Posts Tagged ‘Assam’

COVID-19 has pushed India’s already suffering tea plantation workers into deeper crisis

May 12, 2020

Tea workers are forced to live hand-to-mouth under normal circumstances. They will not be able to fight the consequences of contracting COVID-19.  Writes Shreya Sen

tea-garden-pti-assam-1200x600
Tea plantation workers in Assam. Photo: PTI. (The Wire)

The spread of COVID-19 has put India in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Not only do we have to battle a threatening pandemic with a neglected healthcare system, we also have to take absolute steps to prevent its escalation in a country of 1.3 billion people.

Unfortunately, the success in containing the virus necessitates the slowing down of economic activity.

Undoubtedly, this has grave consequences for the economy. Former RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan has gone so far as to say that, “Economically speaking, India is faced today with perhaps its greatest emergency since Independence.”

The International Labour Organization forecast has it that “…about 400 million workers in the informal sector are at the risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis.” In response to such dire circumstances, civil society has been compelled to play a significant role in preventing large-scale starvation.

As images of the many crumbling sectors of the economy continue to emerge, the primary focus of “lockdown 3.0” has been to start reviving operations, by allowing relaxations for specific industries.

The tea industry started pushing for such easing of norms soon after the nationwide lockdown was first announced. They are in a particularly fragile position during this economic crisis.

The industry is not only trying to stay afloat in the midst of an economically tumultuous time, the lockdown also started right in the peak plucking season, which has adversely impacted production and import. 

As an immediate solution to keeping up with global market demands, the Indian Tea Association had written to the state government on April 4, stating their wish for the “resumption of normal operations in tea gardens while adhering to the prescribed safety and social distancing guidelines.”

On the basis of such requests, work resumed in some plantations with permission from state administrations as early as the 10th of April and, in the latest lockdown phase, “tea industries and workers engaged are allowed to operate at all times.”

However, in the context of tea plantations in the state of Assam, this begs the question of what “normal” even looks like. And does this “normal” really enable the practice of critical safety measures such as social distancing?

The human cost

Approximately seven lakh workers are engaged in the tea industry in Assam. Women form over 60% of the workforce and are the ones primarily engaged in the indispensable work of leaf plucking. Workers earn an illegally low daily wage of Rs 167 per day.

In addition to this abysmal wage, workers in most plantations do not have access to adequate ration, water or sanitation facilities on a regular basis. Anaemia and malnutrition are particularly prevalent among the women and it is very common for men engaged in pesticide spraying to contract tuberculosis, other lung complications and loss of vision due to lack of protective gear and safety measures.

The healthcare facilities within and outside the plantations are grossly inadequate and ill-equipped to manage or treat the particular health conditions and vulnerabilities of the workers.

Such conditions have led to the very high maternal and infant mortality rates in the plantations. If these are the circumstances for work on a regular basis, there is little reason to believe that adequate precautions will be taken in times of COVID-19. The industry’s preparedness to deal with an outbreak within such a vulnerable population is, at best, questionable due to the lack of health infrastructure, a lack of quarantine facilities and the availability of testing as well as treatment.

The industry has cited financial crises every time it has been confronted with the reality of workers’ lives, with representatives going so far as to say, “Our job is to produce tea, and the challenge right now is to sustain the industry.”

Tea plantation workers in Assam pluck leaves while it rains. Credit: Nazdeek

Tea plantation workers in Assam pluck leaves while it rains. Credit: Nazdeek

Activists and collectives on the ground have rightfully questioned the prudence of the state and central governments in not playing a more active role in prioritising the safety of workers.

Despite several recommendations from state and central governments to not deduct wages of employees during this time, in many plantations, workers had not even received their daily wage or ration from the companies for a month after the initial lockdown, which only aggravated their risk.

This also means that rather than giving their informed consent to work and support the industry, workers are coming back to plantations at risk of exposure out of desperation and compulsion. In the meantime, temporary, non-contractual workers of the tea plantations remain all but forgotten with no social security, work benefits, wages or food for as long as, one can assume, the industry gets back on its feet. With many state governments now suspending critical labour laws to support industries, tea workers in Assam risk even further vulnerability if the state were to follow suit.

The biggest lesson learnt globally about minimising the impact of COVID-19 is social distancing. In a country as large as India, where so many people living in poverty do not have the luxury of practicing social distancing in reality, the window to enforce these precautionary measures is short and critical. 

India has thus far managed to fare even better than many developed countries because of prompt implementation of these norms. As noted economist Amartya Sen writes:

“The trade-off was that we take a huge hit with the visible impact of the disease, or we give ourselves some time to prepare and risk the economic consequences, and I’m glad that they chose the latter.”

While that stands true for most of the country, Assam’s tea plantations have dangerously, and one could even say erroneously, chosen the former.

Tea plantation workers live in close quarters in homes with very limited space. To take a chance by putting workers back to work in the plantations while the healthcare infrastructure is so poor, while testing rates are so low and most importantly, while no known treatment or vaccine is in place, is a lapse of judgement that could come at the irretrievable cost of human life.

Is there a way forward?

The tea industry’s survival is not removed from the interests of workers. In fact, because of the generational poverty and poor living and working conditions, losses faced by the industry become matters of life and death for them. As IMF’s chief economist, Gita Gopinath, pointed out in a recent interview, “It is not economists and market experts but health experts who will be able to tell when the economy can recover.”

The more the disease spreads, the longer and stricter the restriction on work becomes, the more the economy suffers.

Therefore, returning to “normal” cannot be the way forward in the context of tea plantation workers. Their “normal” has led to them having pre-existing health and environmental conditions that make them highly vulnerable to the COVID-19. While starvation, illness and acute poverty continue to plague the lives of workers, COVID-19 will be the least of their worries.

At the same time, the pandemic remains a huge health risk to the workers, as it does all over the world. This is a situation that calls for a radical restructuring of the conditions that have led to this crisis.

With the industry facing financial difficulties, it falls to the government to aid tea companies in acting swiftly and promptly to ensure that workers are able to live a safe and healthy life with dignity during this difficult period.

Providing a stimulus package for workers to receive a living wage during the continued lockdown period, unconditional transfer of money for past non-work days, providing workers with PPE kits, clean water and soap, adequate, unconditional ration and increased access to testing and basic healthcare facilities are some of the very basic measures that need to be taken to keep workers safe from the disease.

While workers are forced to live hand-to-mouth and remain burdened with the question of everyday survival, they will not be able to fight the consequences of contracting COVID-19.

The prime minister in his address on April 14 stated that “if we see it (the lockdown) from a purely economic perspective, it certainly seems like a huge cost to pay. We have had to pay a huge price. But for the lives of the people of India, this cost is nothing.”

This is a valuable reminder of the most important lesson learnt during this crisis, namely that we cannot “save” the economy by exposing vulnerable workers to a fatal disease. The need of the hour is to focus on containing the spread of the disease and saving lives so we can emerge stronger and build back the economy together.


Shreya Sen is a feminist researcher and human rights activist working on labour rights and access to justice issues with marginalised communities in South Asia. 


The article was first published in The Wire and is avaialbale at https://thewire.in/labour/covid-19-lockdown-tea-workers-labour

Is COVID-19 being ‘communalised’ in Assam?

April 19, 2020
top-news-eng-17-04-2020

 

Kamal Kumar Gupta, a member of the Foreigners’ Tribunal in Assam wrote a letter to State Health Minister saying that Muslims from the State who had attended the Tablighi Jammat’s congregation in Delhi in mid-March, are “Jehadis” (meaning “terrorists”), and as such, they should not be given treatment for COVID-19 infection.

The COVID-19 pandemic is being freely, and with increasing impunity, used by a section of the media, politicians and the general public in Assam and India, to spew communal venom and further widen the communal chasm in the country.

This tendency is being encouraged by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is ruling at the Centre as well as the State of Assam.

A letter to the Health Minister offering a donation of more than Rs.60,000 for COVID-19 relief work in Assam bore the names of a dozen members of the state’s Foreigners’ Tribunal including Kamal Kumar Gupta.

In the letter Gupta said that: “Help may not be extended” to Muslims linked to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. He had labeled Muslims who attended the religious gathering as “jihadis”, a synonym for terrorists.

Subsequently, Gupta said that he had disassociated himself from the letter because it had been widely circulated on social media platforms causing him embarrassment. Human-rights activists, researchers and legal eagles in Assam fighting for the millions of people who had been stripped of their citizenship on suspicion of being illegal foreign migrants, were horror-struck by the letter.

Legal eagles and rights activists in Assam said that prejudiced members of such a crucial institution as the Foreigners’ Tribunal should not be allowed to decide any case of citizenship.

More than 1.9 million people in Assam have been excluded from a list of Indian citizens and their cases will be adjudicated by the Foreigners’ Tribunals.

The Foreigners’ Tribunals should be impartial and not differentiate between people of different religions, said Aman Wadud, a prominent lawyer and a human-rights activist, who provides legal help to thousands of people whose names had been left out of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC).

“Foreigners’ Tribunal members decide cases of citizenship, the most important constitutional right,” Wadud pointed out.

“Withdrawing the letter can’t undo bigotry and his inherent prejudice against the Muslim community” he argued. He felt that Gupta’s prejudice is likely to influence the decision of the cases he will decide. “He should not be allowed to decide any case of citizenship,” Wadud stressed.

In August 2018, after a long and mammoth exercise, monitored by India’s Supreme Court, the Assam government published a list, known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC), aimed at identifying legal residents in Assam, bordering Bangladesh. A total of 31.1 million people were included in the final list, leaving out 1.9 million.

The Hindu nationalist BJP which rules Assam and the Centre argued that the citizenship exercise was in accordance with the Assam Accord which followed a violent anti-immigrant movement in the 1970s.But critics saw the move as part of the BJP’s plot to marginalize or weed out or deport the Muslims.

Millions of Bangladeshi refugees, both Muslim and Hindu, arrived in India following the 1971 war for independence in East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh). In Assam, the influx triggered violent anti-immigrant movements.

Abdul Kalam Azad, a researcher who has been studying the plight of people housed in detention camps in Assam said: “I see a concerted effort by section of the media, politicians and people to incite hatred. Gupta’s statement is not an isolated incident.”

 “What kind of people are these? They are supposed to provide justice and uphold the constitution. Biased people like Gupta are expected to be impartial in the tribunal,” Azad said.

Gupta had also issued to the media, letters which claimed that he had done a “favor” by granting citizenship rights.

“In Assam there are lots of people who are arbitrarily declared as foreigners and who are at the mercy of people like Gupta. The tribunals have lost a lot of credibility. There might be serious consequences. The Centre and the state, and the High Court and the Supreme Court should take suo-moto action on people like Gupta,” Azad told SAM.

“Being a government official, no one should have a mentality like this, said Azirur Rahman, the Chief of the All Assam Muslim Students’ Union (AAMSU).“This is a serious affront and we condemn it. We firmly believe that the government should take action,” Rahman told a local news portal.

“He is a judicial officer, and sadly, one cannot expect justice from such a character. They should remove such people from their positions,” the AAMSU leader added.

Until now the NRC has only been implemented in Assam, However, the BJP-led federal government managed to get a legislation passed in the Indian Parliament in December 2019to make the NRC exercise all-India.

Following the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) -a law that offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from three neighboring Muslim countries – India witnessed large-scale protests. The controversial CAA law provides citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from Muslim-majority countries Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Human rights activists fear that people whom the Foreigners’ Tribunal declares as illegal immigrants, will become Stateless and be housed in more than 10 detention camps. At present, there are more than 1,000 people held in Assam’s six detention centres.


The article was first published at South Asia Monitor and it is reposted here for wider dissemination.

Civil society representation demanding ration, healthcare and hazard pay for tea plantation workers

April 16, 2020

Relevant part of the memorandum demanding ration, healthcare and hazard pay for plantation workers 

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has infected close to 2 million people worldwide, with a sharp daily increase in numbers. To implement the recommended standard of social distancing, the Government of India (GoI) imposed a 21-day nation-wide lockdown beginning at the midnight of Wednesday, March 25th. Almost two-weeks after this lockdown, tea plantation workers in Assam’s Barak Valley have not been paid their wages, creating a grave crisis without income or access to food and other essential services. On April 3rd, GoI exempted tea plantations from the nation-wide lockdown, permitting 50% workers to work. The unplanned implementation of this policy decision will put Barak Valley’s 70,000 workers, across 104 tea plantations at risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus. 

Assam’s tea plantation workers are a semi-skilled to skilled labour force who are paid a dismally low daily wage of Rs. 145, which is even lower than the state’s minimum wage for unskilled workers. The living and working conditions on these plantations have always been abysmal, with disproportionately high rates of malnourishment and anaemia. The disparagingly poor health conditions on tea plantations, coupled with very poor accessibility to healthcare, makes Barak Valley’s tea plantation workers a highly vulnerable and at-risk group in the COVID-19 pandemic. Women, who form over 60% of the workforce on Assam’s tea plantations, will be disproportionately affected by the unplanned implementation of this exemption. In many cases, since they are the sole bread-winners of their families, the burden of going to work to earn a living is higher on women. Further, plantation workers in Barak Valley, especially women deserted by their husbands, do not possess ration cards, and therefore don’t receive any ration. The lack of secure land tenure among tea plantation workers also increases their vulnerability. 

During this pandemic and hunger crisis, it is critical that plantations and governments undertake coordinated efforts to secure the health and life of plantation workers by ensuring that every single worker has improved, adequate and quality access to basic necessities including food and health care. Therefore, we demand the following urgent steps be taken immediately to protect the lives of Barak Valley’s tea plantation workers: 

  1. Order immediate release of all past dues to workers, including continued payment of wages for the period of complete lock-down on tea plantations. 2. The order dated April 3, 2020 passed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, granting exemption to tea plantations from the ongoing lockdown, should only be enforced after adequate precautionary measures are put in place. These measures must include: 
  2. Identify adequate amounts of quarantine facilities on every plantation, including, but not limited to using existing infrastructure like labour clubs and space on management residential plots, for this purpose. b. Immediately devise and implement a strategy to widely disseminate information about the COVID-19 pandemic, informing workers about the scale of the pandemic, the risks it poses, precautionary measures, and an emergency plan in case of the spread of the virus on the plantation in local languages. c. Provide water and antiseptic soap at regular intervals on plantations. d. Procure enough numbers of cloth masks and gloves to provide to workers for wearing while working on the plantations.
  3. Complete universalization of ration through the Public Distribution System for a period of at least 6 months. People without ration cards should be able to get subsidised food. Further, direct plantations to immediately supply ration to workers for the period of the lockdown.
  4. Ensure proper implementation of the PM Garib Kalyan Package announced by the Finance Minister, to help the poor fight coronavirus.
  5. Specifically, ensure implementation of the Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana. b. Ensure workers have accessibility and information on how to withdraw pension funds, announced under the Package. Comply with the advance payment of PF to workers.
  6. Ensure continued and adequate implementation of all other schemes and entitlements of the State and Central governments.
  7. Ensure and monitor that plantations strictly comply with existing laws, policies, schemes and entitlements, to ensure safe and healthy working and living conditions for tea plantation workers. This includes ration, and different kinds of direct benefit transfers to the poor like under maternity benefit schemes, following safety measures on plantations, and proper functioning of plantation hospitals.
  8. All Direct Benefit Transfers must be made as cash payment to workers, following proper social distancing norms, through the Anganwadi workers. The fractured banking systems and unavailability of ATMs on plantations would mean that workers are unable to use the DBT in a lockdown.
  9. Plantations must provide health insurance and additional wages as hazard pay for workers given the dangerous circumstances that they are being forced to work in.
  10. The government must ensure provision of dignified health care. All health facilities, including Plantation Hospitals, PHCs, CHCs and Medical Colleges are ready must be fully equipped to deal with COVID-19 cases, including procuring sufficient testing kits, medication, ventilators and other medical equipment and providing the necessary personnel protective equipment for healthcare workers, including community health workers like ASHA workers. All private hospitals should be directed to provide free treatment. There must be regular and continuous audit of all plantation hospitals by the health and labour departments and strict action against plantation management for any violation. 10. If needed, provide adequate relief packages to companies to safeguard workers from losing pay, health benefits and other necessary entitlements to mitigate the hardship during this period. 

The failure to take the above steps will aggravate the plight of tea plantation workers, including death of workers owing to COVID-19 and starvation. The failure to secure rights and basic necessities for workers is a grave violation and a possible economic slowdown does not justify putting their lives at the forefront of a global health pandemic. 

Thank you for your consideration. 

Best,

Taniya Sultana Laskar
Barak Human Rights Protection Committee,
Kachari Masjid Complex, Silchar, Assam
[Phone No.- 7576874498; bhrpc.ne@gmail.com]

Nirmal Kanti Das 
Majori Sramik Union, Assam
[Phone No.- 9435238753; nirmaldasaseb@gmail.co]

Manas Das 
Forum for Social Harmony, Assam
Silchar, Assam. Phone No. – 9435522567

Mrinal Kanti Shome 
Asom Mojuri Sharamik Union
Lane No. 13, House No.18, 1st Link Road,
Cachar, Assam.
[Phone No. – 9854067226; mojurishramik@gmail.com]

(Click here for a copy of the representation)

Memorandum to DMs for Tea Plantation workers  

April 15, 2020

Press release
Silchar, 15 April 2020

BHRPC along with other Civil Society Organizations in Assam’s Barak Valley have come together to seek immediate action and accountability from the District Administrations across the 3 districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi in light of the reopening of the tea plantations during the ongoing nation-wide lockdown. 

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-15 at 9.07.54 PM

We believe that in light of the ongoing pandemic, and the decision to open tea plantations, certain precautions must be undertaken for the health and safety of the workers, and the entire community. 

In order to facilitate better realisation of rights of workers, we have submitted a Memorandum to the District Administration. Urging the administration to frame guidelines, we have set out certain actions that must be undertaken to protect the lives of workers. Attached is a copy of the memorandum shared with DMs in all the 3 aforementioned districts. 

  Regards,

Taniya Sultana Laskar
Secretary-General,
Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC).

Nirmal Kr. Das
President,
Majori Sramik Union, Assam.

Manas Das
Convener,
Forum for Social Harmony

Mrinal Kanti Shome
Secretary, 
Assam Majuri Sramik Union

(Click here for more details)

Assam: Fear of mass starvation amid lockdown due to CoViD 19 pandemic

April 12, 2020

Ground Report Assam: Covid-19 leads to mass starvation as water-starved farm lands run dry

Tracts of farmlands cultivated by the small farmer growing tomatoes, chili, brinjal, lemons and watermelons are shriveling up due to water supply being cut during Assam’s lock down, even while the urban poor are forced to buy vegetables at exorbitant prices; dealers in curd and cheese are in dire straits; the question then is, who is profiteering from the COVID 19 lock down?

Nanda Ghosh

 

Assam FarmPhoto Credit: Piyush Chakraborty, Riju Modak, Krishna Sarker, Muzammel Hoque,

Santhali Adivasis who walk 20-30 kilometres to Bongaigaon, clear the jungle for residents and earn money through this exercise are today left with no earnings after the  sudden lock down. Just days ago, a poor and marginalised labourer, Gopal Barman from Goalpara district of Assam has already committed suicide due to acute scarcity of food. For the Santhalis, the indigenous people of Assam, the jungle was rich in food but today, their food crisis is more dire than the horrors of Corona. Community volunteers with the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), in the Bongaigaon district have alerted authorities about these dire conditions while also undertaking relief distribution through community resources.

Farms of tomatoes have been drying up, bigha by bigha, also as a result of the lock down with farmers not being allowed to care for the produce.  Ratan Majumdar, a farmer from Chatianguri under the Bijni sub-division of Chirang district said that due to the lock down the crops which are being cultivated on their lands are being systematically destroyed, especially which will cause a lot of real, human and financial damage. Loss of vegetable-fruits like this is criminal at a time when people are hungry for food.

FarmPhoto Credit: Piyush Chakraborty, Riju Modak, Krishna Sarker, Muzammel Hoque

Majumdar also said that tomatoes are grown-produced in large quantities in many villages of this district including Chhatianguri, Maneswari. However all these villages have shown the tomatoes withering away due to the sudden shut down of water supply! Farmers in the villages of Matiyapara, Bagorgaon, Koptupuli, Kauwatika, Duturi, Baghmara etc are also helpless, seeing before their own eyes their crop dry up and wither away due to the failure to water the fields!

When interacting with farmers, CJP’s wide network of community volunteers and district volunteers, asks, “Farmer how are you?”(কৃষক তুমি কেমন আছো? /কৃষক তুমি কেনে আছা?)

The results of this empathetic exchange, at a time when there is none to turn to, are revealing. CJP volunteers have been active in the various villages of Lower Assam especially those in the Chirang, Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar, Barapeta and other districts.

CJP’s volunteer from Chirang, Pranay Tarafder visited a village called Kharampara. No farmers were allowed to talk to him or come outside their homes. This, while their fields and the produce shriveled up. A criminal waste of produce.

Similarly, many villages in Kokrajhar district seeing the shriveling up of field upon field growing vegetables! Abdul Hamid, a small, marginalised farmer from the Hawriapet village under Gosaigaon police station in Kokrajhar district, told CJP, “I cultivated cucumber  on 1 bigha of land this year. As the time was ripe to sell this cucumber, the lock down was suddenly declared. If we can’t sell vegetables, what we will eat? Will the government help us?”

FarmerPhoto Credit: Piyush Chakraborty, Riju Modak, Krishna Sarker, Muzammel Hoque

Many other villages of Barpeta district are seeing the similar waste of all their ripe and grown agricultural produce due to absence of a live supply chain open to the markets. Sale of vegetables in large quantities has been unilaterally shut down for the last twenty days. Katajhar village grows large tracts of cucumber. “If the state’s agriculture department does not arrange for purchase and sales, then I too will be at a loss, ” Gokul Ghosh of the village told the CJP team.  A similarly bleak situation faces almost farmers in this district. A large number of corn crops are harvested in the Dhubri region of Assam, especially in the Char region. Faced with the turbulence caused by the countrywide lock down, these farmers face a sudden dip in the prices of corn. What will this mean for their sustenance?

FarmerPhoto Credit: Piyush Chakraborty, Riju Modak, Krishna Sarker, Muzammel Hoque

Bishnupur in Chirang District is known for it’s famed lemon cultivation. This is the area from where the special Assamese lemon is supplied to all over the state, other states in the north-east and even eastern part of Bengal. Many farmers from this area cultivate hundreds of bighas of lemon. Guwahati, the main city of Assam is also dependent upon Bishnupur as it meets the demands of 90% lemon. Though lemons have been harvested, the sudden shut down in communications had ruptured the supply chain. Small portions are being sold:  while the price was Rs 1200 per bag before the lock down, this has dropped to Rs 800 per bag, which means a loss of Rs 400 per bag.

The same is the case in Garogaon, Oxiguri, Bhawraguri, Batabari, Ballamguri, Kawatika, Bhetgaon etc villages which is the areas renowned for tomato and chilli cultivation. Farmer Abdul Aziz told the CJP team that he cultivated green chilli on three bighas of land, and in better non lock down times he used sell this produce at Rs 40 per kg. Now the green chilli ready to eat, but there is no way to sell it. The supply chain has been broken.

Large quantities of water melon is grown-produced in the pastures of the Aie river in the Bongaigaon district. Locals have innovative methods of sale: the lawn road at No. 31 National Highway, for one kilometer on both sides of the highway becomes a temporary market for watermelon vendors. The Covid-19 caused lock down has meant a loss of sales and supply, leaving the farmers stranded with the ready crop. A similar situation has arisen for watermelon growers in Balughopa region.

In another part of Bongaigaon district, the Kirtanpara area, people earn their livelihoods on two kinds of occupation. The first is agriculture and the second is cheese and curd production from the fresh cow milk, which is then sold in different cities. With the lock down, farmers’ crops are being destroyed, and accumulation of curd and cheese is causing a wasteful and desperate situation for these producers.

Many milk dealers in Chirang district are also in dire straits today. Particularly for those who sell milk in the sweet shops, the situation is acute as shops are shut due to the lock down. No alternative arrangements have been made by the government to sell milk at this time of crisis. This has added to the despair.

Committed to its Citizenship related para legal and community interventions since 2017, CJP’s team that spans several districts of the has been now completely involved in providing food and ration relief especially to the most deisadvantaged and needy among the people. This work involves creating awareness about the COVID 19 virus, the need for intrepid steps for public distancing, observing the lock down and administrative rules while also at the same time, performing these public tasks: collecting and distributing the relief materials, through our volunteers in different areas.

The results have been painful and worrying. Testimonies of unspeakable hardship have emerged: the poorest people among the people in Assam are battling against hunger, searching for food rather than battling Corona. Food intake has been reduced to days long hunger or just a single meal in a day. The state of Assam is in a state of anarchy and faces worse in the days ahead.

Several persons and organisations are involved in the relief and humanitarian aid operations. These aid workers and volunteers are co-operating with the administration. The administration is trying its best to supply ration needs of those mainly in urban and semi urban centers. Ii is in the most remote areas where the distress is acute: unimaginable dire stories from widows, orphans, children come from there.

In the midst of this crisis, volunteers from CJP have been distributing relief material while following the regulations laid down by the administration for such work during the lock down. Difficulties remain, however. Some volunteers from Kokrajhar have complained of innocent persons being targeted by the administration when in fact they have not been guilty of any violations.

Also, movement to aid workers and volunteers gets hampered because of these very rules. The cries of the farmer in Baksha district is desperate and acutely felt. To alleviate this suffering, CJP has started this outreach and our first step is to ask, “how are you dear farmer?”

Assam faces a double or triple jeopardy caused by COVID 19. Already the state was reeling under the self-inflicted citizenship crisis. Then the fears and precautions caused by the virus. The worst of all of this is however, the condition of hundreds if not thousands of marginalised farmers who cultivate on small land: the cultivation could be tomatoes, brinjal, chilli, watermelon, milk produce.

The refrain is an echo, from farmer after farmer, “Our war is against hunger, much more than Corona.” What will they do? Through CJP they plead: the government takes some measures to waiver or sanctioning new farmers’ loans to protect their lives, must open water supply, must open supply chains of ready vegetable and milk produce to markets. Otherwise, they will die not of disease but of starvation. And, ready to eat good vegetables and milk foods are going waste.

The farmer’s plight is a source of much frustration. As the Adivasis and farmers battle hunger in Assam, the middleman, the grocery shop owner charges exorbitant prices. Why doesn’t the government not crack down on this brazen hoarding and corruption? On the one hand, crops are being wasted or being left to wither and die while at the grocery store, people are compelled to buy vegetables at high prices. The distress of the suffering matches the poor and marginalized that are compelled to pay higher rates for food.

The most heart wrenching sight witnessed by the CJP team was to see, at many homes of farmers, cultivator families boiling brinjals, cauliflower and feeding these to the cows! In the small urban centres, with the acute rise in price of vegetables and other essential food items, the working poor people are compelled to eat rice only with salt.

What can be done? The government needs to step in pro actively and not be paralysed in a state of lock down. The farmer is ready to sell and buy vegetables through a government regulated chain where the benefits go to him and the small consumer who needs to eat. For this the government needs to step in and soon. This way the farmer will get some money as well as the people will not have to bear the extra burden of price rise during this financial downturn.

If the government begins the distribution of rice rations from April 15, CJP volunteers are planning to actually vegetables from the farmer and distribute them to those who need them. If other aid workers and agencies play the same role in a spirit of co-operation, marginalized sections of the Assamese people will be able to eat vegetables with rice.

(The author is the Lower Assam Volunteer Motivator for CJP, Assam)

Related Articles:

 1. Lockdown impact: Father of three allegedly commits suicide in Assam
2.Tea industry faces fall in exports, revenues and volumes due to Covid-19 lockdown


The report is originally published the Sabrang and can be accessed here.

CoViD 19: A case for releasing inmates of Assam detention camps

April 10, 2020

Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity for Assam to correct a historical wrong

All the six detention centers meant for declared foreign nationals in the northeastern state of India are inside congested prisons with no concept of social distancing. Detainees have hardly any rights and no waged work or parole. They must be released in the process of decongestion of prisons. 

By Arijit Sen 

 

Illustration by Priya Kuriyan

Attempts are on across India to try and prevent the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. There’s a lockdown in place. Physical distancing, a luxury for many, is imperative, and so is personal hygiene. In this fight, poor migrants and daily wage laborers have been dehumanized. Treated with indignity, they have been stranded without work, money, food or a roof above their heads, left to fend for themselves. The lockdownunplanned and sudden, has been a lethal blow for them.

In the first week of the lockdown, 27 Indians died according to the National Campaign Against Torture. Inside the detention centers meant to incarcerate foreigners in Assam in India’s northeast, this tale of horror assumes an even more terrible face. The hunt for foreigners or illegal migrants in Assam has been going on for many years. From 1979 to 1985, Assam witnessed a widespread and violent anti-foreigner movement that demanded detection of foreigners, their deletion from voter lists and their deportation to neighboring Bangladesh. The implicit assumption was equating foreigners with Bangladeshis. The Assam agitation ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, which led to special provisions to determine Indian citizenship that was were only applicable to Assam. The agitation also had a demand to use the National Register of Citizens (NRC) 1951 that was based on the census of the same year to create a legal list of citizens. That demand for an NRC re-emerged and was set in motion in 2014, after the Supreme Court directed the state government to update the NRC list. Those not on the list have to face Foreigners’ Tribunals to prove their citizenship. In Assam, the Border Police and the State Election Commission can send notices to citizens suspected to be foreigners. The burden of proof lies on those marked as alleged foreigners; a failure to do so, leads them to the detention centers. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) also lies within this chase for foreigners.

The detainees, packed in overcrowded rooms, are vulnerable at the best of times. Now it’s even worse. On 25 March 2020, a Guwahati-based organization called Justice and Liberty Initiative submitted a representation before the Chief Justice of India, seeking the release of all detainees, all of them in custody after being declared foreign nationals.

Lawyer Aman Wadud, who heads the organization, told me, that they can’t be sitting ducks for an infection that the entire world is trying to fight. “Detention centers are crowded. When the entire country is practicing social distancing, why should detainees live in crowded places? Often people are detained and sent to detention centers, what if they carry contagious diseases? Under any circumstance detaining declared foreigners, the way it is done in Assam, is unreasonable. In these testing times, let a historical wrong be corrected.”

Detainees face punishment meant for criminals. In crowded prisons, rights of detainees are erased every day to the point of being non-existent.There are 802 detainees lodged in six detention centers across Assam. At least ten people died in these centers in 2019 alone. There has been a total of 30 deaths since 2016 in Assam. People who have spent time in the centers agree that they are worse than hell. There is no segregation between undertrials, convicts and detainees. There is overcrowding and absence of basic hygiene. Detainees face punishment meant for criminals. In crowded prisons, rights of detainees are erased every day to the point of being non-existent. The centers are almost like spaces of legal exception and indifference. A 2018 report on the six detention centers in Assam submitted by a former special monitor to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Harsh Mander, clearly established how these centers are overcrowded. Mander resigned and made the report public after no action was taken by the NHRC. The report pointed out that the state did not make any distinction between detention centers and jails. The detention centers are in fact inside jail premises and the detainees add to the number of people who are incarcerated. According to the latest statistics available with the Ministry of Home Affairs’ National Crime Records Bureau, the general occupancy rates in all jails in Assam are at 93.2 per cent. In district jails of Assam, the percentage is at 103.03. Silchar, Goalpara, Tezpur, Kokrajhar, Dibrugarh, and Jorhat are all district jails inside which the detention centers are situated. A six-feet social distancing is an impossibility in such circumstances of congestion.

“Reaching the camp, I saw that there was no proper food, we didn’t get any bathing soap or oil or any such thing. We used to only get soaps that are used to wash clothes, the cheap ones. They used to give us food, which was fit for dogs and cats,” Ashraf Ali, a former detainee at the Goalpara detention center in Assam, told me when we met some time ago.

With him was his neighbor Kismat. Both of them had been sent to the same detention center, one of six in Assam meant for people declared as foreign nationals by the Foreigners’ Tribunals. That these tribunals exist to serve the government’s cause and not those of the people is an open secret.

“The room had a capacity of 40 people, but when we reached there it was filled with around 120 people. There was no space, we had to live on top of one another,” Kismat told me. “Ashraf and I slept next to the bathroom. It was dirty, we couldn’t sleep at all. Each of us had around two-two-and-a-half-feet of space. We were threatened. The convicts get much bigger beds. At that time, we were all put together – we shared space with convicts, all mixed. Each day the numbers increased. It was very hot, there was a fan, but it didn’t work. There was no space or peace.”

The rooms Kismat mentioned were roughly 80 feet by 21 feet–for 120 people. Ashraf and Kismat have left, but nothing has changed in the six detention centers, even in 2020.

Technically, declared foreigners are detained not as a punishment but to wait before they are deported to their alleged country of citizenship. It’s like a waiting hall, Wadud adds, “but it is apparent that deportation is not foreseeable. In the last six years only four declared foreigners have been deported. If deportation is not possible, why detain them? Hence we feel that they should be released from the detention centers.”

The treatment of detainees follows the pattern of stigmatization faced by people suspected to be foreigners in Assam for decades. There have been innumerable instances of genuine citizens being marked as “suspects,” as “foreigners” and then being harassed by a mob.All these detainees are tried under The Foreigners Act 1946, which provides for non-incarcerative alternatives such as requiring a person to reside at a particular place, imposing restrictions on movement, requiring the person to check in with authorities periodically, prohibiting the person from associating with certain people or engaging in certain activities. Yet, as pointed out by Amnesty International, detention has become the default option in Assam. The government plans to set up ten more detention centers. The treatment of detainees follows the pattern of stigmatization faced by people suspected to be foreigners in Assam for decades. There have been innumerable instances of genuine citizens being marked as “suspects,” as “foreigners” and then being harassed by a mob. There are a hundred Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam, which decide if a person is a foreigner or not (or Indian or not). The burden of proof is on the person suspected to be a foreigner, or an infiltrator. Before this, a person suspected of being an illegal migrant was tried under the Illegal Migration (Determination by Tribunal) Act 1983 that was enacted as a response to the Assam agitation. The burden of proof was then on the state agency or whoever accused a person as being a foreigner. This was challenged before the Supreme Court and struck down, in 2005, as being too lenient.

This process of finding an illegal migrant has been in the spotlight because of a citizenship drive called the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that puts together a legal list of citizens. The process has been found to be deeply biased and in violation of basic constitutional rights granted to all Indian citizens: 1.9 million people in Assam have been left out of it and have to prove their citizenship. At the end of the process there is the prospect of overcrowded detention centers and statelessness for thousands.

Why can’t detainees be released?

The Supreme Court of India recently took suo motu cognizance of a writ-petition on overcrowding at prisons in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Court underlined that in India’s 1,339 prisons, there are at least 466,084 inmates and, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the occupancy rate is at 117.6 %. The Court further noted that in closed spaces such as prisons the chances of the COVID-19 virus spreading is high. It puts at risk not only the prisoners — old and new — but every single person associated with the prison. “We are of the opinion that there is an imminent need to take steps on an urgent basis to prevent the contagion of COVID-19 virus in our prisons,” the Court said.

The state of Uttar Pradesh, where overcrowding stands at 176.5%, has decided to release 11,000 prisoners from 71 facilities. This includes 8,500 undertrials and 2,500 convicts. All of them, face jail terms of seven years or less and hence, according to the Supreme Court’s instructions, are eligible for release. Maharashtra has decided to release 11,000 prisoners from its 60 jails. Prisoners have also been released from Delhi’s Tihar Jail. In West Bengal, 3,076 prisoners have been released. Assam has also released 722 undertrials.

In a 2013 judgment (Thana Singh versus Central Bureau of Narcotics), the Supreme Court made an important observation about a person in a prison awaiting trial. The plight of the undertrial, said the Court, gains focus “only on a solicitous enquiry by this Court, and soon after, quickly fades into the backdrop.” In this context, the story of Machan Lalung in Assam is relevant. A member of the Tiwa community in Arunachal Pradesh, Machan was in prison for 54 years without any specific charge or facing trial. He was released in 2005 and died two years later. India’s undertrial population (the third highest in Asia) and those who are in the six detention centers of Assam face the same indifference with which Machan was treated. It is ironic that it has come to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic to bring focus back on these lives in incarceration.

Detainees should be released on personal recognizance bond irrespective of how many years they were in detention because they are not criminals.The recent Supreme Court order says that prisons across India are overcrowded thus social distancing is an impossibility. The Court underlines that “contagious viruses such as COVID-19 virus proliferate in closed spaces such as prisons. Studies also establish that prison inmates are highly prone to contagious viruses. The rate of ingress and egress in prisons is very high, especially since persons (accused, convicts, detenues etc.) are brought to the prisons on a daily basis.” Detainees inside these prisons cannot be the exception to that observation. When it comes to detainees, the Assam government in its White Paper on Foreigners’ Issue (published on 20 October 2012 when there were only three detention centers) approved the use of detention for those declared as ‘“irregular foreigners”’ to restrict their movements and to ensure that they “do not perform the act of vanishing.” The reason was to keep a tab on individuals declared as foreigners, but for this detention is not required, says advocate Oliullah Laskar. “It can be done if they are released on bail.” Both Oliullah and Wadud agree that there has been no initiative on the part of the Government of India in respect of their deportation. During our interview, Oliullah recalls a Supreme Court panel on prison conditions headed by Justice Amitav Roy set up in 2018. It had recommended, among other things, that people who are otherwise entitled to bail and are unable to arrange surety should be released on a Personal Recognizance Bond.This is important in the context of former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi’s direction to release detainees who were in detention for more than three years on a surety of INR 200,000. In a recent decision, the Supreme Court also held that bail cannot be made conditional upon heavy deposits beyond the financial capacity of an applicant for bail. (Dhanapal versus State, (2019) 6 SCC 743). Detainees should be released on personal recognizance bond irrespective of how many years they were in detention because they are not criminals. So far, Assam has only released undertrials.

A few months ago, I visited the site for an upcoming detention center in Assam’s Goalpara district. The project is in a 300,000-square-feet area and is designed to house 3,000 detainees — women, children and men. It will be the largest detention center in India: unreal, dystopian; high walls, watchtowers, searchlights; the signs of a dehumanized space ready to take away and wipe out rights. The place reminded me of a conversation with a doctor who was treating detainees at a center in Assam two years ago. “Most of the detainees suffer from depression,” he told me. “The main shortcomings in detention centers are that the environment is not healthy. They are not criminals, and yet the jail security guards treat them as criminals.” Former detainees, I met, had stories of fellow detainees suffering from brain-short disease — a word they use for acute psychosis, or even madness.

“Inside [the center where I was detained] there were 30-40 women in the room. There were very old people. 50-, 60-, even 80-year old people. There were young children too with their mothers. People used to cry a lot. Some of the women went hungry. There was immense sadness,” Rashminara Begum, a former detainee told me about two years ago, while recalling her time at in a detention center.

Photo by Arijit Sen

In December 2019, I met Manikjan Bibi and Ashida Bibi in Bongaigaon. Manikjan was sent to a detention center by a Foreigners Tribunal and had been there for four years. She was released only after the Supreme Court’s direction to release those detainees who had spent more than three years in detention. She has to report to the local police station every week. Her name appeared on the final list of the National Register of Citizens but was removed after “‘someone”’ filed an objection. “At the detention center, I felt like I was in a graveyard. I have documents. I was born in India. My father and grandfather are Indians. I don’t know what else I should do,” she told me. Manikjan’s neighbor Ashida Bibi was also sent to a detention center for a year. Her husband died while she was inside, and she was not allowed to attend his funeral despite her requests. Ashida now works as a daily wage laborer. “I have all the documents,” she insists, “I still don’t know why I was sent to a detention center. My life has been destroyed.”

Inside the detention centers there are many others whose lives have been destroyed.  They are stuck without any clue as to why they are there and are desperate to get out of the congested rooms.

According to Dr. Saptak Sarkar, a junior resident at Diamond Harbour Medical College and Hospital in West Bengal, congested rooms will fail to maintain all the criteria specified by either the Center for Disease Control for Interim Management in Correctional or Detention facilities or by the Ministry of Health in India for the COVID-19 prevention. “The virus mainly transmits through droplets emitting from other persons’ cough or sneezes; from direct contact or contact with used object and body fluid of COVID-19 positive individuals. Hence, the practice of social distancing and maintenance of proper hygiene in camps can prevent the spread many folds if not cease the spread for good.” It is therefore imperative need to free the detainees.

In response to the current emergency, there has also been a call from another NGO, the Committee for Justice and Peace, to convert that site for the new detention center into a hospital to treat COVID-19 patients, a sensible idea at a time when dignity and hope for the poor seem to be absent from lockdown policies. In addition to this, if the government has a change of heart and releases the detainees as Wadud demands, then perhaps this moment of crisis could be a small step towards something good.

Justice and Liberty Initiative’s application will be heard by the Supreme Court on 13 April 2020. In another petitionfiled by detainee Rajubala Das, the Court has issued notices to the Central Government and the Assam Government to file their reply and the matter will again be considered on the same date.

In Assam, lives have been lost, migrants have been stigmatized, people viewed with suspicion in the citizenship debate. This crisis, though, can be an opportunity, a page-turner for the detainees in Assam. Will the people in power do the right thing, though?

Arijit Sen is an independent journalist based in Kolkata. Over the years he has been covering the northeast as a reporter and researcher, apart from traveling the region during a stint with Amnesty International. He tweets @senarijit


The essay was first published in the Polis Project and it is reposted here verbatim for wider dissemination. The original piece can be accessed here.

Supreme Court remarks on illegal detention fly in face of India’s constitutional and international obligations: CHRI

May 5, 2019
Supreme Court of India. Photo The Hindu

Supreme Court of India. Image: The Hindu

New Delhi, May 1

The Supreme Court needs to reaffirm India’s constitutional and international obligations to rights on complex issues of nationality, detention and deportation and not be unmindful of its own commitment to these duties, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has urged.

The following is the text of the statement, issued today, and signed by a group of eminent citizens including former Supreme Court Justice Madan Lokur, Wajahat Habibullah, CHRI’s Chair and former Chief Information Commissioner, Justice AP Shah, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, and a number of senior former officials and civil society leaders:

As concerned citizens, we look to the Supreme Court to reaffirm India’s constitutional and international obligations to rights on sensitive issues.  That is why we are disappointed by recent statements by the Chief Justice of India on a complex matter relating to illegal detention and deportation, without heeding India’s own constitutional and international obligations.

While advocating greater detention of suspected ‘foreigners’, the Chief Justice brushed aside the Assam Chief Secretary with a stinging admonition for proposing a methodology for the release of a handful of foreign prisoners who had been in detention beyond their term of sentence for illegal entry. This was especially of concern for the case concerned the wilful violation of the human rights of hundreds of detainees who were languishing in what the court itself accepts are “inhuman conditions”.

We regard these remarks as unfortunate.

Article 21 is very clear in its intent, ambit and process. It binds all duty-holders and citizens with the ringing affirmation that no person in India (and we emphasize that there no special privileges here for Indian citizens) can be deprived of her/his right to life and liberty without due process.

NRC

NRC Official Logo

There is no deportation agreement with Bangladesh. International law lays down that such deportations can take place only with the consent of the country of origin. Bangladesh has consistently refused to accept that its citizens migrate in large numbers to India. Indeed, Bangladesh regards such unilateral efforts as harmful to a bilateral relationship that is critical for the security and stability of both countries and especially of our eastern region.

We cannot place ourselves in a situation where we are seen as forcing people out at gunpoint; it would be ethically unjust, wrong in law and draw international condemnation.

We are acutely sensitive to concerns in Assam and other parts of the North-east and across the country about the problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh, a long-standing issue that has defied official proclamations and pledges of “push back”, “deportation” and “detection”.

Whatever methods are used they must be undertaken within the rule of law frame, be just and fair and designed to minimise individual hardship and tragedy. We believe there is a need that this is a tragedy of growing intensity which is gathering momentum as a result of the current National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam.

Accounts from Assam indicate that often arbitrariness not rule of law is used to define those who have come post-1971 from Bangladesh (of whatever religious denomination) and those who are Indian nationals.

NRC-FORMS, SABRANG INDIA

People submitting NRC applications, Photo: Sabrang India

Lakhs are in limbo and now fear that they may become “stateless” because of a process that is mired in a mix of complexity, confusion, lack of precision and prejudice.

Many of those at risk are from the bottom of the economic pyramid, unable to sustain the complex adjudication process needed to establish their citizenship. Large numbers are already in detention camps.

Although the Supreme Court mandated deadline for a ‘final’ list is July 2019, we understand that not less than 38 lakh persons out of the 40 lakh (four million) who had found themselves off the NRC last year have filed applications for inclusion.  Such a huge number of requests cannot be processed in two months and we urge that this not be hurried as the consequences are too devastating to contemplate. The efforts need to be steady and methodical so that the charges of arbitrariness, prejudice and poor record keeping, which have plagued the NRC process, do not stick.

It must be pointed out here that India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which its representatives played a stellar part in developing the language that all of us are familiar with in regard to equality, non-discrimination and gender.  Our international commitments are clear as to the rights of people affected in such situations.

It would also be unacceptable if any Indian of any religious denomination is harmed by negligence, wilful prejudice, wrongful confinement and prosecution.

Failure to address this critical situation adequately and justly would be seen internationally as a gross violation of human rights and a blot on India’s traditional record.  What is also of concern to us are social fault lines that could be exacerbated by insensitive handling that could leave many people desperate, particularly youth, with the potential of radicalization.

As concerned citizens, we appeal to the judicial system and the government to explore a solution that addresses the human dimension. The situation in Assam and inter alia other parts of the North-east represent unprecedented challenges and conditions that cannot be resolved by application of a routine legal framework which is designed to deal with individual cases.

Wajahat Habibullah, Chairperson, CHRI

Members:
Justice Madan Lokur

Justice AP Shah

Ms. Vineeta Rai (IAS, retd, former Revenue Secretary  to the Government of India)

Nitin Desai, former Under Secretary, United Nations)

Jacob Punnoose (IPS, retd)

Poonam Muttreja (Member, Executive Committee, CHRI)

Kamal Kumar (IPS, retd)

Ms. Maja Daruwala (Adviser, CHRI)

Jayanto N. Choudhury (IPS, retd)

Dr. BK Chandrashekar (ex MLC, Karnataka)

Sanjoy Hazarika (International Director)

——————————————————————————————————————The statement is a verbatim reproduction from CHRI website at http://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/press-releases/supreme-court-remarks-on-illegal-detention-fly-in-face-of-indias-constitutional-and-international-obligations-chri

UN questions ‘statelessness and disenfranchisement’ of ‘minority groups’ in Assam

September 26, 2018

Special Rapporteur’s report to UNGA highlights plight of Bengali Muslims

UN-Human-Rights-Feature-Image

The UN Special Rapporteur has once again raised the issue of possible statelessness of millions of people in Assam in wake of the exclusion of their names from the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This is part of a report titled Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance that was presented before the UN General Assembly.

The 22 page report condemns “nationalist populism that advances exclusionary or repressive practices” and addresses “ascendant nationalist populist ideologies and strategies that pose a sobering threat to racial equality by fueling discrimination.”

Over 4 million people have been left out of the NRC final draft! Most of them belong to socio-economically backward communities and live in rural areas. Many of them are women and children!

On the subject of the exclusion of minorities from the NRC in Assam, the report says,

Nationalist populist parties in other places have implemented administrative and other rules leading to the exclusion of minority groups from official citizen registries on the basis of claims that they are irregular migrants, notwithstanding evidence showing that they are entitled to citizenship. This in turn has led to statelessness, disenfranchisement and increased vulnerability to discrimination, including the denial of basic rights and access to public services such as health and education.

In May 2018, the Special Rapporteur addressed a letter to the Government of India concerning the updating of the National Register of Citizens, a process governed by local authorities in the state of Assam. The letter drew attention to the heightened concerns of the Bengali Muslim minority, who have historically been portrayed as foreigners despite having lived in India for generations, even preceding the colonial era. Since 1997, the Election Commission of India has arbitrarily identified a large number of Bengali people as so – called “doubtful or disputed voters”, resulting in their further disenfranchisement and the loss of entitlements to social protection as Indian citizens.

While many have affirmed that the updating process is generally committed to retaining Indian citizens on the National Register of Citizens, concerned parties fear that local authorities in Assam, who are deemed to be particularly hostile towards Muslims and people of Bengali descent, may manipulate the verification system in an attempt to exclude many genuine Indian citizens from the updated Register.”

The entire report may be read here.

This is the second time the UN has taken cognizance of the humanitarian crisis in Assam. In May 2018, in a letter to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, four UN Special Rapporteurs had said,

It is alleged that the Tribunals have been declaring large numbers of Bengali Muslims in Assam as foreigners, resulting in statelessness and risk of detention. Finally, it is alleged that the potential discriminatory effects of the updated NRC should be seen in light of the history of discrimination and violence faced by Muslims of Bengali origin due to their status as ethnic, religious and linguistic minority and their perceived foreignness. Although the Bengali origin Muslims in Assam descend from peasant workers brought from the former Bengal and East Bengal starting in the 19th century under colonial rule, they have long been portrayed as irregular migrants. As a result of this rhetoric, Bengali Muslims have historically been the target of various human rights violations, including forced displacement, arbitrary expulsions and killings.”

In light of this, it is clear that the NRC issue is under the UN scanner and that given the international scrutiny it will not be easy for divisive forces to function with impunity much longer.

——————————————————————-

(The story was first published in CJP and is available at https://cjp.org.in/un-questions-statelessness-and-disenfranchisement-of-minority-groups-in-assam/, this is only a reproduction.)

INDIA: Minting a huge humanitarian crisis with national citizenship register in Assam

September 1, 2018

BHRPC wishes to forward this Written Submission to the 39th Regular Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council by the Asian Legal Resource Centre on the process of preparation of National Register of Citizens for Assam, India.

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) wishes to draw the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council to the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) that India has recently launched in the North Eastern state of Assam and its far reaching consequences not only for the country but also for South Asia as a region and the world too.

The ALRC also wishes to draw the attention of the Council to the fact that the final draft list leaves a whopping 4,007,707 persons out of a total of 32,991,384 people who had applied. The exercise is accused of gross negligence despite being mandated and monitored by the Supreme Court of India.

The final draft is full of problems ranging from personal tragedies like that of a single family member left out of hundred plus members of an extended joint families to at places whole communities are being left out. Those excluded include even persons like family members of a former president of India, veterans of Indian security forces, policemen, kith and kin of legislators to the poor who have no papers to show.

Many of those excluded complain of reasons behind their exclusion being subjective biases and the inherent flaws in the NRC of 1951 and the electoral rolls of 1961 and 1971 that make up the core of the ‘legacy data’. There are many cases in which the direct descendants of those figuring in the NRC of 1951 having been left out from the final draft. The primary reasons behind this include clerical errors resulting in misspelt names right from the parents to those of the claimants now, mismatched relationships and so on. Most of the people being very poor and living in areas routinely affected by floods have also lost their documents.

There are also large-scale complaints of the sectarian biases based on linguistic identity having played against even genuine claims of many of those left out. Chief Minister of West Bengal, a state neighbouring Assam, has complained of Bengali speakers having borne the brunt of the exercise with about 3.8 million of those left out from the NRC, or almost ninety percent, consisting of them.

There have also been allegations about a systemic bias against Muslims, a religious minority community in India and Dalits, erstwhile victims of untouchability now protected by the constitution and listed as Scheduled Castes. Matua Mahasangha, a religious organisation consisting principally of Namashudra Dalits with origins in Bangladesh, gives credence to this argument and claimed most of those affected are members of the community.

The argument gets further support from the fact that India has seen a continuous influx of Hindu refugees, mostly poor Dalits, fleeing persecution in Bangladesh. Studies estimate the total numbers of those who came to India seeking refuge at around 11 million, settled mostly in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura.

Though both the government and Supreme Court of India have promised another chance to all those left out to prove their citizenship along with no coercive measures against them till then, many fear losing their citizenships as all the documents they had have already been produced. Estimates of those finally left out are as high as 2 million.

Further complicating the situation is the fact of Bangladesh’s stern refusal of having anything to do with those left out. Authorities in Bangladesh have already called this issue an ‘internal matter of India with ethnic undertones’. This effectively turns those finally left out as stateless people with nowhere to go adding almost 2 million to already huge number of 10 million people currently estimated to be stateless.

That gives rise to the fear of large internment camps for those excluded from the final NRC list, violation of their human rights and another humanitarian crisis for the world.

In light of this, the ALRC urges the Council to:

1. Ask the government of India to exercise extreme cautiousness in the registration of the citizens and ensure that not a single genuine citizen of India is left out because of clerical errors or a lack of documents missing because of reasons beyond the control of applicants.

2. Ask the government of India to mobilise all authorities in the state of Assam as well as other states like West Bengal, Bihar and others from where many of the people excluded from the draft list come from to cross check their claims and help them secure their documents.

3. Ask the government of India to take concrete measures to dispel the allegations of discrimination against people on the basis of religion and caste and that nobody is denied citizenship because of discrimination.

4. Ask the government of India to urgently engage with the government of Bangladesh to find solutions in case of people still getting left out of the NRC as it claims that most of the ‘illegal’ immigrants are from Bangladesh.

5. Ask the government of India to not take any coercive action and deny people of their fundamental human rights and work for a humanitarian solution to the impending crisis.

(The submission was first published in the website of Asian Human Rights Commission and here it is reproduced verbatim for further dissemination)

Urgent appeal: Include the excluded people in the citizens’ register (NRC) for Assam, India

August 6, 2018

On 30 July 2018 the Government of India published a draft register of citizens residing in the state of Assam. This draft register admittedly excluded more than four million people who submitted applications for inclusion of their names. These four million people are at the risk of being rendered stateless.

People waiting to check their names in first draft of NRC publish on 31st December 2017

People waiting to check their names in first draft of NRC publish on 31st December 2017 (Photo: thehindiu.com)

Please sign the petition here

The main reasons for exclusion of such a large number of people include:

  1. Having no acceptable documents of pre-1971 as is required for inclusion.
  2. Having no acceptable documents to establish relationship with an ancestor who has a pre-1971 document.
  3. Non-acceptance of otherwise valid documents like school certificates and certificates of birth given by hospitals etc.
  4. Failure to verify submitted documents by the authorities.
  5. Non-acceptance of oral evidence.
  6. Not having an opportunity to establish citizenship by birth under section 3 of the Citizenship Act, 1955 by producing birth certificate or other admissible evidence of birth in India within the period specified.
  7. Non-application of subsection 7 (a) of section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955.
  8. Non-application of Proviso to section 2 of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950.
  9. Little or no application of Sub-paragraph 3 of Paragraph 3 of the Schedule titled Special Provision as to Manner of Preparation of National Register of Indian Citizens in State of Assam framed under Rule 4A of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003 in certain areas including South Assam and West Assam. And so on.

However, there is still a window of Claims, Objections and Corrections which will start and applications from the excluded applicants will be accepted from 30 August 2018 to 28 September 2018. The disposal period and procedure are yet to be notified.

Many of the people who are at risk of being rendered stateless can be saved and included in the register if the procedure of dealing with, and disposing of, the applications are formulated keeping in mind the humanitarian aspect of the process.

Please sign the petition here

In view of this it is suggested that the following points should be considered while framing Modalities in the Form of Standard Operating Procedure (SOP):

  1. Claims:

(1) At the minimum, six months’ time should be given for submitting applications for claims. Otherwise, a lot of people who have their origin in other states outside Assam or who work as migrant labourers in other states or abroad will be grossly prejudiced.

(2) An opportunity to establish citizenship by birth under section 3 of the Citizenship Act, 1955 by producing birth certificate or other admissible evidence of birth in India within the period specified should be given to the applicants.

(3) An opportunity should also be given to the applicants to establish citizenship before 7 December 1985 being the date on which Act 65 of 1985 that incorporated section 6A in the Citizenship Act, 1955 came into effect since as per subsection 7 of section 6A the provisions of section 6A is not applicable to them.

(4) The persons to whom Proviso to Section 2 of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 applies should be included in the NRC on the basis of direct or circumstantial evidence.

(5) While considering Claims applications, Sub-paragraph 3 of Paragraph 3 of the Schedule titled Special Provision as to Manner of Preparation of National Register of Indian Citizens in State of Assam framed under Rule 4A of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003 should be applied in appropriate cases. One of the reasons for exclusion of such a large number of people is little or non-application of this provision in districts of Barak valley and West Assam. There were people inhabiting in the area now under the 3 districts of the valley for centuries before it was annexed to the British domain by the East India Company and later joined with Assam.

(6) Those minor children whose parent/s is/are included in the final draft but who themselves are excluded from the list due to defects in link documents should be included on the basis of oral evidence or they should be given an opportunity to obtain other documents including birth certificate without hassles. Otherwise, it would be absurd to think that such children emigrated from Bangladesh leaving their parents behind.

(7) In case of married women certificate issued by Panchayat secretaries should be accepted as a link document. Such certificates have been allowed in case of married women after a lot of consideration by the Hon’ble Supreme Court because there is a possibility that no other documents will be available for them. Supporting oral evidence should also be admitted in such cases.

(8) Where the applicants fail to prove link with accepted legacy person by producing prescribed documents but insist on the relationship, they should be given an opportunity to prove the claimed linkage by DNA test conducted outside Assam at the state expense.

(9) No original application or claims application should be rejected on the ground that the documents submitted could not be verified. Their cases may be kept on hold until verification is done. Verification is the responsibility of the state.

(10) Any valid document establishing relationship with the legacy person of the applicant including PAN and ADHAAR cards should not be rejected on the ground that pan card is issued after 2015 and ADHAAR card is not being issued in the state of Assam officially.

(11) Minor mismatches and discrepancies in names, addresses, ages and other details in the documents relied by the applicants should be ignored and the probative value of the documents should not be considered affected.

(12) Order rejecting original application or claims application should record reasons for such rejection in detail dealing with each ground separately.

  1. Objections:

(1) No objection application should be accepted unless the person objecting knows the person objected to personally and sets forth reasonable grounds for such objection in the application.

(2) The notice of hearing in case of an objection should clearly state the grounds of objections to enable the concerned person to prepare her rebuttal. Such notice should be served with all seriousness giving at least six months’ time personally by the local NRC Seva Kendra (NSK) officials. Unless there is an endorsement of the notice receiver, the service should not be treated as complete.

(3) Without giving an opportunity of cross-examination of objector no objection should be accepted.

  1. Corrections:

(1) Officials who know the language of the applicant well shall be entrusted with the task of correcting names and other details.

(2) There should be a separate system of transliteration in Bengali and other languages to avoid spelling errors in names and other details published in those languages.

Please sign the petition here