Relooking the situation in Assam
The National Register of Citizens (NRC), first prepared after the 1951 census, was an attempt to record the number of ‘legal’ Indians in Assam, given fears of the growing immigrant ‘foreign’ population in the state. The NRC was a landmark decision taken in Assam, accepted by most fractions of society including the Assamese nationalist parties, regional groups, and others who found it to be a suitable solution.
In recent years, the debate to update the NRC again gathered steam. To be applicable for the current NRC, a person’s name or that of their ancestor should be present in the 1951 NRC or be located in any voter’s list till the midnight of 24 March 1971. Apart from the NRC, the Assam Accord (1985) states that those in the state from 1 January 1966 to 25 March 1971 and their family members would be granted citizenship on completing 10 years of living in India post registration of their names.
In the first draft of the NRC released in January 2018, only 19 million of the 39 million people who had filed applications were included as citizens. In the second draft, over 4 million people did not find their names mentioned. As the process of filing claims and objection for inclusion begins this week, we look back on the multiple causes for the lack of legal documentation among the urban poor living in Guwahati.
Life on the fringes
Millions have migrated to cities in Assam over decades for better livelihood opportunities. This has led to two major problems. Marginalised populations find it difficult to rent houses given their meagre earnings and are forced to settle in bastis (informal settlements) that are mostly located on hills, wetlands and other vacant lands. Secondly, due to their insecure housing conditions, they are frequently subjected to forced evictions. Given the frequency with which they are forced to rebuild demolished houses, it is quite common that they do not possess legal documents. Their possessions are never safe as they are driven out of homes. Their documents are subject to the vagaries of the weather, vulnerable to conflicts, evicted to make way for development projects and so on. They live a precarious existence in every sense.
Lack of legal documentation proves to be their undoing in many ways. The urban poor, many of whom are daily-wage earners, are denied the benefits of welfare schemes if they are unable to furnish proper legal documents. For example, subsidised housing under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, subsidised cooking gas and electricity connections and others cannot be availed if they lack necessary documents. Not surprisingly, therefore, many such individuals have been unable to submit necessary legal documents in the process of NRC, and they have been excluded once again. Moreover, lack of awareness of the NRC has been a major challenge. In many cases, the administration has failed to reach out to them and address the issues they have faced related to the NRC processes.
To study the situation of the urban poor in Guwahati, and understand what problems were faced by them in the process of NRC we conducted an assessment in certain bastis. We visited the Uzan Bazaar old railway colony and conducted a field assessment of the situation. People showed interest and willingness to understand the details of the NRC, accepting it as a necessary step by the government. In particular, the cases we assessed were of people not possessing legal documents due to lack of awareness, frequent changing of residence, discrepancies in applications because individuals who were illiterate depended on others to file their applications. Lack of knowledge among basti dwellers about the NRC and its importance, and the need for necessary documents to be submitted came to the fore.
We encountered the case of a 30-year-old lady who hails from Nalbari district of Assam, belonging to a Kaibarta (Scheduled Caste) family. She works as a domestic worker and is presently a resident of the old railway line colony, Uzan Bazaar. She married a man of the colony belonging to another Scheduled Caste and registered her name in the electoral identity list. It is worth mentioning that her husband’s family migrated from a remote village of Bihar to Guwahati before 1971, but at that time her father-in-law had not registered his name in the voters list, perhaps due to lack of awareness. As her father-in-law migrated at a tender age from Bihar, the family was unsure of his name being included in the Bihar voter list too. Therefore, under the circumstances of not being able to submit the legacy data of his family before 1971, her husband’s name was not included in the first draft list of the NRC. The officers asked him to submit the necessary legal documents for inclusion. The lady faced this problem in spite of belonging to an indigenous Assamese family. Due to a dispute with her maternal family, they too did not include her name in the family tree which needed to be submitted as part of the NRC documentation. With no education and knowledge of filling an application, she tried to fill the application form at her place of work, but the person filling the application filled his own family members’ names in the family tree instead of hers. Moreover, her grandfather’s name had been wrongly printed in the legacy data, for which she is answerable before the NRC officials. The lady worries and wonders how she will be able to correct these anomalies. She fears that if the government does not think about the situation of people like her, they will be immigrants in their own country. Lack of government help in imparting awareness on name correction and filling of the application form has led her to face these hurdles, she believes.
Another case we encountered was that of two sisters in the age group 45–50 years-old, part of a Hindu Dalit family. Their parents were originally from Bihar, and had migrated to Guwahati for work as daily wage earners. They were unaware of legal formalities, and so it is unclear whether their names were included in the voter’s list on or before 1971. The sisters tried to search for this data and were unable to find it. Therefore, they could not register their names in the NRC process because of no legacy data either of their father or mother. In 2015, their community caught fire and all their remaining documents were burnt. Now they have no documents to submit. ‘We were born in the 1970s. As we were not admitted to school, we have no school certificate to submit either. We kept shifting places from here to there throughout our childhood, and now when it comes to prove our citizenship, all is in vain’, one of the sister’s said.
The need to rethink approaches and strategies
There are many others like them, living in insecure houses and constantly shifting in search of safer spaces. Given their lack of education and insecure employment the question of proving themselves as Indian citizens has become difficult. We need solid strategies in place for the hurdles faced by those who are illiterate and have lived in precarious conditions. They need to be made aware of the requirements, and be supported in case there are discrepancies in their applications or there are other challenges. As these people are continuing from generation to generation without adequate legal documents, it is rash to assume that they will be able to furnish the necessary documents when required, and this will continue to be another method of exclusion.
Translated from original article ‘NRC: Samadhanor Sutra Ne Bibador Utsa’, published in Assamese daily, Dainik Asom on July 20, 2018 and ‘NRC: Nothipotro Bishayak Dutaman Prasanga’, published in Dainik Asom on August 1, 2018 by the following authors — Kishor Kumar Kalita, Pooja Nirala and Syeda Mehzebin Rahman