The officer from the Mariani Forest Range, along with his team, faced a dire situation late when they confronted a herd of wild elephants that had gone berserk.
The much talked about senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, Prateek Hajela, from Assam, who faced several FIRs for alleged involvement with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) updation scam in the state (also the chief executive officer in Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of good governance and policy analysis), was recently released by the Madhya Pradesh government from the social justice department paving the way for his return journey.
The question now arises, will his return make some Guwahati-based journalists also accountable for their involvement in the multimillion rupees NRC scam? Hajela, a 1995-batch brilliant IAS officer, who was transferred to his native central Indian state in 2019 following an order of the Supreme Court (assuming threats to his life over NRC Assam fraudulent issues), is expected to return to his original Assam-Meghalaya cadre in northeast India.
One official complaint against the former state NRC coordinator, lodged by his immediate successor Hitesh Devsarma, was even related to the sedition charge.
Devsarma filed two complaints, (one with the criminal investigation department of Assam Police and the other with the CM’s vigilance and anti-corruption wing) alleging corruption and money laundering by his predecessor (Hajela). Before his retirement, Devsarma in his complaints also named a few other officials and outside people (one named Pralay Seal) suspected to be involved in the scam.
Later in various public discourses, he claimed that the NRC final draft (released in August 2019) included thousands of illegal migrant families’ names, thanks to the tempered software used in the process.
The NRC irregularity issue indirectly involved the Supreme Court of India as the apex court understandably monitored the particular exercise. But shockingly, as many as 6000 temporary workers in the process remain underpaid (below the prescribed monthly wags) to date.
The legitimate query, one may ask, is where those young casual employees would go for justice (under the laws of the land) against their exploitation! The issue drew immediate public attention when the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the statutory national auditor, detected massive financial anomalies involving millions of rupees in the NRC updation exercise.
The CAG in its report, ending 31 March 2020 (which was also placed in Assam State legislative assembly for discussions), recommended legal actions against Hajela and the system integrator (Wipro Limited). The CAG report clearly stated that due to a lack of proper planning hundreds of software utilities were added haphazardly to the core one. Asserting that highly secure and reliable software was necessary for the exercise, but no due process like the selection of vendors following a national tender was followed.
Owing to the lack of proper planning, while developing the important software, a haphazard addition of over 200 software utilities to the core one was done. Finally, the CAG report claimed that the intended objective of preparing an error-free NRC was not fulfilled.
However, the NRC authority had to spend Rs 15,790 million and around 50,000 government servants were also engaged for over four years in the process, where the state government only had the responsibility to provide logistic support. But confusion surfaced, about how around 6000 data entry operators (DEOs) were paid lower than the country’s prescribed monthly salaries in the exercise (under the monitorship of an SC bench comprising the then CJI Ranjan Gogoi).
The country’s supreme audit institution identified the flaws and documented that the much-acclaimed Wipro Limited paid less than the country’s minimum wages to DEOs.
The NRC authority sanctioned Rs 14,500 (to 17,500) per DEO per month, but each of them received only Rs 5,500 (to 9,100) every month. Even though the system integrator (Wipro) had the responsibility to arrange DEOs, its officials in Assam whimsically engaged many sub-contractors.
The difference in wages allowed the undue benefit of Rs 1,550 million to the system integrator and sub-contractors, asserted the CAG report. The issue of the NRC updation scam was widely discussed in both the mainstream media (newspapers & news channels) and digital outlets.
Responsible individuals and experienced journalists highlighted the issue on social media and even pointed out three senior scribes of satellite news channels who were the beneficiaries of money laundering in the NRC updation process.
But surprisingly, those named and shamed television anchor-journalists did not respond to the allegations on social media (they are still not doing so).
The NRC updation process began in December 2014 with an initial project cost of around Rs 2,880 million and was supposed to be completed within 14 months. But the timeline for the project went on lingering and the final draft was published only in August 2019. Because of the time overruns, the project cost escalated to nearly Rs 16 billion by March 2022.
Though claimed by Hajela (and shamelessly propagated by a few television anchors as being the best one), the released NRC is yet to be notified by the Registrar General of India. NRC Assam, which was supposed to enrol the names of all genuine Indian citizens (or their ancestors) residing in the state prior to 25 March 1971 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 presentday Bangladesh.
Rapid demographic changes had alerted the indigenous communities of Assam, which resulted in the anti-foreigner movement of the Eighties. Devsarma, while speaking about the tempered software, claimed that it was intentionally put in place to include doubtful citizens in the list ignoring the ‘family tree match scanning’ practices. Hence he demanded that it must be probed as a serious crime under anti-national activities.
According to him, Hajela asked the concerned party to design the software with no facility for quality checking. Hajela is also facing FIRs from Assam Public Works (APW), a key petitioner in the NRC case before the SC. APW president Abhijit Sarma also lodged a police complaint against Wipro Limited citing massive corruption in the NRC updating process. He even sent a letter to Azim Premji, chairperson of Wipro Technologies, informing him of the company’s role in the process during 2015-2019.
Another letter was sent by independent journalist Biswajit Nath, but nothing had reportedly come from the office of Premji. Lately, the civil society organisation urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his intervention in the matter so that the guilty individuals got adequate punishments under the law. In an official letter (dated 5th April 2023), the organisation demanded that the Enforcement Department should inquire about the corruption involved in the NRC scam.
The APW letter also suggested that the NRC is a national security issue and suspected money came from some foreign countries to include Bangladeshi nationals’ names in the list, the exercise should be probed by both the Central Bureau of Investigation and the National Investigation Agency.
(The writer is a Guwahati-based Special Representative of The Statesman)