The Registration of Births and Deaths (RBD) Act, 1969 provides for compulsory registration of births and deaths under a uniform law across India. Experience of its working indicates that it is necessary to amend it for several reasons, and things could be changing as a Bill to amend this Act — called the Registration of Births and Deaths (Amendment) Bill, 2023 — for the first time since its inception, has been passed by Parliament and has got the assent of the President of India.
One of the major objectives that has been stated in the ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ attached to the Bill is “to create a National and State level database of registered births and deaths which would help in updating other databases resulting in efficient and transparent delivery of public services and social benefits”.
For this purpose, the Bill makes it compulsory that the Registrar General of India maintains a national level database of births and deaths, and that the Chief Registrar of births and deaths in every State is required to maintain a State-level database of registered births and deaths ‘using the portal approved by the Registrar General of India’. These databases are to provide information to update the National Population Register, the Aadhaar database, electoral rolls, ration card, passport, and other databases at the national level, as may be notified.
In the case of birth, the amendments provide for collecting the Aadhaar number of the parents. Nothing is mentioned about the Aadhaar number of the deceased. Updating many of the databases would require removing the names of the deceased from the database. If the Aadhaar number of a deceased person is not collected, it would be impossible to achieve this objective. This means that the laudable objective of ensuring ‘efficient and transparent delivery of public services and social benefits’ would remain a dream.
Do we need the central and State databases of births and deaths? The registration hierarchy is the responsibility of State governments, with the Registrar General of India having only the role of coordination and unification of the registration system.
The maintenance of the central database is being added to the Registrar General of India’s functions. The Chief Registrars are the executive authorities for the matters relating registration of births and deaths in the States. They need to maintain a database for efficient delivery of services of providing birth and death certificates and are doing so in many States even now.
The national database is going to be nothing but a collection of State-level databases, except for some data items that some States may have in addition to the national standards prescribed by the Registrar General of India. So, if the authorities maintaining other databases require information on births and deaths, it is possible to design a system wherein the required data flow to their databases on a daily basis or even a real time basis from the State-level database. The Registrar General of India needs to specify the standards for the data structures and transfer protocols. So, what is the need for a national-level database?
It is provided that this database at the central level be made available to authorities dealing with the maintenance and preparation of databases relating to the population register, electoral rolls, Aadhaar number, ration card, passport, driving licence, property registration and such other databases at the national level, as may be notified.
If those authorities require information from the database of registered births and deaths to update their databases, it requires amendment in the laws or executive orders under which they are maintained. The RBD Act only needs an enabling provision to share information from the database. Even that may not be necessary as the birth and death registers are considered public documents.
Listing a few databases for consideration by Parliament and leaving future additions to the government is demeaning to Parliament in a way. New additions to the list later may be more dangerous than those listed and approved by Parliament. For example, the government can now decide that a list of women whose third or higher order birth is being registered be prepared and given to the Family Welfare department for follow up on family planning programmes.
Certificate of cause of death
With regard to the facilities available now, the State government could decide that a cause of death certificate should be issued by the medical practitioner who attended the deceased person so that the certificate can be sent along with the death report. The areas/hospitals where such a certificate has been made mandatory varies across States, but is generally restricted to deaths in medical institutions. The amendments make it compulsory that for all deaths in medical institutions, a cause of death certificate be sent to the Registrar of Births and Deaths and a copy of the certificate is provided to the closest relative. For deaths that occur outside hospitals, the medical practitioner who attended to the deceased during the person’s recent illness has to issue such a certificate. This is fraught with problems:
First, the medical practitioner may not have always arrived at a definite diagnosis before the person died.
Second, the forms for cause of death that are being used are in conformity with World Health Organization recommendations. If the deceased was attended by a practitioner of the AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa Rigpa and Homoeopathy) systems of medicine, the cause of death recorded may not be usable for cause of death statistics since they may not be classifiable under the International Classification of Diseases.
Third, a person who was under treatment for a certain disease can die of an entirely different cause outside a medical facility when the medical practitioner was not available for consultation. How can the practitioner be expected to issue a certificate of cause of death in such cases?
Fourth, while Section 17 of the Act prohibits the inclusion of cause of death in any certificate issued under the Act, it now says that the cause of death certificate should be given to the relative of the deceased. These are contradictory as the cause of death in the death register is taken from the same cause of death certificate issued by the medical practitioner
Birth and death certificates
It is provided that the birth certificate alone would be accepted as proof of date and place of birth for many purposes such as school admission, issue of passport, and issue of Aadhaar number. This may not require any amendment in this Act or any other Act. It should be possible to achieve this through amendments in the rules relating to those databases or even executive orders. For example, while applying for passports, it was compulsory to have the birth certificate for those born after January 26, 1989 under the relevant rules. The present government removed this requirement in December 2016.
When natural calamities or accidents occur, several persons are reported missing; many of them may have died too. It has been seen that the police would have to call off the search for them after some time. However, the families of such persons would have to wait for seven years to request for a certificate that says ‘presumed dead’. A provision could have been inserted in the Act to register a ‘presumed death’ when it is reasonable to assume that the person would have died in the calamity or accident. This would help the family concerned get the death certificates earlier.
K. Narayanan Unni is a retired officer of the Indian Statistical Service and former Deputy Registrar General (Civil Registration)