For the last several years, the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre has been loudly proclaiming its intention to create a pan-India National Register of Citizens, a process which will basically involve asking every person residing in India to prove that they are actually a citizen so that the government can “expel undocumented immigrants”.
But if this process is actually carried out, in addition to all of its other problems, it will be an economic disaster, both in itself and because it will greatly accelerate the ongoing employment and incomes crisis which most Indians have been experiencing.
This impact will occur in two different ways – while the NRC process is underway, and after it is complete. Let’s look at the implications of an exercise like this.
At the outset, we should note that there is no evidence that India faces any kind of undocumented immigration problem on a large scale outside the Northeast (other than off-the-cuff estimates by various leaders and officials, no one has produced any data, not even a sample survey). In order to address this ‘problem’ for which there is no evidence, the BJP is proposing what may be the most expensive administrative exercise in India’s history.
The NRC in the state of Assam alone took almost a decade, required the involvement of over 50,000 government employees and cost more than Rs. 1,200 crore. This is a state that has less than 3% of the country’s total population. A nationwide NRC would take up the services of a huge proportion of state and Central government officials and require expenditure several orders larger than that in Assam. For the duration of the process, a large part of government functioning in India would be diverted to this, making the already understaffed government system essentially non-functional in other forms of service provision.
Nor is this the only problem. The cost in time and effort as crores of people scramble to obtain documentation and to prove their citizenship would directly impact the functioning of entire industries, especially those dependent on migrant, casual and home-based workers, many of whom have no documentation. This would happen even if the BJP succeeds in only making the NRC target Muslims, since this would still disproportionately impact industries like construction, real estate, tanning and many sections of trade. In turn, the slowdown in the impacted industries would have a ripple effect in an economy already in a crisis.
It is vital to note that this way of conducting an NRC will probably ensure that large numbers of people fail to prove their citizenship – not because they are “illegal immigrants” but because huge numbers of Indians do not possess documentary proof of their citizenship. That is a fact of life in this country, and anyone who would claim that an NRC conducted in this manner will only exclude undocumented immigrants is being deliberately mendacious.
In short, the overall impact of the NRC, during the period of its implementation, will greatly exceed the enormous disruption caused by demonetisation, which – for all the devastation it caused – was a single event rather than a prolonged exercise. The havoc wreaked on the economy by demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax has been a direct result of the way both measures targeted the unorganised sector and small producers. The NRC will do the same at a far bigger level, over years.
But what happens when the NRC is ‘completed’? Perhaps the single biggest indicator of how fraudulent this exercise is is the fact that till date, the very same government that has been proclaiming that it will “expel every infiltrator” has not held a single discussion with the Bangladesh government about taking these people in. On the contrary, the government has been loudly assuring the Bangladesh government that the NRC is an “internal matter” and that it has nothing to do with Bangladesh.
In other words, if the NRC process produces the expected result and millions of people are declared non-citizens, the government itself believes that those people are not going anywhere. They will not be “expelled”. They will remain as a vast disenfranchised underclass. What are these people going to do? Some will be detained in the inhuman “detention camps” being set up across the country. But these camps can never hold more than a tiny fraction of this population.
What will the others do? Deprived of the ability to vote and presumably of the ability to own property, possibly deprived of access to basic welfare, they will be reduced to poverty and desperation. They will flood the job market, willing to work for wages far lower than those of “citizens”, because they can either choose to live in destitution or die.
What will this in turn do to those who are “citizens”? It will result in a lowering of wages overall, since if there is competition from those who are willing to work for less, all wages will fall as a result. It will make many jobs more insecure and more dependent on casual labour, since, again, everyone will have to compete with people who are so vulnerable they will put up with atrocious working conditions in order to survive.
Unemployment will rise as people are harassed out of jobs. It will dislocate the foundation of public healthcare, since beneficiaries will be required to prove their “citizenship” and “non-citizens” will be deprived of access – resulting in chaos and an increased disease and epidemiological burden. And it will result in a massive increase in social conflict, since those being targeted cannot be expected, saffron fantasies aside, to simply accept destitution, impoverishment and violence without protesting or resisting.
Almost all experts now agree that India’s current economic crisis is a crisis of demand: people do not have enough money to purchase goods, and – as has now been confirmed by the leaked NSSO report – overall monthly expenditure actually declined during the first term of the Modi government. The NRC will further drive down wages and make secure employment even more difficult to find, pulling the economy far deeper into a recessionary spiral in the process.
The BJP government’s statements have always made it clear what the NRC is actually about. The government has no interest in ‘expelling’ anyone. It also does not particularly care about illegal immigration. If so it would not resort to the specious logic that every single non-Muslim immigrant is a “refugee” – thereby enfranchising large numbers of migrants – even as it claims that Muslims who are clearly refugees, such as the Rohingya and Ahmadis, are “infiltrators”.
The only aim of this exercise seems to be to disenfranchise masses of Muslims within India. But history teaches us that disenfranchising large numbers of people is not only morally abhorrent, it results in social dislocation, economic damage and eventual conflict. That is a very high price to pay just for one party’s desire to target those whom it chooses to hate.
Amit Shrivastava is a Delhi-based analyst.