

According to Plan International and United Nations Human Rights Commission, there are an estimated six million stateless children around the world — children without nationality. Many stateless children are denied access to education and health care and are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Yet, despite these dangers and risks that the children face, few international or national child protection systems include such children in their programming.

While birth registration does not confer nationality, it surely reduces this statelessness. It establishes a child’s legal identity, entitling the child to the full range of fundamental rights regardless of nationality status.

“Count every child” — this was the lesson learnt by the participants at the end of a two-day conference on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics held at Bangkok recently. Attended by representatives of over 50 countries, the event — organised by the World Health Organisation and Health Metrics Network — acknowledged the links between individual rights and statistics for policy and planning, and agreed to work for creating an accountability framework to promote civil registration and vital statistics for creating reliable and comprehensive data post Millennium Development Agenda (MDG)-2015 agenda.

Despite the importance of birth registration, each year 51 million newborn babies remain unregistered either because of high cost, complexity and excessive documentation required for registration, or social barriers preventing the gist ration of particular groups of children like disabled, minority ethic groups, migrants, marginalised populations and orphans. Birth registrations also have low priority because of cultural and historic traditions or lack of awareness.

In India, every fifth birth and every third death goes unregistered mainly because of very little importance attached to the certification, though the Indian sub-continent comprises one-sixth of the world's population at 1.21 billion as per the 2011 census.

India passed the Registration of Births and Deaths Act in 1969 which makes registration of birth and deaths mandatory, says R.C. Sethi, former Additional Registrar General of India. However, even now the systems are not in place and where registration is done, it is either done late or the information not sent to the national level, he said.

In India, an estimated 26 million births and about 8.3 million deaths take place every year. This makes up approximately 34 million vital events that have to be registered by the civil registration system. The current level of birth registration is around 67 per cent as per the latest 2009 provisional national estimates, which means that approximately nine million children (33 per cent) go unregistered every year.  The State disparities in registration coverage range from over 90 per cent in States such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Punjab and West Bengal to as low as 20.4 per cent in Bihar.

“If you are invisible you are vulnerable. Every year, about 51 million children (under-five) remain vulnerable because they are not registered. How can we measure our progress towards the Millennium Development Goals when not every child is counted?” asks Nicoleta Panta, Count Every Child Advocacy Manager with Plan International. Plan India launched its Count Every Child campaign in 2006, promoting Universal Birth registration.

“We tend to forget that birth registration is a critical measure to secure the recognition of every person. Later in life, a birth certificate can help protect a child against early marriage, child labour, premature enlistment in the armed forces or, if accused of a crime, prosecution as an adult,” she explains. Registration of all births particularly of the girls is absolutely necessary to track sex ratio and to take corrective steps to protect the girl child and hopefully curbing female feticide.

Plan India has been working in partnership with the Office of the Registrar General of India, State Registrars and over 107 NGO partners in 77 districts.

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