Assam home department passes the buck over collection of biometric data as 15 December deadline approaches

Rajeev Bhattacharyya
Officials at the NRC secretariat are in no doubt that the home department is “passing the buck” since it had failed to begin the exercise in time.

Collection of biometric details of people left out of the NRC in Assam which the government had committed in the standard operating procedure (SOP) is yet to commence although the filing of claims and objections would be over on 15 December.

Clause 9 of the SOP says that the exercise would be conducted by the state government in collaboration with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the agency tasked with implementing the Aadhaar project. The onus is on the state home department to conduct the exercise but it has not initiated the process so far on the alibi that guidelines have not been framed by the NRC secretariat.

"The guidelines (from NRC secretariat) have to come first. The SOP does not say when the biometric details have to be collected," said LS Changsan, principal secretary in the Assam home department. "It will be done during the final disposal of claims and objections."

It is not yet certain when the final disposal of claims and objections would begin. So far only 8.1 lakh people have filed claims and inclusion of 230 names have been objected to which have belied the expectation of the government and civil society groups in the state. Lack of awareness is the prime reason cited for the low turnout.

Some officials said that an affidavit would be placed before the Supreme Court asking for an extension of the deadline for claims and objections. The home department would be able to create the infrastructure for collecting biometric details only if the court accepts the plea for extension of the deadline.

The first draft of the NRC for Assam was published on the intervening night of 31 December and 1 January as per the apex court's direction. The names of as many as 40,70,707 people have been deleted from the list. Of these, 37,59,630 names have been rejected and the remaining 2,48,077 have been kept on hold.

Biometrics involves recording body measurements such as fingerprint or iris scans to identify people. The plan submitted by the government which was incorporated in the SOP said that the biometric details of people who file claims and objections in the NRC would be "distinctive and separate."

Aadhaar would be issued to people whose names figure in the final NRC in the same manner as it is applicable to legal residents in the rest of the country. And in case a person already has Aadhaar who has filed a claim or whose inclusion in the NRC has been objected upon, his Aadhaar number will be obtained.

For the exercise, machines would have to be installed at the Seva Kendras where the claims and objections would be heard. There were reports earlier that plans had been firmed up to procure them from UIDAI. Another official, however, claimed that no communication has taken place with UIDAI on the machines that would have to be set-up for the exercise.

Officials at the NRC secretariat are in no doubt that the home department is "passing the buck" since it had failed to begin the exercise in time.

"The SOP says explicitly that it is the responsibility of the state government to collect the biometric data. There is no need for any guidelines from the NRC Secretariat for the process to begin. Only the officials at the Seva Kendras would have to be shown how the scanning is done," an official said.

Biometric data is considered necessary to keep track of the immigrants who migrate to other states. The common assumption among security agencies is that the 4 million people who have been left out of the NRC include a large chunk of illegal immigrants and also genuine citizens. In all probability, immigrants would migrate to other states, settle down with a fictitious identity and remain untraceable. Some officials also believe that large numbers of immigrants may not approach the NRC for the filing of claims since the legacy data cannot be changed.

So far the government has not been able to devise any policy to keep a tab on the movement of illegal immigrants. As such, there is no precise estimate of their numbers in the country with the UPA and NDA governments claiming different figures. On 16 November 2016, Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju informed Parliament that there were around 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants staying in India without valid travel documents. He admitted that it was not possible to have accurate data of such immigrants living in various parts of the country. Rijiju's statement came more than a decade after the UPA government revealed a figure of 12 million Bangladeshi immigrants in the country.

The author is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India's Most Wanted Men.

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