It can happen only in Assam that a document as compromised as ration card can be furnished as a linkage document for claiming citizenship. The Centre has rightly informed the Supreme Court about its doubts over the reliability of ration card as a supporting document for NRC update exercise. And the apex court has agreed, which in turn has elicited protests from political parties like the Congress and the AIUDF. Pointing out that the previous UPA government at the Centre had approved the use of ration card in the NRC exercise, State Congress president Ripun Bora has warned of ‘archy’ if ’48 lakh people are directly disowned’ due to rejection of ration card. The AIUDF has made it known that it is seeking legal opinion, and will soon challenge the rejection in Supreme Court. Contending that the rejection will ‘create problems for genuine Indian mes to be included in NRC’, the AIUDF has rued that the NRC exercise is now ‘set to be in doldrums’. The apex court is already set to hear from next week the AIUDF’s petition challenging the Gauhati High Court’s order striking down the validity of panchayat certificates as NRC linkage documents. It would be instructive to remember that in the NRC exercise, ration card issued up to the midnight of 24th March, 1971 can be furnished for List A (provided it is supported by some other admissible document); however, ration card can be directly furnished for List B to prove one’s relationship to the ancestor (whose me appears in List A). So, just as ration cards have been widely used for inclusion into electoral rolls in Assam, these can again help much getting one’s me included in the updated tiol Register of Citizens.
It is easy to ascribe dark political motives to the Centre’s stand against ration cards. But why should ration cards be used as a supporting document to prove one’s citizenship? Just because it has been used as proof of identification when applying for domicile certificates or for inclusion into electoral rolls, that does not mean the practice should extend to the NRC as well. The Central government is now viewing the ration card as it ought to be viewed — primarily as a means to identify beneficiaries who qualify for welfare schemes under Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT). It came out last year that as over 1.62 crore bogus ration cards had been weeded out across the country, thanks to digitisation. Assam happened to figure among the top 10 states in terms of bogus ration cards (56,687 from 2013 to 2015, as per government data). But the ration card fraud in Assam runs far deeper, which the PG Agarwala inquiry committee brought out clearly when it submitted its report in August last year. Set up by the previous Congress government, this committee blew the lid off how beneficiaries were selected by panchayats and cooperative societies mostly along party lines. It was also estimated that around 3 lakh bogus ration cards have been handed out since 1991, which translates to subsidized foodgrains being lifted in the mes of around 15 lakh non-existent people (at average 5 members per household) all these years. If rations can be stolen or handed out on basis of political affiliation, is it any wonder ration cards have so little credibility left?
Not just Assam, other states too have been so tardy in issuing authentic ration cards that the Central government no longer accepts it as proof of identity and residence. The Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution has stopped doing so, fed up with widespread tampering of such cards. Neither can ration cards be furnished as ID and address proof in applying for passports, with the Exterl Affairs Ministry having directed all passport branches in the states to this effect since last year. This has removed a major headache for passport officials, who earlier had a hard time verifying ration cards of people who could alter details at will whenever they migrated. One can imagine the hassles NRC officials in Assam are facing in verifying ration cards. It is one of the first documents lakhs of illegal foreigners in Assam have gotten their hands on to — with the blessings of political parties. Thanks to ration cards, these infiltrators got their residential proof, and then got their mes into electoral lists. Just because such bare-faced rule-breaking was actively encouraged by the powers-be in Assam in the past, does not mean that it has to be put up with now. When databases of Aadhaar, PAN card, driving licence and other documents are being linked up across the country, Assam must not cut a sorry figure case with ration cards allowed for claiming citizenship.