Legal identity at the margins: the impact of violent conflict on birth registration in India

Dhiman, A., & Harbers, I. (2024). Legal Identity at the Margins: The Impact of Violence Conflict on Birth Registration in India. Citizenship Studies.

In India, armed groups characterised by a diversity of ideologies and aims have emerged and persisted even in the presence of a fairly strong state. These groups often operate in areas that have long suffered from state neglect. We examine how violent conflict influences patterns of birth registration. State-recognised documents are crucial for establishing legal identity, and accessing citizenship rights. We draw on the 2015–16 National Family and Health Survey to measure civil registration, community and household characteristics. Our conflict data come from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, which we leverage to describe community exposure to organised violence. Our statistical analysis shows that the likelihood that a child is in possession of a birth certificate is significantly lower in areas affected by violent conflict, even when controlling for other individual and social characteristics associated with marginalisation.

The subnational electoral coercion in India (SECI) data set, 1985–2015

Richetta, C., Harbers, I., & van Wingerden, E. (2023). The subnational electoral coercion in India (SECI) data set, 1985–2015. Electoral Studies85, 102662.

This research note introduces the Subnational Electoral Coercion in India (SECI) Data Set, which provides comprehensive data on electoral coercion in 186 Indian Vidhan Sabha elections between 1985 and 2015. SECI draws on news reports to capture instances of electoral coercion, including coercive fraud, election boycotts by non-state armed groups, and deaths resulting from electoral violence at the assembly constituency level. SECI differs from existing data in its focus on subnational elections, its temporal coverage and its broad definition of electoral coercion, thus opening up new directions for research on electoral politics across Indian states.

Permanent Membership: The Prohibition of Citizenship Renunciation

Harbers, I., & Steele, A. (2023). Permanent Membership: The Prohibition of Citizenship Renunciation. International Migration Review.

Dual citizenship is often seen as an indication that states are adopting more open membership policies. In some cases, however, dual citizenship is imposed because states lay claim to populations beyond their borders, and prohibit the renunciation of citizenship. This research note presents new data to describe which countries prohibit renunciation. First, we find that some states prohibit renunciation in administrative practice, even though national legal frameworks formally allow renunciation. Roughly one in five states — 38 total — prohibits citizenship renunciation in de facto or de jure terms. Second, prohibitions are regionally clustered in Latin America and the Caribbean (13 countries) and the Middle East and North Africa region (11 countries). Third, among the countries that prohibit renunciation, democracies and authoritarian regimes are fairly balanced (17 democracies vs. 21 autocracies). Fourth, democracies are more likely to formally prohibit renunciation, while autocracies also rely on de facto prohibition through administrative barriers, arbitrary procedures, or a failure to process requests. We connect citizenship prohibitions to diaspora governance, discuss its implications for citizens, and propose avenues for further research.

Accessing Citizenship: Patterns of Civil Registration and Insurgent Conflict in India

Dhiman, A. & Harbers, I. (2023) Accessing Citizenship: Patterns of Civil Registration and Insurgent Conflict in India. Blog post on the Armed Groups and International Law blog:

Citizenship grants access to the rights enjoyed by all members of the political community of a given state. To claim these rights, citizens must be able to provide evidence of membership based on birth place and/or parentage. Yet, according to recent World Bank estimates, about 850 million people lack official documents such as birth certificates, ID cards or passports that prove their legal identity. The absence of state-recognised documents can brand individuals as non-citizens or outsiders. For millions of people, as Wendy Hunter  and a recent volume edited by Tendayi Bloom and Lindsey Kingston show, the threat to the enjoyment of citizenship rights derives not from their legal status, but from their inability to demonstrate this status. Individuals without legal identity documents often come from marginalised communities or live in zones of limited state presence. This creates a vicious cycle as vulnerable individuals are rendered even more vulnerable by their lack state-recognised documents. 

Birth certificates are key to establishing legal identity, including claims of citizenship, and proof of parentage. In a recent working paper, we examine how armed conflict affects birth registration in India.[1] UNICEF estimates that as of 2016, around 20% of children under the age of five have not been registered with Indian civil authorities, suggesting that 2.7 million children in this age group do not possess birth certificates. Unregistered children often live in poor households and belong to marginalised communities. The South Asia Terrorism Portal identifies 76 active insurgent groups in India and an average of 2100 conflict-related fatalities per year between 2000-2022. Insurgent conflict tends to be concentrated in peripheral areas or along India’s international borders, such as the Northeast of the country and in Jammu & Kashmir, and in tribal areas that have long suffered from state neglect. In our paper, we examine patterns of birth registration in these areas, and find that armed conflict increases the risk that children remain unregistered beyond factors associated with social marginalisation previously identified in the literature.

Legal identity for all? Gender inequality in the timing of birth registration in Mexico

Harbers, I. (2020). Legal identity for all? Gender inequality in the timing of birth registration in Mexico. World Development, Volume 128,

Despite recent advances, many low and middle-income countries do not have a comprehensive system for civil registration. Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal of providing ‘legal identity for all’ therefore requires an effort to ensure timely birth registration among societal groups that have remained at the margins. Timely registration is crucial for the effective guarantee of individual identities, since delays are associated with under-registration, and incorrect records. The paper examines gender inequality in registration. Based on demographic data for Mexico, a higher middle-income country that has recently made considerable progress with regard to birth registration, it shows that gender bias is expressed not only in the under-registration of girls, but also in systematically longer delays compared to their male counterparts. To understand this, the paper conceptualizes registration as an informed decision by citizens about the perceived costs and benefits of obtaining documents. The paper leverages a novel data source – a dataset of roughly 80 million records for births registered by the Mexican state between 1985 and 2014 – to investigate not just whether citizens obtain documents, but also when they do so. The analysis demonstrates that delays in registration decrease when obtaining documents provides tangible benefits for citizens. The introduction of Progresa, a conditional cash transfer program targeting poor households, is associated with shorter delays in registration among younger cohorts, and an increase in registration among women. Positive incentives for registration thus ensure that parents actively seek documents for their children. Conditional cash transfer programs, which operate in many countries, can play an important role in creating such incentives.