Assam NRC: Plaint registered against Hajela, Wipro and ISS

Prateek Hajela, former State coordinator of NRC, along with Indian IT firm, Wipro Ltd and ISS have been sued by well-known Assamese businessman Luit Kumar Barman for their roles in Rs 155-cr money laundering case during NRC Assam updation process, writes Nava Thakuria

After a number of FIRs for alleged involvement with National Register of Citizens (NRC) updation scam in Assam, much talked about Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer  Prateek Hajela now faces a case registered in the Kamrup (metro) chief judicial magistrate’s court (CR/155/2023, 12 April 2023). The former State coordinator of NRC along with Wipro Limited and Integrated System and Services (ISS, represented by proprietor Utpal Hazarika) have been sued by well-known Assamese businessman, film maker and a vivid social media user Luit Kumar Barman for their roles in Rs 155-crore money laundering case during the NRC Assam updation process (May 2014 to October 2019).

The 1995-batch IAS officer of Assam-Meghalaya cadre was lately relieved by Madhya Pradesh government from assigned responsibilities (where Hajela was in three years inter-State deputation since 2019 following an order of the Supreme Court of India assuming threats to Hajela’s life over NRC Assam fraud issues) and the IIT graduate-turned-bureaucrat is expected to return back to his original cadre. However, unauthenticated reports suggest that Hajela has already applied for voluntary retirement for his service as he is seemingly not interested to return back. However, many social media users opposed Hajela’s proposal citing it to be an escape route.

The complainant, who introduces himself as a concerned and vigilant Indian citizen against corruption, cited the recently released report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) on social, economic and general sectors for the fiscal year ending on 31 March 2020, where the issue of corruption involving a large amount of public money was mentioned. The CAG also recommended penal actions against Hajela and the system integrator (Wipro, an Indian IT company of international repute). Besides himself, Barman, in his complaint, introduced Hitesh Devsarma, IAS (retired), immediate successor of Hajela as NRC State coordinator, and Aabhijeet Sarma, president of Assam Public Works (APW), original petitioner in the apex court for NRC updation in Assam, as witnesses.

Both Devsarma and Sarma had lodged separate FIRs against Hajela in the last few months alleging financial mismanagements as well as intentional inclusion of illegal migrants’ names in the NRC. In two complaints (one with the criminal investigation department of Assam Police and other with the CM’s vigilance and anti-corruption wing), Devsarma alleged that a massive corruption had been done by his predecessor (Hajela) along with some officials and an outsider (named Pralay Seal). In various public discourses (including a number of television talk shows), Devsarma also claimed that the NRC supplementary list included thousands of illegal migrants’ names as the tempered software was intentionally used to defy family tree match scanning in the process.

Mentionable is that the CAG report clearly stated that due to lack of proper planning, hundreds of software utilities were added in a haphazard manner to the core one of NRC updation. Asserting that highly secure and reliable software was necessary for the exercise, but no due process like 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 primary one was done. The statutory audit body claimed that the intended objective of preparing an error-free NRC in Assam was not fulfilled, even though the NRC authority had to spend Rs 1,579 crore and around 50,000 government servants were used in the process.

Unfortunately, the NRC irregularity issue also involves the SC as a bench comprising the then CJI Ranjan Gogoi used to ‘monitor’ the particular exercise. Confusions surfaced, when around 6000 temporary workers were paid lower than the prescribed monthly salaries. Those contractual data entry operators, who were denied the minimum salary as per the country’s Minimum Wages Act, received only Rs 5,500 (to 9,100) per month (per person) during 2015-2019. But the NRC authority (read Government of India) sanctioned Rs 14,500 (to 17,500) every month for one DEO.

It’s alleged that Hajela, without any due process of transparent tendering, delivered the task of supplying DEOs to Wipro and it illegally engaged one sub-contractor (ISS, owned and managed by Hazarika). Thus an undue benefit to the tune of Rs 155.83 crore was given to the system integrator. Even the CAG report, which was tabled before the State legislative assembly for discussion, observed that the difference of margin was exorbitant after allowing Wipro 10% reasonable profit margin. Unsatisfied DEOs approached the State labour commissioner and even came to the street demanding their legal dues, but in vain.

The matter was discussed in both mainstream media and digital outlets a few months back highlighting the State government’s daily minimum wages for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers in various sectors, where it was directed that even an unskilled worker can legally claim Rs 240 per day (read Rs 7,200 per month), where the skilled one should get minimum Rs 350 per day (Rs 10,500 per month). Responsible individuals, while commenting over the matter, pointed out three television scribes as also being beneficiaries of money laundering in the NRC updation process. But those anchor-journalists have not responded to the allegations so far.

The NRC updation process began in December 2014 with an initial project cost of around Rs 288 crore 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 on 31 August, 2019. Because of the time overruns, the project cost escalated up to nearly Rs 1600 crore by March 2022. Though claimed by Hajela, the released NRC is yet to be notified by the Registrar General of India.

The NRC was supposed to enroll the names of all genuine Indian citizens (or their ancestors) residing in Assam prior to 25 March 1971, and the final draft 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 present-day Bangladesh. Rapid demographic changes had alerted the indigenous communities of Assam, which resulted in the anti-foreigner movement of the eighties.

The historic six-year long agitation, led by 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 SC by a civil society group (Motiur Rahman-led Sanmilita Maha Sangha). The expected SC verdict may also impact on the acceptability of Assam NRC (as it followed 1971 as the base year).

APW president Sarma, who lodged police complaints against Wipro (besides Hajela), also sent a letter to Azim Premji, chairperson of Wipro Technologies, informing him about the company’s unholy role in the NRC updation process. Lately, he urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene in the matter so that the guilty individuals are punished under the law. Pointing out that a large amount of money came from foreign countries to influence the system for incorporating thousands of Bangladeshi families’ names in the list, he argued that the Enforcement Department, Central Bureau of Investigation and National Investigation Agency should separately probe into the NRC scam.

Meanwhile, a large section of conscious Assamese individuals, civil society and political party representatives expressed concern over the development as they are not ready to accept the present fate of NRC. They still expect the culprits to be punished irrespective of their social standings and hope for a genuine NRC in Assam. State chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has assured appropriate actions against those involved in the irregularities and recently the saffron leader announced that the State government had already referred the case against Hajela to the directorate of economic offences.