The Assamese media need a come-clean initiative

Allegations in updating the National Register of Citizens

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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 accusing Prateek Hajela, who earlier served as the State NRC coordinator, of money laundering. 

Hajela, an Indian Administrative Services officer – presently serving the Madhya Pradesh government – is an Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi graduate who cleared the IAS exam in 1995 (Assam-Meghalaya cadre). 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 issue of corruption touched some Guwahati-based television editor-journalists too. Questions are being raised, if some media persons are involved in a financial scam, shouldn’t the people get an opportunity to identify them? As the mainstream newspapers and news channels of Assam are avoiding the issue in their coverage, how will the actual picture emerge in the public domain? 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 and the message was loud and clear ‘to identify the corrupt television journalists who grabbed a huge amount of money which is 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 conducting 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),” added Dev Sarma while asserting 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 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 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 asserted 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 five 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 siphoned off in a fraudulent manner. 

A reliable source in the State NRC office, suggests that at least three editor-anchor-journalists of Assamese satellite news channels were also 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 scribes.

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

Sarma argued that a detailed investigation into the transactions, accounts, and balance sheets of the concerned persons would prove money laundering, and would 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 concerned authority seemingly because of the opposition raised by a powerful lobby. The question remains, why is the lobby working against the move to bring all those 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 also supports nearly ten 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, while the social media outlets are portraying many editor-journalists as beneficiaries of the multi-crore rupees NRC update scam, should not it become the responsibility of the concerned section 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 with the specific financial irregularities? If involved, it would be his or her responsibility to defend themselves on the concerned platforms. The mysterious silence may be interpreted by the common people as – either all of them are corrupt (receivers of personal benefits out of the NRC corruption), or too cowardly to speak the truth.

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

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