Birth registrations in Dhaka have dropped dramatically after a 2004 amended law came into effect on March 2 this year, banning citizens living away from home from registering their births at the local government offices where they are staying.
This new provision of the Birth and Death Registration Act is causing great distress to the large proportion of Bangladeshis who only register their births when it becomes necessary for them to possess a certificate, such as for official business.
The amended law stipulates that a local government official in charge of birth registration will only register new births and people living 'permanently' under their jurisdiction. 'Permanent residents' are defined by the policy as people who have owned a property within a jurisdiction at least three years ago, and who are living in that jurisdiction.
But with urban migration on the rise, cities are now home to almost one-third of the nation's population with seven million people migrating to the capital from rural areas in 2014 and 2015 alone, according to the Bureau of Statistics.
Two groups that are being affected by this demographic and policy change are Primary School Certificate (PSC) examinees and people trying to go abroad to work.
Najimuddin, a 19-year-old from Barisal, has been living in Dhaka as a tenant for the last five years. When he went to the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) Zone 5 office in Golapbag last month, the officials there declined to register his birth.
Talking to this correspondent, Najimuddin said he no longer has any contacts in his village and also does not have any property there, but the DSCC authority told him to register his birth at his “permanent residence”.
“I have been living in Dhaka with my sister for five years and now I need to go abroad for a job. However, I do not have a National ID card as I am only 19," he said. In this situation getting a passport seems impossible for me."
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Zahid Alam, a local, said his sister was unable to register the birth of her child because she and her husband are not permanent residents in Dhaka city despite living away from their village home for many years.
Hosna Ara Chowdhury, the councillor for South city reserved ward 2, said many tenants who have been living in the city for years are suffering because of the new policy.
"They often come to me for suggestion and help, mostly, because after living in the city for years they have lost all sorts of connection with their permanent residence. Therefore I demand that this policy be amended for the sake of the city dwellers,” she said.
A school teacher in Dhaka told this correspondent that because the PSC exam requires a birth certificate to attend, there is usually a great rush for birth registrations right before the exams in September.
One workaround for this dilemma is that a citizen can omit their permanent residence, writing 'unavailable' at the place of permanent address. In such cases, as per sub section 1 of section 9 of the act, the assigned officials must certify that the person applied does not have a permanent address.
Registration drops in Dhaka city
Since the new policy came into effect in March, the number of birth registrations in Dhaka city have fallen drastically.
DSCC statistics show about 2,641 people registered their birth in zone 5 in February, however this fell to 2,471 in March, 1,174 in April, 187 in May and 191 in June.
In Dhaka North City Corporation's (DNCC) zone 2, about 3,188 people registered their birth in February this year and 3,457 in March, but it dropped to 2,607 in April, to 2,070 in May and to around 74 in June.
The situation is similar in other zones, said officials of both city corporations.
Birth and Death Registration Officer Md Fakhruddin Mubarak said the new policy's section 10 (d) and (e) have made registration difficult for the city's migrant population, reducing the number of birth registrations.
“In the previous policy people were considered permanent residents if they lived in an area for three years. But the new policy says they have to own property, causing a lot of suffering to citizens," he said. "We have informed the registrar general through a letter about this problem but we are yet to receive any reply."
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Dhaka South's Chief Health Officer Brig Gen Shekh Salauddin also said the city corporation had discussed the problem with the registrar general Shekh Mujibor Rahman - the government's top official for birth registration - but that no solution had been found.
When contacted over phone, the registrar general was dismissive about the issues raised.
“What is wrong with the policy? The policy seems perfectly alright. I have not heard of any crisis regarding the new birth policy so far,” said Shekh Mujibor Rahman, who is also the project director of Birth and Death Registration Project under Local Government Division.
The registrar general also denied receiving the letters sent from different zones about correcting the policy, and asked this correspondent for a copy of those letters.
Asked whether the registrar's office was investigating the reason behind the drop in the number of birth registrations, he replied: “We do not have enough manpower to observe everything.”
Bribes still work, however
Some corrupt officials of DSCC are taking advantage of this crisis to squeeze citizens who face problems with their birth registration.
The official fee for a birth registration is Tk100, climbing to Tk500 for a delayed registration with up to Tk500 needed for other paperwork.
But some of those who are being denied registration at the offices report being asked by some unscrupulous officials to pay Tk2,500 to Tk5,000 to get a birth certificate.
To investigate these accusations, this correspondent went to the DSCC Zone 5 office posing as someone who needs a birth certificate.
At first when the correspondent tried registering her birth claiming she is a temporary resident, the DSCC officials declined to register her. But shortly afterwards, an office clerk named Amzad took her to a corner and asked for a huge amount of money for her birth registration.
The correspondent was able to bargain down to Tk2,500.
Amzad said he needed to give a share of the money to other birth registration officers, his colleagues and a lawyer to get the work done.
He said: “I offered you this amount to help you. A few days ago a person gave us Tk10,000 for a birth registration.”
When the correspondent asked whether there will be any problem with these papers, he said the papers will be "perfectly alright".
Amzad said he has another cohort who helps him with the paper processing but avoided naming them.