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Assam citizenship updation process in limbo despite FIR against ex-NRC chief, Wipro

By Nava Thakuria* 

After a number of FIRs for alleged involvement with National Register of Citizens (NRC) updation scam in Assam, much talked about Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Prateek Hajela now faces a case registered in the Kamrup (metro) chief judicial magistrate’s court (CR/155/2023, 12 April 2023).
Former State coordinator of National Register of Citizens (NRC) along with Wipro Ltd and Integrated System and Services (ISS, represented by proprietor Utpal Hazarika) have been sued by well-known Assamese businessman, film maker and a vivid social media user Luit Kumar Barman for their roles in Rs 155 crores money laundering during the NRC Assam updation process (May 2014 to October 2019).
The 1995-batch IAS officer of Assam-Meghalaya cadre was lately relieved by Madhya Pradesh government from assigned responsibilities (where Hajela was in three years inter-State deputation since 2019 following an order of the Supreme Court of India assuming threats to Hajela’s life over NRC Assam fraudulent issues), and the IIT graduate turned bureaucrat is expected to return back to his original cadre.
However, reports suggest that Hajela has already applied for voluntary retirement for his service as he is seemingly not interested to return back. However, many social media users, opposing Hajela’s proposal, have said this is his escape route.
Complainant Barman, who claims to be a concerned and vigilant Indian citizen against alleged corruption, cited the recently released report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) on social, economic and general sectors for the fiscal year ending on 31 March 2020, where the issue of corruption involving a large amount of public money was mentioned. 
 CAG recommended penal actions against Hajela and the system integrator (Wipro, an Indian IT company of international repute). Besides Barman, complainants include Haleja's immediate successor of Hajela Hitesh Devsarma, IAS (retired), and Aabhijeet Sarma, president of Assam Public Works, both of whom are also the original petitioners in the Supreme Court for NRC updation in Assam as witnesses.
Hitesh Devsarma and Aabhijeet Sarma have lodged separate FIRs against Hajela alleging financial mismanagements as well as intentional inclusion of illegal migrants’ names in the NRC. In two complaints (one with the criminal investigation department of Assam Police and other with the CM’s vigilance and anti-corruption wing), Devsarma alleged a massive corruption was done by his predecessor (Hajela) along with some officials and an outsider (named Pralay Seal).
In various public discourses (including a number of television talk shows), Devsarma also claimed that the NRC supplementary list included thousands of illegal migrants’ names as the tempered software was intentionally used to defy family tree match scanning in the process.
The CAG report stated that due to lack of proper planning hundreds of software utilities were added in a haphazard manner to the core one of NRC updation. It asserted that highly secure and reliable software was necessary for the exercise. While developing the software, an addition of over 200 software utilities to the primary one was done, the statutory audit body claimed. This was the intended objective of preparing an error-free NRC in Assam.
The NRC authority had to spend Rs 1,579 crore and around 50,000 government servants were used in the process. But confusions surfaced, when around 6,000 temporary workers were paid lower than the prescribed monthly salaries. 
Those contractual data entry operators, who were denied the minimum salary as per the country’s Minimum Wages Act, received only Rs 5,500 (to 9,100) per month (per person) during 2015-2019. The NRC authority under the Government of India had sanctioned Rs 14,500 (to 17,500) every month for one staff member.
The allegation against Hajela is, without any due process of transparent tendering, delivered the task of supplying staff to Wipro, which engaged a sub-contractor (ISS, owned and managed by Hazarika). Thus an undue benefit to the tune of Rs 155.83 crore was given to the system integrator.
The CAG report, which was tabled before the State legislative assembly for discussion, observed that the difference of margin was exorbitant after allowing Wipro 10% reasonable profit margin. Dissatisfied staff working for Wipro approached the State labour commissioner demanding their legal dues but in vain.
The matter was discussed in both mainstream media and digital outlets a few months back highlighting the State government’s daily minimum wages for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers in various sectors, where it was directed that even an unskilled worker can legally claim Rs 240 per day (read Rs 7,200 per month), where the skilled one should get minimum Rs 350 per day (Rs 10,500 per month).
Critics, while commenting over the matter, pointed out three television scribes also being beneficiaries of the alleged money laundering in the NRC updation process. These scribes were sought to be named and shamed on social media.
The NRC updation process began in December 2014 with an initial project cost of around Rs 288 crore and was supposed to be completed within 14 months (by February 2015). But the timeline for the project went on lingering and the final draft was published on 31 August 2019. Because of the time overruns, the project cost escalated up to nearly Rs 1600 crore by March 2022. The released NRC is yet to be notified by the Registrar General of India.
The NRC was supposed to enroll the names of all genuine Indian citizens (or their ancestors) residing in Assam prior to 25 March 1971, and the final draft included a total of 3,11,21,004 citizens’ names out of 3,30,27,661 applicants (thus the final draft excluded around 19 lakh people as they could not provide valid documents). 
Assam, which had its first prepared NRC in 1951, used to face an influx of migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh. Rapid demographic changes had alerted the indigenous communities of Assam, which resulted in the anti-foreigner movement of the 1980s.
The six-year long agitation led by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Asom Gana Sangram Parishad culminated in 1985 after signing an accord in New Delhi. The agitating leaders agreed to accept all migrants prior to 25 March 1971 in Assam. Now, the cut-off date for Assam has been challenged in Supreme Court by a civil society group (Motiur Rahman-led Sanmilita Maha Sangha).
APW president Sarma, who lodged police complaints against Wipro (besides Hajela), also sent a letter to Azim Premji, chairperson of Wipro Technologies, informing him about the company’s role in the NRC updation process. He later urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene on the matter so that the guilty individuals are punished under the law. 
Pointing out that a large amount of money came from foreign countries to influence the system for incorporating thousands of Bangladeshi families’ names in the list, he argued that the Enforcement Department, Central Bureau of Investigation and National Investigation Agency should separately probe into the NRC scam.
Meanwhile, concern over the fate of NRC in Assam continues. Jumping in the controversy, State chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has assured appropriate actions against those involved in the irregularities, stating, State government has referred the case against Hajela to the directorate of economic offence.
---
*Senior journalist based in Guwahati

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