It’s unusual in India to discuss any issue related to the Supreme Court (SC) in public domain. But a recent controversy, where the country’s apex court had seemingly an indirect involvement, tempted the conscious people to raise the question, how as many as 6000 workers remain underpaid (below the prescribed monthly wags) even though the particular exercise was ‘monitored’ by the highest court in the world's largest democracy. The legitimate query would be where now those young part time 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 (established under Article 148 of the Constitution of India), detected massive financial anomalies involving millions of Indian Rupees in the process of National Register of Citizens (NRC) updation for Assam in northeast India. The country’s supreme audit institution in its report ending 31 March 2020 (which was recently placed in Assam State legislative assembly for discussion) recommended legal actions against the former State NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela and the system integrator (the country’s most acclaimed Wipro limited).
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. 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 core one was done. Finally, the CAG report claimed that the intended objective of preparing an error-free NRC was not fulfilled.
But the Union government in New Delhi had to spend Rs 15,790 million (around Rs 81 = USD 1) and around 50,000 government servants were also engaged for over four years in the process, understandably performed under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court (where the State government in Dispur had the responsibility to provide logistic support only). But confusions surfaced, how around 6000 part time data entry operators (DEOs) were paid lower than the country’s prescribed monthly salaries in the exercise under monitorship of a SC bench comprising the then CJI Ranjan Gogoi.
CAG has identified the flaws and documented that the system integrator (Wipro) 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 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 of wages allowed 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 up 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 enroll the names of all genuine Indian citizens (or their ancestors) residing in Assam 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 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 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 on the acceptability of Assam NRC (as it followed 1971 as the base year).
Mentionable is that Hajela's immediate successor Hitesh Devsarma filed two official complaints (one with the criminal investigation department of Assam Police and other with the CM’s vigilance and anti-corruption wing) alleging corruption and money laundering by his predecessor (Hajela). Devsarma before his retirement as the State NRC coordinator also named some other officials and outside people suspected to be involved in the scam. Later in various public discourses, Devsarma claimed that the NRC draft has included thousands of illegal migrants’ names thanks to the tempered software.
He argued that the faulty software was used to make it possible for including the doubtful citizens in the list that ignored the ‘family tree match scanning’ practices. Hence Devsarma demanded that the intention must be probed as a serious crime under anti-national activities. He strongly claimed that Hajela intentionally ordered the concerned party to design the software with no facility of quality checking. Not only from Devsarma, Hajela is also facing a number of FIRs from different organizations including Assam Public Works (APW), which too demanded a thorough probe against the IAS officer, presently posted in Madhya Pradesh.
Aabhijeet Sarma, president of APW (key petitioner in the NRC case) also lodged a police complaint against Wipro citing a 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, who is otherwise recognized as a philanthropic entrepreneur of the country.
APW chief Sarma even expressed annoyance against the then SC chief justice Gogoi while commenting, “In 2017, we publicly stated that the DEOs were deprived of their minimum monthly payments. Many DEOs approached the State labour commissioner and some came to the street demanding their legal dues. Shockingly, CJI Gogoi took offence at us for disclosing the corruption of Hajela and rebuked me following which I had to submit a prayer of apology in the court. If the issue was thoroughly probed at that time, it would have been resolved to a greater extent.”
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. AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya promptly described those involved in the NRC scam as enemies to the indigenous population. Speaking to a number of local media outlets, Bhattacharya asserted that the people of Assam would never forgive those corrupt elements. Demanding exemplary punishments to them, the AASU leader reiterated that Assam must have an error-free NRC.
Nonetheless, the concerned section of people expects 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. State chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has already assured appropriate actions against those involved in the irregularities. It may also be logical for him to take necessary initiative to erase any negative impression created against the SC for not adhering to the country’s minimum wages act while offering salaries to thousands of DEOs (by a few journalists turned sub-contractors) in the State.