Awaiting a self-cleaning mechanism for Assam media

by Nava Thakuria

If some editor-journalists are allegedly 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 come the actual picture will come to the
public domain? If the mainstream media outlets intentionally kill the
news, reasons best known to the editors, should the social media users
take a lead? By now a number of senior journalists (with experience in
print journalism for many decades) have highlighted the issue in
social media. Their message is loud and clear- identify the corrupt
television journalists who grabbed a huge amount of money which is
actually meant for thousands of Assamese professionals.

It all began when a second first information report (FIR) was filed by
the outgoing State coordinator of National Register of Citizens (NRC)
against his predecessor alleging corruption and money laundering while
updating the 1951 NRC in Assam. NRC State coordinator Hitesh Dev
Sarma, who is retiring on 31 July next, lodged the FIR with the Assam
government’s vigilance and anti-corruption wing accusing Prateek
Hajela, who earlier served as the State NRC coordinator.

Hajela, an Indian Administrative Services officer- presently serving
Madhya Pradesh government- is an Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi
graduate and cleared IAS 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.

Dev Sarma, also an IAS officer, claims in his complaint that the
engaged system integrator (Wipro Limited) with other persons indulged
in corruption while updating the 1951 NRC in Assam, the process began
in 2014 under supervision of the country’s apex court. In his
complaint on 13 June 2022, Dev Sarma asserted that a huge financial
mismanagement had taken place during Hajela’s tenure as the NRC head.
For conducting the NRC updation process, Wipro (system integrator) was
given the task of supplying data entry operators (DEOs). It was not
permitted to subcontract any activities related to system design &
development, deployment and enhancement of NRC software solution, data
centre operation, etc. But Wipro engaged sub-contractors for providing
data entry operators without any prior approval from the appropriate
authority.

From the office record, 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. The Wipro was paid Rupees
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 asserting that the DEOs were denied even the
least amount as per the country’s minimum wage act.

Some DEOs even came to the streets demanding their due amounts. They
claimed that out of 7000 young workers, a large number of DEOs were
deprived of their money, where the entire NRC updation process in
Assam cost Rs 1,600 crore which was paid by the government authority.
The DEOs also approached the State labour commissioner office with
demands for their legal and regular payments. They also suspected some
non-existent DEOs, who were also shown as paid.

A reliable source in the State NRC office, informed that at least
three editor-journalists of Assamese satellite news channels were also
beneficiaries to the financial irregularities. Those media persons
took sub-contracts to supply DEOs and got a sizable percentage of
money. It is understood that the large volume of money, meant for
DEOs, were fraudulently grabbed by those television
anchor-journalists. Needless to mention that, during the period of NRC
updating process, those television presenters shamelessly projected
Hajela as a hero.

Accountant General of Assam in a provisional audit report observed
that ‘the difference of margin ranged from 45.59 to 64.27 percent was
exorbitant and audit assessed that undue benefit of Rs 155.83 crore
was allowed to SI/labour contractor after allowing 10 percent
reasonable profit margin to the contractor’. Describing the undue
benefit to the tune of Rs 155.83 crore, Dev 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 then State coordinator should have obtained an 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, added it. Citing the same audit
report, where it observed that ‘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.

Now will it be possible to identify those scamster editors? If one
trusts in Dev Sarma, it’s yes. He mentioned that 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. But his presence was always seen in the office. In reality he was
the key person in managing all the kickbacks, said Dev Sarma. He
argued that a detailed investigation into the transactions and
accounts/balance sheets of the concerned persons would prove the money
laundering and finally it would help in identifying corrupt
individuals including those television editors.

However the case must be officially registered to bring all those
guilty individuals under the purview of laws. For the last few weeks
it has been ignored by the concerned authority seemingly for the
oppositions raised by a powerful lobby (of bureaucrats!). Question
arises, why has the lobby been working against the move with an aim to
safeguard anyone engaged in corruption? Should not the people of Assam
(also the entire nation) enjoy their rights to get a true picture
about the financial irregularities engineered during the NRC updation
process in the State?

Moreover, while the social media outlets are pouring the speculation
terming many editor-journalists (based in Guwahati) as beneficiaries
of the multi-crore rupees NRC updation scam, should not it become the
responsibility of the concerned section to clarify its stand? Why not
the so-called celebrity editor-journalists (including the news channel
proprietors) come together to declare publicly that nobody from their
organisations were involved with the specific financial
irregularities? If involved, that would be his/her responsibility to
defend in the concerned platforms. It’s really surprising, what more
they are waiting for!

The author is a Guwahati-based journalist, who writes for various
media outlets based in different parts of the globe.



 

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