Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Strengthening of local vital events registration: lessons learnt from a voluntary sector initiative in a district in southern India

Prem Mony a, Kiruba Sankar a, Tinku Thomas a & Mario Vaz a

a. St John’s Research Institute, 100 Feet Road, Koramangala, Bangalore, 560034, India.

Correspondence to Prem Mony (premkmony@gmail.com).

(Submitted: 28 October 2010 – Revised version received: 02 February 2011 – Accepted: 03 February 2011 – Published online: 28 February 2011.)

Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2011;89:379-384. doi: 10.2471/BLT.10.083972

Introduction

Reliable vital statistics based on births and deaths are necessary for population health assessment, epidemiological research, health planning and programme evaluation. Civil registration is considered the optimal source of statistics on vital events (i.e. births and deaths). The national authority for civil registration in India is the Office of the Registrar-General and Census Commissioner, under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Registration is, however, decentralized to India’s 29 states and 6 union territories. In theory, India’s registration system provides a good basis for overall coordination, direction, technical guidance and standards for birth and death statistics, but the reality is vastly different. For the period 2000–2006, birth registration in India was 41% and death registration was < 25%,1 with large regional differences. In Andhra Pradesh state, birth registration was 50% and death registration was 25%.2,3 Numerous factors including political, administrative, economic and legislative barriers, and neglect of cultural and community realities act as constraints to the complete, accurate and timely registration of births and deaths in India.3,4 This paper describes an initiative called Strengthening of Local Vital Event Registration (SOLVER) by a nongovernmental organization that worked with the government and the public at a subdistrict level in southern India.

Programme setting

The programme was held in five mandals (subdistricts) – Palamaner, Gangavaram, Baireddypalle, V Kota and Ramakuppam – with a total population of 281 500 (in the year 2007) in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh state. The first three proximal mandals were located at a mean distance of 15 km and the last two distal mandals were at a mean distance of 50 km away from Palamaner, the main town. Estimated annual number of births and deaths were 5320 and 2055 respectively, based on crude birth and death rates of 18.9 and 7.3 per 1000 respectively.5

System components

The duration of the programme was 12 months (September 2007–August 2008). Fig. 1 summarizes the existing process of vital event registration, the various interventions3,4 and the consequent learning points for improving civil registration in India.6,7 These interventions targeted both the “supply-side” (civil registration and vital statistics by the government) and the “demand-side” (service utilization by the community) with the objective of achieving target rates of 75% for birth registration and 50% for death registration.

Fig. 1. Conceptual framework of systems approach to strengthening of different elements of vital event registration in Andhra Pradesh state, India, 2007–08a
Fig. 1. Conceptual framework of systems approach to strengthening of different elements of vital event registration in Andhra Pradesh state, India, 2007–08<sup>a</sup>
Mandal, sub-district administrative region with population of approximately 50 000.a Interventions to improve registration are shown outside the outline box in anti-clockwise direction. Household-level interventions (in boxes 1, 2 and 3), government-related interventions (in boxes 4, 5, 6 and 7) and hospital-level interventions (in box 8). b Thalari and village revenue officers are personnel in charge of registration at village-level; Mandal revenue officers and assistant statistical officers are personnel in charge at mandal-level.

Supply-side interventions

The nongovernmental organization (St John’s Research Institute, Bangalore, India) fostered partnerships with local government departments including revenue, social welfare, health and education.8

Awareness workshops on registration procedures were held at each mandal, chaired by the mandal revenue officer/assistant statistical officer.

Data management mechanisms were set up between the government and project staff to share information on vital events in the project area. Discussions were held with public and private hospitals for transmission of data on births and deaths to the government. Procedures were also established to evaluate project outcomes using evidence of birth and death registration.

Demand-side interventions

Publicity campaigns were conducted to improve awareness in the community using various media such as pamphlets, audio announcements via village drummer and recorded messages, and brief jingles on local cable television.

The project staff visited households to inform them of the juridical and statistical benefits of vital event registration.9 Juridical benefits include establishing nationality, legal rights, ration card/identity card/passport, access to education, welfare schemes and utility services. Registration also has the statistical purpose of enabling measurement and monitoring of the health status of the population.

This education was subsequently followed by encouragement for registration. Overall, 78% (3322/4259) of families were encouraged successfully to proceed with birth registration. It was significantly higher in rural (80%) than urban areas (70%) (P < 0.005) and in proximal (82%) than distal mandals (74%) (P < 0.005); it did not vary by sex of baby (P = 0.68) or place of delivery (institutional vs home) (P = 0.51). Encouragement for death registration was successfully carried out in 63% (857/1361) of households. It was significantly higher in urban (70%) than rural areas (61%) (P = 0.01); it did not vary by sex of deceased (P = 0.78), age at death (P = 0.53), place of death (P = 0.83) or location of mandals (P = 0.46). Key reasons for lack of success were non-availability of families due to migration or conflicting work schedules in urban areas and women relocating to their mothers’ houses to give birth.

The identification of vital events was done by about 400 local lay-informants who were paid a small honorarium for reporting to project staff within 2–3 days of the event. Households were advised on how and where to register within 14 days after births and within 7 days after deaths (Fig. 1).

Lessons learnt

Processes

Awareness work with managerial staff from local government departments was important because of their involvement in various registration activities. However, there was a lack of clarity on their roles and responsibilities. While the state authorizes the village revenue officer to issue certificates, these were often issued only at the mandal level, necessitating unnecessary travel to collect certificates. These workshops helped to partially decentralize registration to the village level.

In advocacy meetings, there was low participation of private medical practitioners and very few medical officers or health officials among the health workers from the government sector. Separate advocacy meetings with private clinics resulted in increased birth registration, less so with death registration.

Active surveillance by lay-informants yielded a large number of events that would not have been picked up by the short-staffed government system. Death registration levels were especially low at extremes of age (i.e. among children and the elderly). Although certificates were supposed to be free, some households reported incurring expenses either because of multiple visits or because of unofficial payments to collect the certificate.

A lack of computerization/training was an impediment to efficient dataflow and feedback. The involvement of personnel from different departments led to “blame-shifting “. Furthermore, due to the lack of a unique identification system in India, there was also the possibility of duplicate registration of events, especially among women giving birth at their mothers’ homes.

Outputs

During the programme, 80% of births and 61% of deaths were registered, as compared with pre-intervention rates of 50% of births and 25% of deaths.3 While birth registration rose from 50% to over 80% in about 4 months after the start of the programme, death registration reached a peak 3 months later. Registration rates for both births and deaths were higher in households that received the intervention; these differences were statistically significant for all determinants (P < 0.01). Registration of births was significantly associated with residence (urban > rural; P < 0.01), place of delivery (institutional > home; P < 0.001) and location of mandal (proximal > distal; P < 0.01); it did not vary by sex of baby (P > 0.05). Further, encouragement and guidance for registration tended to narrow the male–female gap, urban–rural gap and the proximal–distal mandal gap. Similarly, registration of deaths was associated with sex (males > females; P < 0.01), age (middle-age > extremes of age; P < 0.01), residence (urban > rural; P < 0.01) and location of mandal (proximal > distal; P < 0.01); it did not vary by place of death (P > 0.05). Multivariate logistic regression analysis yielded similar results.

Discussion

Vital statistics are inextricably linked to health and development outcomes;10 and the social advantage linked to vital event registration could vary by key equity stratifiers – socioeconomic status, gender and geography.10,11 Before the intervention, gender was linked to both birth and death registration. Place of delivery is a proxy for socioeconomic status given that < 10% of Indians have access to health insurance.12 Geographic considerations such as urban/rural residence and location of the subdistrict could affect event registration either as a logistic issue (by way of distance, topography or transport difficulties) or as a political issue (by way of resource allocation or discrimination).11

In addition to the supply-side interventions, the unique outreach strategy of combining education/guidance of the public with active surveillance increased birth registration substantially and death registration modestly in this rural area. Though assessing cost-effectiveness of this initiative was not a specific objective, crude estimates of costs incurred totalled about 2 Indian rupees (US$ 0.05) per person which is considered cost-effective for a vital events surveillance system by the Disease Control Priorities Project for developing countries.13 Note these costs were in addition to the existing vital registration system.

Key lessons learnt should enable targeted interventions that are sustainable and cost-effective. For example, community campaigns, strengthening collaboration between government departments, capacity building of health staff, holding intensive mobile registration drives to target priority areas such as rural home deliveries and deaths of children and elderly people.

Corruption in the issue of certificates was a recurrent problem. Though it might have reduced to some extent by a more efficient registration system during the intervention period, it was still reported by citizens. A new mother-and-child tracking system was expected to reduce problems due to migration, duplication and others.

Key limitations of the programme included difficulty determining the contribution each intervention made towards improving registration, as well as uncertainty about sustaining registration at high levels in the long-term. Further, it is possible that those who did not receive the household intervention were a biased group whose unmeasured characteristics were likely to be confounded with their choices to register. Lastly, the focus and intensity of the intervention itself could have caused favourable outcomes (Hawthorne effect or observation bias).

The Commission on the Social Determinants of Health has identified that further strengthening is needed on the evidence base on the social determinants of health and what works to improve them.10 This initiative aims, in part, to fulfil a gap in understanding vital registration through identification of problems and provision of solutions with consequent improvements in birth/death registration as evidence. Identifying variations in event registration by local equity stratifiers could help improve the targeting of services. Civil society plays an important role in supporting public participation, providing feedback on which to base improvements to the system, and intervention efforts for increasing registration. It could also help increase accountability within the civil registration system.14,15

In summary, coordinated efforts at the local level by voluntary organizations, government and the general public can improve birth and death registration in developing countries. Lessons learnt at the local level can then be used to identify scalable solutions at a regional or national level (Box 1).

Box 1. Summary of main lessons learnt

  • Voluntary organizations can facilitate government–society interaction and help increase local vital event registration.
  • Multi-level interventions – at the community, government and household-level – were effective.
  • Equity stratifiers such as gender, socioeconomic status and geography affect vital event registration rates in communities; there may be a need to target services to those who need it the most.

Funding:

This study received partial financial support from the Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Mumbai, India.

Competing interests:

None declared.

References

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