Prateek Hajela speaks about NRC – Accomplishments So Far & Challenges Ahead

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Prateek Hajela speaks about NRC – Accomplishments So Far & Challenges Ahead

Rahul Chanda | January 18, 2018 15:24 hrs

With the update of the NRC still on at a hectic pace, coordinator Prateek Hajela speaks exclusively to G Plus about the challenges ahead and the enormous work yet to be accomplished for the final list 

What are the challenges you faced since you became the National Register of Citizens (NRC) Coordinator in 2013 till the publication of the first draft list?

NRC has been an unprecedented activity; it has never happened anywhere else. There was no model which was available to follow and we had to create our own model. The only experience which was there was a failed pilot attempt at Barpeta and Chaygaon undertaken in 2010. It ended within a few weeks of the programme’s commencement. The NRC in 1951 was again just a reproduction of the census records; there was no citizenship check done then. Moreover, the exercise in Assam is very different from the rest of the country. The rule 4A {Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003} under which we work in Assam is different. In the rest of the country, officers go house-to-house to enumerate. In Assam, people have to apply.

We thought about the mechanism which will be implemented. I created that mechanism. Then I thought out what the process will be. The first game changer was the development of the legacy data where the applicant will have to submit the 1951 NRC or pre-1971 electoral roll which they would search for. But searching manually could never happen, so digitising it along with the images was a very important aspect. Making it unified for the entire state was important because since 1951, 1966 and 1971, a lot of movement among the people had taken place between the states. So unifying it and making it searchable in English (otherwise all the data was in Assamese) was a big game changer. Without that I couldn’t have been able to start the process.

I had to build a strong force which would grow as we grew forward, which would handle all the challenges as we can’t have a system where we could know what challenges we would face. So I created a manpower system similar to the missions. I created a state project management unit here where you have sector-based expertise, HR (human resource), media, MIS (management information system) and project management. Similar to the missions like NHM (National Health Mission) and SSA (Sarba Siksha Abhijan), we put in subject matter specialists. We also took IT (information technology) consultants from NISG (National Institute of Smart Government) which is promoted by the Department of IT, Government of India. We then recruited our district project management units. We created a system where the implementation mechanism is similar to the mission mode schemes in the government. All these missions were developed in Delhi and had examples of earlier work. But we had to create everything from the scratch. I had to create finance, accounts, procurement. I recruited 5 persons initially which happened in mid-2014 which was increased to 15 by the latter half of 2014. Thereafter, from Assam Institute of Management we recruited our district and circle staff. So eventually, I reached the strength of around 500 to 600. By the early part of 2015 I had a strength of around 1,000 people. Then I took the system integrator through competitive bidding and tendering process and I took another 7,000 people to handle tasks at different NSKs (nagrik seva kendras). In the meantime we were having capacity building of the existing governmental staff so that they could handle our work. By 2015, we had a workforce of around 15,000 people. So putting in place the administrative machinery and the workforce which could handle any kind of challenge coming our way was the first thing which we did. Till 2015 we were forming our base; from 1st September 2015 we started our verification process.

You also held other portfolios along with the responsibility of the NRC coordinator; did you get time to work on the other responsibilities?

I was home commissioner and was involved with a few other responsibilities also. For example, towards the end of 2013, there were the NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland) killings. I handled that for some time. I also handled the Guwahati floods, the worst floods which happened in 2014. I was appointed the special commissioner for emergency operations and that was the time I made a relief camp on the bridge over Bharalu at Bhangagarh. Through home department I carried out constable recruitments for over 5,000 people. I received the chief minister’s award for transparency. There are other things also that I did but from mid-2015 I have concentrated only on NRC.

The first draft list has been published with only 1.9 crore names whereas the Supreme Court wanted the full list of applicants. Doesn’t this fall short of the expectations of the Supreme Court?

Whatever expectations the Supreme Court had I will explain that to the court. If I explain to the public people will start having a lot of speculations. The thing is that there are certain submissions I made before the court and whatever submissions beyond this, as far as numbers are concerned, I will make before the court only.

Did you inform the Supreme Court earlier that names of only 1.9 crores will come out in the first draft list?

How many get qualified and how many don’t is something which cannot be told beforehand. Those names which are not there are still under verification because till the time the complete draft is not published it is not legal to say that those who are not there are doubtful or they are ineligible.

Many state governments are not responding to your verification requests. Topping the list is West Bengal. If they do not reply to the verifications you have asked for, what will you do?

The documents which have been sent to the other states are just 5.5 lakhs which is not even 1% of the 6 crore documents that we have verified in the state. If we look at it from that aspect the number is very small. I had also informed this to the Supreme Court once and it had issued very strong orders. Thereafter, the states started responding. I will again inform the SC and we will try to get the results back for as many persons as possible.

Which are the other states which responded poorly?

The states neighbouring Assam are the ones whose documents have been submitted in large numbers by the public. They are the ones who have large numbers but otherwise documents were submitted from all the states of the country. 402 documents have come from other countries as well. Those which have been submitted by the public relating to the neighbouring states are higher.

There are many central government issuing authorities in and outside Guwahati who did not respond to verification requests. Are you sending them reminders?

We are pursuing matters with them and trying to get the results back from most of them. We are sending them reminders and we are also sending our officers to expedite.

There are many well-established Guwahatians who submitted documents belonging to offices in Guwahati. Even their names did not figure in the first list.

Even if you look at SEBA (Secondary Education Board of Assam) as an example, it had more than 29 lakh documents. If you give one admit card of 1987, we send it to SEBA.  They have the centre of this admit card.  Similarly, they have many backhand records which are kept in a large number of almirahs in a large number of halls. They have to go there and match it one by one and then verify. Within Guwahati or outside Guwahati is not of major consequence. You send a document to a hospital which is located at Nalbari which has only a small number of documents that it has issued. So, they will not take much time, but Gauhati Medical College & Hospitals (GMCH) will have a heavy role. So from where you submitted the document is not a big point. Now, as 31st December became the cut-off, those which I could complete till then and entered into my computer I could publish. It is a cut-off based on time and not on quantum of works.

Verification for panchayat documents as link documents is yet to be done. You have initiated 38 lakh cases of investigation on December 1. Will this not be very time consuming given the scant resources at your disposal?

It is there in the Supreme Court order that you complete it with deployment of additional resources. So we have deployed additional resources; we are trying to use the resources in a better manner and we will ensure that they are completed as soon as possible without compromising on the quality. The house-to-house verification works will be completed very shortly. We will be able to complete all these within this month itself. The verification will be done by our own officers taken from different departments.

Don’t you think a lot of applicants who have applied with the panchayat documents will be left out of NRC? What is your estimate?

Right now there are 29 lakh such persons and their cases have been kept pending. Their cases will be verified based on the judgement which the Supreme Court has given on 5th December. First we have to complete the court’s directive to complete the 38 lakh cases. Only after that I will be able to take those cases.

The verification teams visit households to verify and take decisions; can’t they be biased or bribed?

It is a considered opinion of the officers concerned. It cannot be a straight-jacketed formula. A certain amount of considered opinion of officers is essential for an exercise like this because the statutes require the officers to have their considered opinion and they have to apply their mind.  But you should not have unbridled discretion. So unbridled discretion has been reduced by bringing into place standardised formats - like what are the questions that will be asked, how the answers will be recorded. Every person is given a copy of whatever particulars which will have to be verified. So, the public also has a copy of it. In all these there is a supervisory mechanism which has been built in so the teams that go house-to-house give their findings. Then the senior officers also go through this and only then the final decision is taken. So, it is a multi-layered mechanism which does provide for quality checks.  

The Supreme Court will decide the timeframe on February 20. But how much time will you claim? What is your estimate about the date of completion of NRC?

It is a very sensitive issue and so I will not reveal the estimates to anybody but the court. But one thing I can say is that at the shortest and as soon as possible is our motto, without compromising on the quality because for these 1.39 crore people who have been left out, it is our duty to dispose off their cases at our earliest.

The opposition is alleging that the NRC process will drag beyond 2019. Is it true?  

 It will get dragged as much as it is required physically to complete the process, not beyond that.

Update of the NRC will have to be a continuous process.  What are the future plans? Will there be a permanent NRC secretariat?

 Right now, because we are having 3.29 crore applicants, a huge establishment is required for this one-time work. Later on, continuous update will not require a very heavy work load. We can continue with a slimmer workforce where we can continue with a DC (Deputy Commissioner) circle officer system and I think that will suffice.

There are many people who did not apply for NRC for various reasons. What will happen to them?      

Maybe at the time of claims and objections we will try to accommodate those persons. As of now I cannot guarantee that; it is a possibility. Let’s hope for the best. They might get a chance to apply.

In spite of repeated reminders to the public not to panic if their names do not appear in the first list, people have been apprehensive and there were rallies across the state. Should the applicants just sit at home and wait for the next list or should they contact their local administration or the NRC authorities?

They just have to wait like they did before the 31st December publication. There is no requirement for them to visit anywhere or fill up any form. Whatever is required to be done we will do it. They have submitted their documents; now it is our responsibility to make sure that the names of all the genuine citizens are listed in the NRC. 

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