Prateek Hajela in trouble as court registers case against him
Former state NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela

The much talked about Indian Administration Service officer, who faces a number of FIRs in Assam for alleged involvement in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) updation scam in the State, was released on March 29, 2023, by the Madhya Pradesh government from the social justice department (also as the chief executive officer in Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Good Governance and Policy Analysis).

Prateek Hajela, a 1995-batch IAS officer, who was transferred to Madhya Pradesh in 2019 following an order of the Supreme Court (assuming threats to his life over NRC Assam fraudulent issues), is now bound to return to his original Assam-Meghalaya cadre. One official complaint against the former State NRC coordinator, lodged by his immediate successor Hitesh Devsarma, IAS, was even related to the anti-national 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 some other officials and outside people 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.

The issue also 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 now is where those young casual employees would go for justice (under the law of the land) against their exploitation!

The issue drew public attention instantly as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the statutory 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 in a haphazard manner 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.

Due 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.

But 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 had only the responsibility to provide logistic support. But confusion surfaced about how around 6,000 data entry operators (DEOs) were paid lower than the country’s prescribed monthly salaries in the exercise under the monitorship of a Supreme Court bench comprising the then CJI Ranjan Gogoi.

CAG has identified the flaws and documented that the 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 Wipro paid only Rs 5,500 (to 9,100) every month to each of them. Mentionable is that the Assam government in 2015 hiked the daily minimum wages for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers in various sectors, where it is directed that even an unskilled worker can legally claim Rs 240 per day (read Rs 7200 per month), where the skilled one employee should get minimum Rs 350 per day (Rs 10, 500 per month).

The difference in wages allowed the undue benefit of Rs 1,550 million to the system integrator and sub-contractors, asserted the CAG report. Wipro had the responsibility to supply DEOs, but its officials in Assam engaged many sub-contractors (including some Guwahati-based senior television journalists).

Moreover, a contract deviation resulting in an unauthorized expenditure of Rs 102 million for the evaluation of third-party monitoring consultants and an excess expenditure of Rs 17.8 million for the process management expense was detected. Temporary misappropriation of Rs 12 million against 128 additional generators, hardware and consumables were also identified.

For records, the NRC updation process began in December 2014 with an initial project cost of around Rs 2880 million and was supposed to be completed within 14 months (by February 2015). But the timeline for the project went on lingering and the final draft was published in August 2019 only. Because of the time overruns, the project cost escalated to nearly Rs 16 billion by March 2022. Though claimed by Hajela as the draft NRC was the final one (which was shamelessly propagated by a section of Guwahati scribes in their television talk shows as being the best one), it is yet to be officially notified by the Registrar General of India.

NRC, which was supposed to enrol the names of all genuine Indian citizens (or their ancestors) residing in Assam prior to 25 March 1971, including 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 present-day Bangladesh. Rapid demographic changes had alerted the indigenous communities of Assam, which resulted in the anti-foreigners movement of the Eighties.

The historic six-year-long agitation, led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Asom Gana Sangram Parishad, culminated in 1985 after signing an accord in New Delhi. Shockingly, the agitating leaders agreed to accept all migrants prior to 25 March 1971 in Assam, whereas the country as a whole maintains a different cut-off year (1951) for claiming Indian citizenship. Lately, the exclusive cut-off date for Assam has been challenged in the apex court by a civil society group (Matiur Rahman-led Sanmilita Maha Sangha). The concerned SC verdict may also impact the acceptability of Assam NRC (as it followed 1971 as the base year).

Speaking about the tempered software, Devsarma analysed 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 Devsarma, Hajela asked the concerned party to design the software with no facility for quality checking.

Besides Devsarma, Hajela is also facing FIRs from Assam Public Works (APW), a key petitioner in the NRC case before the SC. APW president Abhijeet 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 Guwahati-based journalist Biswajit Nath, but nothing had reportedly come from the office of Premji.

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Meanwhile, various organisations, civil society groups and political personalities of Assam expressed serious concern over the development as they could not accept the present fate of NRC after the CAG’s sensational revelation. They still expect a high-level probe into the NRC scam and irregularities with an aim to book the culprits under the laws irrespective of their social standings.

Lately, State chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma assured appropriate actions against those involved in the irregularities.

Also Read | What happens after the CAG detects a scam in NRC updation?

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