A child’s identity crisis

A cloud of white dust forms above Khurshida Sayyed’s hands as she claps away the excess baby powder. She gently pats the powder into the crevices of her daughter’s neck and rubs it into her chest before looking across at the three foreigners sitting quietly, knee to knee in her home. She smiles.

“Mango juice? Chai?” she offers.

Against the backdrop of the peeling, musky pink walls, where lines of damp saris and shorts hang from corner to corner, stands Khurshida and her daughter. A bin full of plastic water bottles sits at her feet, right next to the stove and a pile of books. Khurshida is getting her daughter ready for her hot and humid journey to school. She briefly stops tugging at her daughter’s navy-blue dress, while straightening her tie and collar and moves over to the bucket of water to wash three tin jars. She places them alongside a bottle of mango juice in the centre of the floor.

“Please, drink.”

Khurshida smiles again and continues to organise her daughter, swiftly moving her fingers through her hair as she creates two long plaits. Her daughter stands patiently, moving in the direction her mum ushers her, clearly well versed in this afternoon routine. Finally, as Khurshida straightens her daughter’s dress one more time, she edges her towards the hatch and sends her daughter down the stairs with a hug. A thick rush of air comes up the stairs to replace her and the smell of rain masks the turmeric and ginger.

The painted tin walls of the Nargis Dutt Nagar slum where Khurshida and her family live. Photo: Amy Delcaro.

Khurshida’s eight-year-old daughter is heading off to catch the bus to school at Pali-Chimbai Municipal School in Bandra West, an affluent suburb on the west coast of Mumbai. Located three kilometres from her home in the Nargis Dutt Nagar slum, Khurshida’s daughter will join the 611 other boys and girls from slum communities who are being provided free education from the non-governmental organisation, Aseema. Khurshida says school and getting an education is so important for all of her children.

“It is important to send your child to school for education so they can have a better life. We are not educated but we need to think of our child so that they can move ahead in life and get a job,” she says.

The opportunity for Khurshida’s daughter to attend school could have been a distant reality for a family of five who moved from their village to live in a slum in Mumbai. However, Khurshida completed one crucial step when her daughter was born: she registered her daughter’s birth and obtained her birth certificate. On the official document, the information collected included the place and date of registration, date of birth, sex, name of the child, permanent address, name of the father and mother, place of birth and lastly, the type of place where the child was born. This formed her identity.

A Gram Panchayat Office located in village in Mumbai. Photo: Amy Delcaro.

“My child was born at home and not in a hospital but the community recorded the timing, the name and all other information.  I take that information to the Gram Panchayat and submit it. After 10 to 15 days, I visit the Gram Panchayat and I am handed a birth certificate stating that this child was born in this village and then the child is documented,” Khurshida recalls.

A lack of official documentation means the child cannot obtain social assistance, a job, vote on who governs their country or obtain a passport as an adult. It also means the child will be denied the right to an education.

Yet, according to a report released on the births and deaths statistics of India based on the civil registration system, only 86 per cent of births were recorded in 2016 which is a decrease from 88.3 per cent in 2015. This is equivalent to only 22.2 million births being registered in 2016 compared to the 23.1 million births registered in 2015, a drop of 935,154 births registered.

The civil registration system in India documents vital information on births and deaths that have occurred within the country. This information combined with the statistics gathered from the population census, national population register and sample registration system should provide India with valuable information on their birth and death rate. Yet, the census is conducted every 10 years and despite 24 states and union territories achieving a registration coverage of more than 90 per cent, the coverage of the civil registration system is considered satisfactory. This is evident in the 11 states and three union territories which experienced a decrease in registration from 2015 to 2016, including the cosmopolitan state of Maharashtra.

Bhavya sits in the courtyard at the TISS campus. Photo: Amy Delcaro.

In another report released by UNICEF in 2018 on the Status of Civil Registration and Vital Statistics in South Asia Countries, the challenges faced by India’s registration systems centred around a lack of awareness of the importance of registration and low priority given by the states to the civil registration system. There are vast differences between the registration units between the states in India with 133 units in Manipur in the northeast compared to 41,444 units in Maharashtra.

In a busy and leafy corner of the courtyard at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, research scholar in the sociology of education Bhavya sips on her chai and recounts her own experience with birth registration. She says documentation and birth registration have never been valued in the community and that the approval of the child’s existence from the community is generally considered sufficient enough.

“What is the purpose of documentation, of registering the child’s birth, death or marriage or any other important event in their life? It is to basically record the fact that this particular event has indeed happened,” she says.

“When you look at a country like India which is claiming to be modern but still subscribes to a lot of cultural and traditional notions, you derive the social sanctity not just on the basis of these documents. The fact that you have a whole community who has witnessed your birth or has proof of the fact that you were born and are a living member of a society is proof enough and validity enough for people.

“I think the interesting thing in regard to the kind of communities we have in India is that documentation has never really been a very important part of the lives of the people over here.”

This is despite the Registration of Births and Deaths Act 1969 which states that registration should occur within the first 21 days of occurrence to the Registrar General of the local area. Yet only eight states have achieved more than 90 per cent registration of births within the prescribed 21 days. The Act is India’s legally binding document and its implementation is decentralised to the state governments. It works with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child established in 1990 which states that the child’s birth should be registered immediately and the child should have the right to a name, a nationality and the right to be cared for by their parents.

The United Nations says birth registration should be a fundamental right for every child. It is a vital step in establishing an identity. It is a passport to protection.

At the back of Khurshida’s house in the Nargis Dutt Nagar slum, a small group of children plays beneath the bridge. Crows stand amongst the rubbish and rummage through large piles of discarded building material, chip packets and plastic which have been thrown across the muddy ground as if a tornado just wreaked havoc through the slum. Inside Khurshida Sayyed’s home where one room serves as a communal place for her family of five to eat dinner, sleep, bathe and cook, sits her two friends: Lalita Mhato and Sabina Sayyed. Lalita, who sits cross legged behind her friends, wears a blue sari with golden flowers imprinted on the silk which drapes across her left shoulder. She taps her head lightly with her right hand as she recounts the time she understood the importance of birth registration and how she learnt it was crucial for her to register her three sons. Lalita’s first son was born in her village before she moved into the Nargis Dutt Nagar slum. She says she didn’t know a birth certificate was needed for enrolment into school.

Lalita (middle) and Sabina (right) sit in Khurshida’s (left) home in the Nargis Dutt Nagar slum. Photo: Amy Delcaro.

Although Khurshida registered her children at birth, she understands where the misunderstanding stems from.

“What happens is that people are not usually aware about these documents. When they come to school to enrol the child, they find out and then they have to go and apply for it,” explains Khurshida.

“The child is already three years old and they just know about this whole birth certificate thing when they come for admission and they learn that these are official documents and that the birth certificate is the most important.

“Before that, they weren’t aware.”

Luckily Lalita had the support of Aseema and the social workers at the Pali-Chimbai Municipal School. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai once held the responsibility of public education to more than 1180 primary schools and 49 secondary schools before it invited non-governmental organisations working in education to take control. When Aseema moved into Pali Chimbai Municipal School in the leafy green suburb of Bandra, where the men and women walk their Labradors on leashes, it had 100 students spread across seven classes with only two teachers. Aseema took the reins and revamped the school. While it teaches the state curriculum, the focus of Aseema is child-centric and interactive.

The students of Pali-Chimbai Municipal School playing in the school grounds waiting for class to begin. Photo: Amy Delcaro.

Head of the Community Work Cell at Aseema, Santosh Panigrahi, says the non-governmental organisation has taken the responsibility to ensure all the students attending any of its four schools located throughout Mumbai have their birth certificates. He says Aseema will work with the family to help them through the process of obtaining their birth certificate because, otherwise, it is difficult for Aseema to take their admission and help the child have a good beginning.

“How will you prove their existence? What is their name? When were they born? What is their age? Everything starts from the birth certificate. There were many students without birth certificates. I think last year we had more than 70 students without birth certificates,” he says.

According to Mr Panigrahi, the birth certificate ensures the child is admitted into the correct standard. In Australia, this is equivalent to the child’s year group at school. This follows the requirements outlined in India’s Right to Education Act which states a child must present their age when enrolling into the school so that schools such as Aseema can enter the details into their general register and make sure the child is receiving education that matches their development.

“A six-year-old child cannot be admitted into the third standard as he is too young. A ten-year-old child cannot be admitted into standard three as a ten-year-old child should go to standard five. So, the age we have to check and how we get that is from the birth certificate. Then we will admit that child into their correct standard,” he says.

Mr Panigrahi says the lack of registration is due to a lack of awareness. Their tribal school in Igatpuri had 36 new admissions into their nursery class and out of these enrolments, more than 30 didn’t have a birth certificate.

“In our Igatpuri school, parents are not bothered about the education of the child. So, we have to go and convince the parents about how important it is for the child to be educated.” However, he says parents like Lalita, Khurshida and Sabina want their children to be educated and will get whatever documentation required so their child can come to school. This means the parents of the undocumented child will have to pay to register the child through a magistrate who will verify the details of the birth and provide the relevant documentation. This is because it has been over a year since the birth of the child.

For non-governmental organisation Prerana, this process proves to be lengthy and time-consuming. Prerana is an anti-trafficking organisation in Mumbai which is working to end intergenerational prostitution and to protect women and children from the threat of human trafficking. The organisation has a shelter facility for girls who are in need of care and protection. The woman in charge of the shelter Madhuri Shinde says the girls who are placed into institutionalised care have been abused, orphaned or abandoned, involved in child marriages, child labour or trafficking or are a missing child. Ms Shinde explains that the birth certificate is one of the strongest documents that exists in India but it can become easily used for the wrong purpose. She says while many of the girls come to the facility undocumented, there are those girls who have had false identities created for them by their perpetrators. She says it is very easy for anyone to change documents mainly due to corruption and politics.

“The girls automatically start thinking that they deserve this and they don’t know that the perpetrator is doing the wrong thing. Even if they know their birth certificate is getting manipulated by their perpetrators, they don’t oppose it because their families are depending on that particular girl so they cooperate with the perpetrator,” she says. The girls who are often moved out from their village into the city by their perpetrator are earning almost five to 10 rupees a day which the girls consider helpful towards their families despite the nature of this type of exploitative work.  

Ms Shinde reflects on a recent story of a girl who came to the shelter after she was exploited and groomed by her father. The girl was an only child and she was repeatedly told by her father that it was her duty to give the family a baby boy as, in Indian culture, men are highly valued. He groomed his daughter to the extent that he established a physical relationship with her. At the age of 15, the girl became pregnant with a boy. Despite the newborn baby being adopted once the girl was admitted to the shelter at Prerana, she still continues to cry for her father.  

Then, says Ms Shinde, there are seemingly endless cases of parents presenting birth certificates showing their daughter as underage when she is wanting to marry a man of a lower caste. Similarly, there are endless cases where the birth certificate has been modified to protect the perpetrator and show that there has been no illegal activity. Ms Shinde says you can’t expect people to be completely honest and while you can’t change this system in one day, steps should be made towards a solution.

“We should strive to get original documents for each person. I feel that all these girls should have these basic documents so they should not face trouble or suffer outside with getting a job or admissions to vocational training or college admissions,” she says.

“We can’t change the people or the world in one day but at least we should work every day taking baby steps to rectify these obstacles.”

As Khurshida sits down next to her two friends and stares once again at the three foreigners sitting across from her, a smile spreads across her face. Her daughter is off on her way to school joining her peers in what will be five hours of art class, English lessons and mathematics. An opportunity which could have been a distant reality if it weren’t for her birth certificate. Sitting across from Khurshida and her two friends, it is hard not to think of the privilege we are afforded in Australia.

The three women stand in the narrow paths between the homes. Photo: Amy Delcaro.

The 2019 Curtin India Study Tour was funded under the Federal Government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.