The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bengal’s masses without an identity

Calcutta, Aug. 10: Over 90 per cent of people in two areas in Murshidabad do not have any document prescribed by the government to prove their nationality, according to an exercise sponsored by the Centre.

The startling piece of statistics has emerged from a pilot project commissioned by the Registrar General of India in Murshidabad, the border district that is often sucked into controversies over illegal immigration ' one of the most contentious issues in Bengal and several parts of the country.

At first glance, the revelation seems to confirm what critics of the Left Front government have been alleging ' that the state machinery has papered over the existence of a huge mass of populace which does not belong to the country but has been allowed to stay on as a captive votebank.

The latest entrant to the bandwagon is Mamata Banerjee, who has shed her long-time reservations and made illegal migration and bogus voters’ lists a key plank in the run-up to next year’s Assembly elections. But demographers and social scientists cautioned that conclusions should not be reached in haste on the sensitive issue.

“The huge number of people without any document serves to show how difficult it is to create such databanks in our country. Some people are so poor that they cannot be expected to have any of the documents listed (see chart) by the government,” a demographer said.

The figures were arrived at on the basis of findings by officers who tried to verify the antecedents of 2.55 lakh people who were photographed and fingerprinted in the Murshidabad municipality and Jiaganj block. The pilot project is being carried out as part of the multipurpose national identity card initiative.

“The Murshidabad municipality was divided into 77 small zones and Jiaganj block was split into 347 zones for nationality verification of the population using government guidelines. In most cases, only less than 10 per cent of the people could produce the documents as specified by the government,” said a source involved in the exercise.

He said no more than 24,000 of the 2.55 lakh covered in the pilot project passed the nationality test. People were given the option of producing at least one out of the 19 prescribed documents before the verification teams as proof of their nationality.

A significant proportion of the population had voters’ identity cards and new ration cards. But the voters’ cards and new ration cards were not used as verification tools because recurrent charges of foul play in allocation have cast a cloud on their authenticity.

Officials, however, put the success rate somewhere around 30 per cent and cited several reasons for the poor show.

“The verification process is not fully complete. According to our information, around 30 per cent of the population produced the necessary documents, while a significant portion of them said that they had lost the documents due to floods,” said N.M. Prasad, district magistrate, Murshidabad.

The multipurpose identity card was conceived by the erstwhile NDA government at the Centre to tackle illegal migration. The UPA government continued with the pet project of former deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and the pilot is on in the border areas of 13 states. In Bengal, Murshidabad was chosen.

In the first round, enumerators collected data on name, occupation and other details by visiting people born before 1986. Photographs and fingerprints were digitally collected in the second round.

Individual sheets ' by assimilating all the data -- were prepared for every individual for verifying their nationality. It is in this phase that so many people could not produce any document.

A senior census official, while acknowledging the high incidence of infiltration in border districts, said: “These exercises involve a lot of trial-and-error processes and since this is a pilot, we can only expect realistic parameters in the following rounds.”

The deadline for this round is August 15 but the work may stretch for five more days.

After that a local register of Indian citizenship will be generated with the names of those who passed the nationality test. “Another list, the local register of residency, will include those who have failed and they will be given further chances to prove their Indian citizenship,” an official said.

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