Assam headcount deadline nears, officials scramble

Lawyer helping applicants says 16 lakh-plus people may not be able to clear verification exercise ahead of the deadline ending December 31.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Jaleswar (goalpara) | Updated: December 13, 2017 7:46:08 am
An NRC verification exercise on in Guwahati. (Express photo: Dasarath Deka)

Hanifuddin Talukdar is a Junior Engineer with the Assam Panchayat and Rural Development Department, posted in the Jaleswar Development Block. But he has hardly been to his office in three months, since being designated Local Registrar of Citizen Registration (LRCR) of the NRC Sewa Kendra (NSK) here.

“Every day, till late in the evening, I am checking documents that the 3,206 households of the 12 revenue villages under me have submitted along with their applications for inclusion in the NRC (National Register of Citizens),” Talukdar says.

With little over a fortnight to go for the December 31 deadline set by the Supreme Court to publish a draft list of Assam’s citizens — intended to segregate Bangladeshi infiltrators — officials are in a desperate race against time.

For the list to be published by the deadline, it has to be ready by at least December 20. Approximately 2 crore cases are yet to be verified, which means at least 25 lakh cases need to be cleared every day. Currently, the average number of cases a verification team at an NRC Sewa Kendra (NSK) in Guwahati clears every day stands at 40-50. There are 2,500 NSKs across the state, each covering 10 to 15 villages; while each NSK, headed by an LRCR has four to six verification teams.

All 6,500-odd people involved in the exercise are staff drawn from different government departments, like during the Census operations and revision of electoral rolls. Each NSK also has at least two data-entry operators, provided by companies such as Wipro that are handling the computerisation part.

Talukdar says he has had no break since being designated LRCR. “We spent the second part of November writing the verification notices and then sorting them village-wise. And on December 1, after the Supreme Court cleared some doubts, we started issuing them.” Now he is verifying the papers filed by the respondents in reply, which the teams bring back at the end of every day.

Altogether, over 68.21 lakh families, comprising about 3.26 crore people, have submitted applications for inclusion in the ambitious exercise to list Assam’s citizens. Each application is attached with certificates ranging from the NRC of 1951 (the last time the exercise was conducted), and electoral rolls from 1952 to 1971, to birth certificates, school certificates, land documents and bank/post office accounts.

Verification teams must first visit every applicant family to serve them the notices, and then re-visit them for checking the papers. “Finding persons at their respective homes during daytime is difficult, especially in Guwahati city. We cannot leave the notice with a neighbour because the recipient has to sign a receipt of the notice. Even after the notice is duly served, the person concerned has to stay at home with the relevant documents when the verification team visits him or her again,” a field official points out.

Sometimes, officials struggle to trace families, who may have changed homes since submitting applications to be enrolled in the NRC (this was done in 2015), or even moved to another town. “Many have changed mobile numbers, making it difficult to even contact them,” an officer says. Only district magistrates and the State Coordinator of the NRC are designated to talk to the media.

Says Talukdar, the Jaleswar LRCR, “We do not have very doubtful cases in the present round. Most cases are about illegible photocopies, invalid documents, and certificates not issued by legal authorities. In certain cases, records may not be available at the source from where certificates were originally issued.” He also points out that getting a quality photocopy of a 60-year-old document is not very easy, as it may have turned brown or sepia over the decades.

Another officer, at an NSK in the Dispur Circle of Guwahati, says often residents do not entertain verification teams or refuse to accept the notice. “Persons we may serve notice to might see it is an insult to them. People have shouted at us and shut doors questioning how dare we serve a notice on families whose surnames are typically Assamese or ethically indigenous,” the official says.

State NRC Coordinator Prateek Hajela admits that not names of all applicants will make their way into the draft NRC by December 31. However, he assures that this is essentially a “draft”. “We are yet to start verification of two other groups of people totalling about 76 lakh. Genuine Indian citizens who don’t see their names in the draft NRC need not panic because we will include their names in another draft that we will publish once all the verifications are complete,” he said.

The 76 lakh not being considered for verification now include 47 lakh people in whose case doubts have arisen regarding their parental linkage, and 29 lakh (mostly married women) who submitted certificates issued by gaon panchayat secretaries as their verification papers. Now the Supreme Court has held that the panchayat papers can only be “illustrative” documents “for limited purpose”, “by no means proof of citizenship”, and must be backed by other documents.

The verification of these 76 lakh people will be done in January, once the draft NRC list is out.

Incidentally, while the authorities claim to have detected several thousand instances of manipulation of documents since 2015 — leading to over 300 arrests — no report of forged documents has come to notice in the current round so far, Hajela says.

Amam Wadud, a Guwahati-based lawyer who is helping people getting enrolled in the NRC, says that while he agrees that many cases may eventually get sorted out, the biggest problem might be faced by children belonging to Muslim families in rural areas who do not have birth certificates. “A birth certificate is a must, and the NRC does not accept age certificates issued by primary schools from which children may have dropped out of,” Wadud says.

The Indian Express reported about one such case on Monday, with the desperate father of a girl without a birth certificate committing suicide.

N H Majharbhuiya, another lawyer who has taken up the cause of minorities seeking enrolment in the NRC, fears that eventually about 5 per cent of applicants may not be able to clear the verification process.

That translates to 16.30 lakh people.

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