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No country for Assam’s orphans

With hundreds left out of last year’s draft, the final NRC on August 31 proves crucial for orphans

If you ask six-year-old Ratul (name changed on request) about his favourite pastime activity, the boy has a ready answer. “I just love playing kabaddi,” he says with enthusiasm. The reason, according to him, is simple and straight. “Nobody can beat me in this game,” declares the little man with a proud smile.

His friends do not disagree though. “But there are other sports to play and they have other champions here,” quip a few, trying to tease the kabaddi pro among them. Kabaddi, cricket, football — you name it and up go a few hands among this bunch of young and confident athletes.

Located on the outskirts of Guwahati, the SOS Children’s Village in Azara, a child care institute providing special support to children deprived of parental care, is always bustling with a few wannabe Kohlis and Neymars and Dhonis.  There is a bunch of aspiring soldiers too. “The adventure and action of a military life are thrilling,” they explain.

But for all that there lies a long road ahead. The youngsters have time to prepare too. For now, little to their knowledge, there remain more pressing challenges to overcome. Their citizenship, above everything, is wrapped in doubts.

Since February 2015, with the cut-off date of citizenship as March 24, 1971, Assam has undergone an updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in order to detect the immigrants illegally residing in the state. The register, once published, aims to separate them from bona fide Indian citizens and then follow the necessary legal course.

And now, as the final NRC comes out in less than a week on August 31, the fate of as many as 59 children from this child care institute near Guwahati hangs in a limbo. Ratul and his ambitious friends fall in this category out of the total of 237 children living in the village and its associate centres.

“This is because all these children have come to our village post June 2015 — the time when we had begun filling up the applications for including the names of our children in the NRC,” says Subodh Das, the Director of the SOS Village in Azara. Fresh applications, he adds, could not be submitted for enlisting the newcomers in the citizens’ register as there has been no window for that till now.

However, despite his concern, Das is unsure of any possible step that he can take to resolve the problem. This, he argues, is due to a lack of standard guidelines from the NRC authority in the matter.

“Despite repeated enquiries, we have only been assured by the administration that all such children will eventually find their names in the NRC. We hope that it happens. But at the moment, we don’t know any details,” says a puzzled Das.

His apprehension is shared by others too. Paresh Baidyakar, who heads the SOS Village in central Assam’s Hojai, airs similar helplessness on the subject.

“There are 43 children in my village who have come after the application round [for NRC] in 2015. Out of these, while the names of 20 had already been applied for by their relatives before bringing them here, the rest remain to be incorporated in the process,” he says.

Though it is difficult to furnish an exact figure, Baidyakar believes that such cases can be found across the state. According to him, this is because not all children who come to the child care institutes and shelter homes have relatives to help them.

“The absence of a formal standard procedure to deal with inductees post 2015, even as the NRC deadline knocks at the door, is therefore upsetting. Currently, there is room for confusion and anxiety,” he laments.

On asked why there has been no official communication from the authority till now, Kshitish Pegu, the nodal officer in charge of NRC updating work in the Kamrup (Metro) district, expresses his ignorance on the issue.

He says: “As of now, even we are unaware of the steps that will be taken after August 31 to deal with cases of exclusion of orphans. Only the NRC State Coordinator probably knows what to do next and we are not privy to that.”

But the present uncertainty is only a symptom of a larger problem affecting the orphans that has surfaced during the NRC exercise in Assam.

Last year, when the complete draft NRC was published on July 30, the fate of orphaned and homeless children got shrouded in a similar doubt. Among the 40-lakh-odd people excluded out of a total of around 3.29 crore applicants, names of a majority of such children in Assam had been missing too. The reason for exclusion at that time was the same as now — a lack of clear instructions from the authorities.

Paresh Baidyakar says that he had applied for around 150 children living in his village in Hojai at the time of the application round in 2015. Among other things, the documents used for the purpose included detailed records of where the children had been brought from and how long they had been living under their care.

“But not a single name came up in the draft NRC published last year. This, we learned later, was because no standard rule had existed till then to cover such cases,” he says.

Father Lukose Cheruvalel, who headed the Snehalaya Child Care Institute in Guwahati between 2001 and late 2015, claims that he had led a delegation in early 2015 to meet Prateek Hajela, the NRC State Coordinator, to raise the issue of orphaned and homeless children in the state.

“We had met him even before the application round for NRC began in mid-2015. This was done so that a proper mechanism could be put in place by the time the process had actually started,” Cheruvalel says.

But to Cheruvalel’s surprise, when the draft NRC came out in July last year, it left out most of these orphan children. He opines: “Given the appeal we had made earlier, to see the names of those excluded children only because of the absence of proper rules in the process, was in a way a denial of juvenile justice.”

The problem was however addressed eventually, but not before November. A series of guidelines, approved by the Supreme Court and labelled as the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), came in place to lay down a set of modalities.

These were to be followed for two purposes: first, reapplication for those whose names were omitted from the draft NRC; and second, for raising objections against allegedly suspect names included in the draft NRC. The process, known as ‘Claims and Objections’, ran between September 25 and December 31 last year. All such claims and objections began to be verified by the NRC authority shortly after that.

Regarding the orphaned and destitute children, the SOP adopted a relaxed stance. Simply put, it stated that unlike other applicants, the documents submitted by the institutional homes on the children’s behalf will not require to be supported by anything else. Their citizenship, the clause continued, will be ascertained after the necessary verification of those papers by a committee of certain specified officials at the circle and district levels.

According to Subodh Das, this was a breather to all of them. He says that the authorised committee now accepted and verified the same sets of documents that had not been considered earlier.

“This allowed us to reapply for 140 children who had been left out last year. We have been assured that all of them will find their names in the upcoming citizens’ register on August 31,” Das adds with satisfaction.

While the SOP has plugged the initial procedural loopholes, there still remain a few loose ends to tie up. The problem surrounding the children who have joined care homes after 2015 is the most immediate one.

However, as things stand at the moment, in the run-up to August 31, all one can do is wait and pray.

“Now that there is hardly any time left, we just hope that the authority will deal with all such cases on a priority basis after the NRC publication. They should come up with something similar to last year’s SOP,” says Anamika Baruah, a Coordinator at Snehalaya in Guwahati, who, like many others, is happy with the manner in which the SOP addressed the previous shortcomings relating to the orphans. “If such modalities come into effect again, we believe all the remaining children can be easily included in the citizens’ register. There shouldn’t be much of a bother. But till then, let’s just wait and watch,” she sums up with anticipation.

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