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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Two years of Assam NRC: Lakhs make it to list, but struggle for Aadhaar

State government officials reckon it is a “unique problem” and attribute it to red tape and a lack of clarity on the NRC exercise itself.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: August 30, 2021 5:21:28 pm
About 8 lakh who gave biometrics waiting for Aadhaar. (File)

For 18 months now, Bhanu Upadhyay, a postdoctoral fellow at IIT Bombay, has been running around for an Aadhaar card. After many calls to toll-free numbers, e-mails, and visits to application centres, the Aadhaar application of the 33-year-old Nepali-origin resident of Assam is “still under process”.

Upadhyay, who hails from Abhongpathar, a remote village in Golaghat district, managed to work around the need for the unique identification number. “But it’s giving me sleepless nights now since I will be applying for jobs at central institutions which won’t accept my application without Aadhaar,” he says.

Upadhyay is not alone. Around eight lakh people who provided their biometrics, and also made it to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) published on August 31, 2019, are struggling to get Aadhaar, and worry about benefits linked to it. In all, 27 lakh people had registered their biometrics, but 19 lakh of these did not find their names in the NRC.

State government officials reckon it is a “unique problem” and attribute it to red tape and a lack of clarity on the NRC exercise itself. The state has highlighted the issue by writing to the Registrar General of India, but no action has been forthcoming so far.

At the heart of the problem is a November 2018 Supreme Court-approved Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). Under the SOP, those left out of the draft NRC list published on July 31, 2018, had to mandatorily submit their biometrics during the hearings of ‘claims’ (to include themselves in the NRC) and ‘objections’ (to object to someone else’s inclusion) process. These hearings were conducted in the run-up to the publication of the complete list on August 31, 2019.

“Once the final NRC has been published, such persons who are included in the NRC, will be given the usual Aadhaar number as applicable to legal residents in the country,” Clause 9 of the SOP stated. The clause was added as a security measure to keep track of the digital entity of those who may get excluded from the list, said officials involved in the drafting of the SOP.

The state’s Home and Political Department was made the registrar of this exercise with the UIDAI providing technical support. The biometric details of 27,43,396 were collected by the UIDAI during the process.

In March 2019, Upadhyay remembers flying to Guwahati — and driving to Sarupathar in Golaghat — for the hearing. While his mother had made it to the NRC, his father, his sister and he had not. “The officials told us that once the list is out, we would get our Aadhaar cards,” he says. On August 31, all three made it to the NRC. “I was glad the ordeal was over,” he said, but the Aadhaar ordeal had just begun.

The freeze in biometrics is linked to the fate of the NRC which, even after two years of publication, hangs in limbo: the Registrar General of India has not notified it, and the Supreme Court, which supervised the process from 2013, has not heard the matter since January 6, 2020. Both the BJP government and the state coordinator of NRC have not accepted it either, and are currently pushing for a “corrected” NRC.

“Nothing is happening right now,” admitted an official from the NRC office, requesting anonymity. Last year, H D Sarma, the NRC state coordinator, submitted an affidavit to the Gauhati High Court, referring to the August 31 list as a ‘supplementary’ list and seeking re-verification.

Sources in the NRC state coordinator’s office said the Supreme Court SOP clearly said Aadhaar will be given to those who are part of the “final NRC”. “But the NRC we have now is not final…so how can we share information on the applicant data — even if it is for an Aadhaar card? That will mean violating the SC order,” the official said.

At the UIDAI, Regional Office, Guwahati, officials told The Indian Express they cannot issue the Aadhaar numbers “till a clarification is received from RGI and the matter is communicated to UIDAI by Home and Political Department, Government of Assam.”

Kuldeep Pegu, Deputy Director, UIDAI, Regional Office, Guwahati, said in an email the NRC biometric enrolment had been kept on hold in accordance with the SOP guidelines. “Till a clarification is received from RGI and the matter is communicated to the UIDAI by Home and Political Department, Government of Assam, the Aadhaar number cannot be issued,” he said.

Since the publication of the NRC in August 2019, the offices of the NRC State Coordinator in Guwahati, the Home and Political Department in Dispur, and the UIDAI regional office in Guwahati have been flooded with letters from aggrieved citizens.

One among them is 22-year-old Bikash Singh, a Computer Applications graduate from Duliajan in Upper Assam. Unable to apply for jobs for the lack of an Aadhaar card, he has shot off multiple letters to the Prime Minister’s Office, RGI, Chief Minister’s Office and the UIDAI, Guwahati — but without luck.

“My brother, who is in the first year of college, has not been able to apply for scholarships. It is mental torture,” said Singh.

Then there is Mamtaz Begum, a housewife in Assam’s Baksa district, who has applied for Aadhaar seven times. Newly married Roshni Singh, a Bihari-origin resident of Assam, who is based in Mumbai, said she has not been able to open a bank account nor get a ration card.

On its part, the state government has been in touch with the Centre about the issue. In response to a question in the Assembly session in July, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the state had taken up the matter with the RGI and the Union Home Secretary.

The NRC office in Guwahati also wrote to the state’s Home and Political department thrice since March 2020 highlighting the “deprivations of the public”. In the latest letter, H D Sarma, the NRC coordinator, said: “…around 26 lakh applicants whose biometrics were captured during claims and objections phase are not able to obtain the Aadhaar card as the enrolment numbers have been blocked by the UIDAI as per para 9 of the SOP… government may like to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court seeking relaxation of para nine of the SOP so that applicants are able to avail the benefit of Aadhar card.”

In turn, officials at the Home and Political department have said they have written to the Union Home Secretary and RGI twice — in November 2020 and June 2021.

“RGI has not made their stance clear on the NRC yet… till they do not declare it as the final NRC, our hands are tied,” said an official from the Home and Political department. The Indian Express reached out to the RGI, but did not receive a response.

Caught in the middle are people like Upadhyay, Begum, and Bikash Singh. Bikash Singh recently formed a WhatsApp group ‘We Want Aadhaar’. “There are about 35 on it — everyone is facing some issue or the other…someone’s PF has stopped, someone else is not able to get a ration card. I don’t know how much it will help — but for now, at least we can vent,” he said.

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