Making sense of Assam's NRC: A closer look at three factors that caused errors in register of citizens

  • The NRC was a unique and unprecedented exercise without a parallel in the world

  • So the task of compiling a list of citizens in Assam was bound to be complicated and controversial

  • Unlike other states in the country, the distinction between a citizen and a foreign national is blurred at many places in Assam

Barring foreign nationals who might have fraudulently enrolled their names in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, nobody is happy with the list published last month. Plans are in place for the government and stakeholders to submit fresh petitions in the Supreme Court to eradicate anomalies in the list.

The evaluation of the project initiated late in 2014 reveals loopholes and faulty decisions at multiple stages committed not only by the NRC secretariat tasked with the onerous exercise, but by different departments.

Briefly, so far, three factors that caused the errors in the register are discernible:

Unprecedented exercise, but no preparation

The NRC was a unique and unprecedented exercise without a parallel in the world. So the task of compiling a list of citizens in Assam was bound to be complicated and controversial. Unlike other states in the country, the distinction between a citizen and a foreign national is blurred at many places in Assam.

In some western districts, as many as three categories of Bengali Muslims can be found: The early settlers who began to settle during the 19th Century, the second category includes those who settled between 1947-71 and then there are those who migrated after the cut-off date of 24 March, 1971. Identifying the migrants, without victimising the citizens, would require multiple strategies and deft handling, including taking citizens, who have always borne the brunt of being called illegal migrants, into confidence.

To make matters worse, the legacy data comprising the 1951 NRC and electoral rolls till the cut-off date was confusing since individuals were not allocated unique codes. The same names were found to have surfaced at different places with documents carrying different spellings that could be attributed to different reasons, including migration from one district to another.

In addition, the pre-1971 legacy records had the names of over 44,000 villages since the concept of the unique revenue village code did not exist earlier — thus, making the task of compiling the register more complicated.

The government was not only unprepared, but it could not have envisaged that the project would necessitate the marshaling of huge resources. It should have realised that a project to create a central database of all categories of foreigners and D-Voters by linking the Election Commission, Foreigners Tribunals and Assam Border Police Organisation should have been completed ahead of the NRC. The project has been initiated only last year by the border police after being approved by Gauhati High Court.

 Making sense of Assams NRC: A closer look at three factors that caused errors in register of citizens

Representational image of an NRC Seva Kendra in Assam. Firstpost/Manash Das

Appalling role of MHA

The NRC was implemented by the Registrar General of India (RGI) which is under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The expenses of the project that engaged more than 50,000 government officials and 7,000 data entry operators were also borne by the ministry.

Early in 2016, in a series of meetings between the MHA and the Assam government, the latter proposed that the RGI ought to open an office temporarily in Guwahati for the supervision of the NRC. "But it was never accepted by the RGI. And it is not known why the suggestion was turned down," said Pallab Bhattacharya, who was then the additional director-general of the Assam Police in charge of the Special Branch.

It is also apparent that the MHA could not establish a system for the regular flow of funds for the exercise which was most apparent in the late payment of salaries to the data entry operators. Employees of Guwahati-based Integrated Systems and Services, which was tasked to recruit and pay salaries to the operators after an agreement with Wipro Limited, claimed that the disbursal of funds from the government was erratic.

"Our salary began at Rs 5,050 which was paid once every three months. What can you do with this meagre amount? We decided to accept the offer since we were unemployed," said Abdul Rashid who was engaged as a data entry operator with the NRC Seva Kendra at Goreswar near Guwahati. "After the media carried the news highlighting our conditions, we were strictly told not to speak to the media, [to] which we never agreed."

Excessive pressure from the Supreme Court

It cannot be denied that the NRC would never have been launched without the Supreme Court's intervention on the PIL filed by Guwahati-based NGO Assam Public Works (APW) in 2009. But a section of officials engaged in the exercise are unanimous in asserting that the 'deadlines' set by the Supreme Court were difficult to meet, which adversely impacted data compilation.

A circle officer in Baksa explained that the flaws in NRC could have been avoided if the deadline for completion had been set at four years instead of only one, as mandated at the outset. "There were multiple processes in a brief span for completing the exercise which only complicated the whole process. While some of us were able to comprehend the task assigned to us, many of my colleagues were confused," he said.

There were too many instances in the past four years for the Supreme Court to comprehend that the exercise would be fraught with complications. Last year in September, NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela submitted a voluminous report citing many examples how legacy data were deceptively utilised to claim citizenship. Several cases were detected through the family-tree mechanism, but many must have certainly passed the test to get their names listed in the register with fake documents. On 7 September, the police arrested Miraj Ali in Jagiroad who had managed to get his name enrolled in the NRC even after being declared a foreign national by a Foreigners' Tribunal six years ago. This episode also lends credence to widespread allegations that there was no software to detect such cases of fraud.

Then, in September 2017, the Supreme Court slammed a suo motu contempt notice against Aabhijeet Sharma, president of APW, for alleging a financial scam in the exercise. He had also lodged a complaint with the CBI alleging misappropriation of funds in the NRC. While the truth is yet to be unravelled, there were enough indications that a raw deal had been given to the data entry operators whose vital role in the NRC cannot be overemphasised.

Pranjal Das, a data entry operator recruited for the Seva Kendra at Dergaon, alleged that he was sacked for lodging a complaint against the working conditions and irregular payment of salaries. Subsequently, a section among them filed a complaint with the commissionerate of labour in Guwahati, which has been registered. However, Wipro Limited has dismissed the allegation that the data entry operators employed for the NRC were exploited.

All these episodes should have been a wake-up call for the Supreme Court.

Officials and observers pointed out that the apex court could have appointed a monitoring committee to oversee the entire process. Such a committee would certainly have submitted regular reports recommending measures for quality control primarily at the level of circle officers for elimination of errors and the need for transferring data entry operators and other officials to different districts to eradicate all possibilities of fraud in the register.

Updated Date: Sep 11, 2019 08:31:28 IST