The Assamese media need a come-clean initiative

Allegations in updating the National Register of Citizens

Assamese Media
Image Times of Assam via Internet

When a second first information report (FIR) was filed by the outgoing State coordinator of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) against his predecessor, alleging corruption and money laundering while updating the 1951 NRC in Assam, nobody thought it would lead to a hot media debate among social media users. 

The NRC State coordinator, Hitesh Dev Sarma, who is retiring soon, lodged the complaint with the Assam government’s vigilance and anti-corruption wing against Prateek Hajela, accusing him of money laundering. 

Hajela, an Indian Administrative Services officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre (1995) – presently serving the Madhya Pradesh government – is an Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, graduate. He was appointed by the Tarun Gogoi government in 2013 as the State NRC coordinator following an order of the Supreme Court of India.

Leaving aside Hajela’s individual behavior or character, the corruption slur touched some Guwahati-based television editor-journalists too. Questions are being raised, if certain media persons are involved in a financial scam, shouldn’t the people get an opportunity to identify them? How will the actual picture emerge in the public domain if the mainstream newspapers and news channels of Assam are not covering the issue? If the media outlets intentionally kill the story, for reasons best known to the editors, should the social media users take a lead? A number of social media users (including many senior journalists with decades-long experience) highlighted the issue. The message was loud and clear — ‘to identify the corrupt television journalists, who allegedly grabbed a huge amount of money actually meant for thousands of Assamese professionals.’

The issue is amazing. Dev Sarma, also an IAS officer, claimed in his complaint that the engaged system integrator (Wipro) indulged in corruption while updating the 1951 NRC in Assam (the process began in 2014 under the supervision of the country’s apex court). In his complaint on 13 June 2022, Dev Sarma asserted that huge financial mismanagement had taken place during Hajela’s tenure as the NRC head. He added that for the NRC updating process, Wipro was given the task of supplying data entry operators (DEOs). It was not permitted to subcontract any activity related to system design and development, deployment, and enhancement of the NRC software solution and data center operation. However, Wipro is said to have engaged sub-contractors in providing data entry operators without any prior approval from the appropriate authority.

“From the office records, it was found that the then State coordinator was aware of the fact that the sub-contractors were being used to gather DEOs, though he did not officially approve the particular proposal,” said Dev Sarma in his complaint. Wipro was paid Rs 14,500 to 17,500 per month per DEO (by the NRC authority), but ‘the DEOs got only Rs 5,500 to 9,100 per month,’ during the years (2015 to 2019),” Dev Sarma said while claiming that the DEOs were denied even the least amount as per the country’s minimum wage act. 

Some DEOs came to the streets demanding their due payment. They claimed that out of 7,000 young workers, a large number of DEOs were deprived of their money, where the entire NRC update process in Assam cost Rs 1,600 crore (paid by the government authority). The DEOs also approached the state labor commissioner’s office with demands for their legal and regular payments. They suspected that some non-existent DEOs were also shown as being duly paid.

Even the accountant general of Assam, in a provisional audit report, observed, “The difference of margin that ranged from 45.59 to 64.27% was exorbitant and the audit assessed that undue benefit of Rs 155.83 crore was allowed to SI/labor contractor after allowing 10% reasonable profit margin to the contractor.” Describing the undue benefit of Rs 155.83 crore, Sarma said in his FIR that it’s reasonable to suspect that kickbacks and money laundering must have occurred in the process. The provisional audit report also identified an ‘avoidable expenditure to the tune of Rs 10.73 crore’ in connection with the engagement of third-party monitoring consultants. As per the amended delegation of financial power rules, for the expenditure of more than Rs 5 crore, the state coordinator should have obtained approval from the empowered committee, headed by the chief secretary, or from the Registrar General of India.

But the then state coordinator engaged the consultants without taking approval from the concerned authority, it added. Citing the same audit report, where it observed that the ‘entire expenditure of Rs 10.73 crore made against the engagement of consultants was unjustified and avoidable which resulted in extra burden to the government exchequer and undue benefit to the SI (Wipro) to that extent,’ Dev Sarma claimed that a large volume of government money was ripped off in a fraudulent manner. 

A reliable source in the State NRC office hinted that at least three editor-anchor-journalists of Assamese satellite news channels were beneficiaries of the financial irregularities. These media persons took sub-contracts to supply DEOs and received sizable payments. It is understood that the large volume of money, actually meant for DEOs, was fraudulently grabbed by those television journalists.

Would it be possible to publicly identify the scamster scribes? If one trusts Dev Sarma, it’s a yes. In his FIR, he mentioned one Proloy Seal, who worked as an intermediary in the entire process. Seal was neither an employee of the State coordinator’s office nor a contractor engaged by it, although he was always present in its office. In reality, he was the key person managing all the kickbacks, Dev Sarma said. 

Sarma argued that a detailed investigation into the transactions, accounts, and balance sheets of the persons concerned would prove money laundering, and eventually help in identifying corrupt individuals, including television personalities. However, the case is yet to be officially registered and it has been ignored by the authority concerned, seemingly because of opposition from a powerful lobby. The question remains as to why the lobby is against bringing all the guilty individuals under the purview of the law.

More shocking is that none of the news channels and newspapers in Guwahati have shown interest in following up on the issue. Assam with a population of over 30 million supports more than 30 morning daily newspapers in various languages (many vanished during the Covid-19-induced lockdown) along with a large number of Assamese periodicals and magazines. The city supports nearly 10 satellite news channels (most of which are free-to-air). Their cumulative quality readership and viewership may reach 3.5 million, but the number of social media users in the state should cross 4.5 million. Questions being raised in the public domain – Should the people of Assam (also the entire nation) not enjoy their right to get a true picture of the financial irregularities engineered during the NRC updating process in the State?

Moreover, when fingers are being raised at many editor-journalists in the multi-crore rupees NRC update scam, is it not the responsibility of the section concerned to clarify its stand? Why are the so-called celebrity editor-journalists (including the news channel proprietors) not coming together to publicly declare that no one from their organizations is involved in financial bungling? If involved, it would be his or her responsibility to defend themselves. The mysterious silence may be interpreted by the common people as – either all of them are corrupt (receivers of personal benefits), or they are too scared to speak the truth.

The author is a Guwahati-based journalist, who writes for a number of global media outlets.

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