Gender bias is one of the main reasons for not registering the birth and death of a girl child, says Jayant K Banthia, the former Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. "There are about 72,000 births per day in India, but less than 57 per cent of births and 51 per cent of deaths get registered," he points out. The figure includes both males and females. As far as female birth and death registration is concerned, less than 50 per cent births and less than 30 per cent deaths are registered.

Article 7 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) says, "The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared by his or her parents." Ironically, this aspect of child rights has been lost in translation in India where a large percentage of child births go unreported and where large numbers of female children are not even allowed to be born but are killed in the womb itself.

"Neither registered at birth, nor at death, women become 'invisible' as they do not enter the official records."

-- Jayant K Banthia, former Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India

Concerned over the declining sex ratios due to the practice of female foeticide and female infanticide, especially in prosperous states like Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana and Tamilnadu, a convention entitled 'Panchayats and Child Rights - Birth Registration as the First Right to Identity' was organised in Delhi recently.

It highlighted the role that panchayats (village councils) can play in collecting important statistics, including births, deaths and marriages. More than 600 elected women representatives of panchayats - from 18 states and union territories - participated at the convention organised by the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), a Delhi-based autonomous body for research, study and advocacy on decentralised governance and grassroots democracy.

The convention was held as part of ISS's 'Women's Political Empowerment Day' celebrations to provide a platform to elected women representatives to share their experiences and deliberate on various challenges confronting them such as falling sex ratio, female foeticide, micro-planning, child trafficking and early marriage.

"Indian society presents a bundle of contradictions. Indian families adore male children because they are considered an asset for the future; but some people go to the extent of killing the girl child if many girls are born in a family," observes Bidyut Mohanty, ISS conference coordinator. The number of child labourers and child victims of trafficking are incredibly high, she adds.

Although the Indian government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992 besides putting in place various legislation protecting the rights of children, it has failed dismally in implementing child-friendly policies relating to health, education, nutrition, child labour and female foeticide, says Mohanty.

Banthia, who spoke on 'Panchayats and Child Rights' at the convention, urged women leaders to encourage people in their panchayats to register births and deaths, especially of girl children.

"A birth certificate is a very important document to prove the existence of an individual. It is essential for school admissions, for property rights, and even for contesting elections," says Banthia. Male deaths are usually registered because of property inheritance requirements, but since most women do not own landed property, no one bothers to register a woman's death when it occurs, he notes. "Neither registered at birth, nor at death, women become 'invisible' as they do not enter the official records," he adds.

While states like Kerala, Mizoram and Goa are model states with 100 per cent births and deaths registered, others like Bihar lag far behind with only 18 per cent of the vital statistics reported annually, says Mohanty. She attributes the incompleteness of the birth and death statistics of India to factors like poor remuneration to data collectors, discriminatory attitudes towards the female child and non-institutional deliveries by dais.

In rural areas, it is the duty of the ANM (auxiliary nurse midwife) to register all births in a village. In addition, says Banthia, the Indian government has recently given village panchayats the power to register births and deaths in their localities. States like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh (HP), Uttaranchal, West Bengal and Bihar have already implemented this provision in their respective state policies.

"With this provision, villagers can register the births and deaths in their locality itself. Panchayats thus have a major role to play in encouraging people to register the births and deaths in their families," Banthia underlines.

However, Mohanty has reservations on this score based on an analysis done by ISS recently. "Out of 28 states, 13 states have delegated the responsibility to panchayats of collecting the vital statistics. And the remaining states have depended either on police or health officials. In other words, there has been a sectoral approach to the collection of the statistics," she observes.

Even a decade after the Panchayati Raj Act came into force in 1993, panchayats still act as the implementing agencies of the central government and not as agents of change, feels Mohanty. "Women in panchayats who can make the difference, lack basic knowledge regarding the functioning of panchayats, the existence of child-related schemes and the relevance of registering births and deaths."

Under the rules, parents of newborns should register births by the 21st day, but several women leaders at the convention say this rule is regarded with indifference. Several factors are responsible for this. One woman representative says social taboos in her state (UP) with regard to registering birth hold that it would bring harm on the new born baby.

The presence of such a large number of women in local government institutions today is a ray of hope. The elected woman is assumed to understand the issue of child rights better than her male counterpart.
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Kausalya, from HP, says the common practice of making a horoscope shortly after the birth of a child is a major reason for opting out of birth registration. Parents first go to the priest for the child's horoscope. After this, they don't care about registering the birth with the panchayat. On the other hand, Manju Lata from Orissa says that people in her area have the unfounded fear that they might lose their BPL status (below the poverty line) if they register every birth in the family.

However, Mohanty does see a ray of hope in the future because of the presence of such a large number of women in local government institutions today. The elected woman is assumed to understand the issue of child rights much better than her male counterpart as children - whether male or female - are close to the mother's heart and their development is of great importance to her. "Once elected women representatives are made aware of this important issue, they will carry forward the task sincerely and efficiently," says Mohanty.

In May and June (2005), ISS will be conducting capacity-building programmes in six states - Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Uttaranchal - as a follow-up to the Delhi convention.