WHILE uncertainty hangs over Assam’s newly declared final National Register of Citizens (NRC), for the past eight months, work has been on at a steady pace to build what would be the state’s first exclusive detention centre to house people declared as ‘illegal foreigners’ — a category into which people out of the list who don’t find reprieve at Foreigners’ Tribunals would eventually fall.
On 20 bighas of land in Matia in Goalpara district, nestled between farmland and forest, at least 15 contractors and 450-500 labourers are at work to build the centre at a budget of over Rs 46 crore, with a capacity to house “up to 3,000 illegal foreigners”. Construction began last December and is expected to be completed by this year end. The facility will be enclosed within two walls, the first one 6-ft high and the second 20 ft.
In a reply in the Assembly in July, the Assam government had said it had sent a proposal for 10 such new facilities to the Centre, and was waiting for a response.
Assam currently has six detention centres to hold ‘illegal foreigners’, but these are all located inside jails. Together they house 1,000-odd detainees, in conditions which have been deplored by activists. As per a state government reply in the Assembly, FTs declared 1.03 lakh people foreigners between 1985 and August 2018. This number is expected to swell now after the final NRC.
The detention centre at Matia, around 150 km from Guwahati, is being built as per guidelines laid down by the Centre and circulated in January 2019. A senior Assam government officer, who refused to be named, said, “The guidelines mention numerous points like a facility having a space to play, a school, etc. All that is being followed.”
Talking about the “guidelines” in the Rajya Sabha on July 24, Union Minister of State for Home, Nityanand Rai, had said, “With a view to formalise the setting up of detention/holding centres in States/U.T.s for restricting the movement of illegal immigrants/foreign nationals awaiting deportation, the Government has prepared a Model Detention Centre Manual… The Manual covers amenities to be provided… for the inmates to maintain standards of living in consonance with basic human needs. This includes amenities like electricity, drinking water, toilets/baths with running water, communication facilities, provision for kitchen.”
As per the manual, members of the same family would be kept at the same centre, there would be segregated accommodation for male and female detainees, as well as special facilities for nursing mothers.
A K Jha, Chairman and Managing Director of the Assam Police Housing Corporation, which is executing the construction, told
The Sunday Express, “Construction is going on in full swing. We are trying level best to meet the target deadline.”
Rabindra Kumar Das, a junior engineer at the Matia construction site, said the detention centre plan includes a primary school, a hospital, and a separate water supply system with a capacity of over 50,000 litres. “For detainees, there will be 15 four-storey buildings… The construction would have been almost complete if it had not rained. We are aiming now for the end of this year.”
Apart from detention centres, the Assam government is trying to ready 200 new FTs to meet the post-NRC rush, to add to the existing 100 tribunals. The locations of the new tribunals have been decided, in either existing government establishments or newly hired ones. The panel of 221 to be appointed as Members at these FTs will undergo training till the appeal processes start.
Assam’s Commissioner and Secretary (Home and Political) Department Ashutosh Agnihotri said, “We are ready with the system and infrastructure for the filing of appeals. However, appeals can only be filed after the NRC authorities issue exclusion/rejection orders.” The NRC hasn’t specified when the excluded people would receive the rejection orders.
Ruing “the lack of data from the NRC office”, an officer said, “We do not know the district or circle-wise break up of the excluded people. Thus, we do not know in which district or circle of a district we should perhaps put two instead of one new FT.”
A few metres down from the Matia detention facility itself, lies a refugee settlement. It houses Bengali Hindus, and Hajongs and Dalus, whose ancestors had fled from then East Pakistan in the 1960s.
Pratima Biswas, 30, a Bengali, was among the 19 lakh people not in the NRC released on August 31, though her parents, siblings, three children and husband, who works as a daily wager, are in. Her neighbour Saraswati Hajong, 36, is also out, unlike her two sisters, husband, mother-in-law and two sons.
Says Biswas, with a wry smile, “We women often joke amongst ourselves that we might be one day be taken to the detention camp next door… We have to fight our case at an FT now, and fight we will. How dare they call us bideshis (foreigners)?”