Behind Assam’s NRC exercise, 5000 laptops with 300gb data each, 7000 operators, data traffic jams, server crashes and more
By Rajeev Bhattacharyya
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) continues to spring surprises in Assam with bizarre cases of exclusions being unravelled along with allegations that a large number of foreigners have enrolled in the list through fake documents.
Officials engaged with the NRC have shed light on the confusion and uncertainties that prevailed when data was being digitised and verified which undoubtedly had a cascading impact on the outcome of the exercise. It is worthwhile to recollect the bumpy sequence of events linked with the episode that was central to the compilation of the register.
The NRC was faced with hurdles from the very outset when tenders were floated by the secretariat in the latter half of 2014 for system integration and digitisation of legacy data. While the Guwahati-based Bohniman Systems bagged the second, there was none except Wipro Limited who made a bid for the first. In November of the same year, the Supreme Court had also set the target of 1 January 2016 for publishing the final NRC which was just 13 months away.
But Wipro Limited was soon faced with a hurdle when it was required not only to supply 5000 laptops within a month as per the contract. The additional task was to install the operating systems in the laptops and make it available for the 2500 Seva Kendras across the state. This apart, as many as 7000 data entry operators had to be recruited who would have to be graduates and computer literates as per the terms of the contract.
A couple of weeks later the contract was amended to include candidates who had only passed higher secondary. Wipro Limited leased the contract to Guwahati-based Integrated Systems & Services which is a distributor of the firm in the Northeast. By the end of January 2015, the laptops arrived from China, data entry operators recruited and three centres also set up in Guwahati for data entry where 2000 operators worked in two/three shifts.
Release of Legacy Data
The first legacy data which consisted of the 1951 NRC and electoral rolls between 1951 and 1971 (24th March) was rolled out on 6 February 2015 in a digitised format where people could search and trace linkages. Legacy data was given primacy and made available to the public primarily to avoid repetition of the situation in 2010 when efforts were made to implement pilot projects of the register in Barpeta and Chaygaon. The data contained about 6.25 lakh images totalling 300 GB which were loaded onto every laptop.
However, these legacy records in its original form did not have any unique code for each individual. Errors were noticed especially in the manner in which the same name surfaced with different spellings in different legacy documents which might have resulted due to different reasons including migration to a different district. In addition, the pre-1971 legacy records had over 44 thousand village names since the concept of the unique revenue village code did not exist earlier.
No wonder that there were around 17 crore hits after the online version of legacy data was uploaded by Bohniman Systems in the latter half of February. People had to search the same names of ancestors multiple times since a large number of names were spelt differently. Around 69 lakh people had downloaded their legacy data from the portal in a matter of a few weeks. People had also taken delivery of 77 lakh documents of legacy data from the 2500 Seva Kendra across the state. An estimated 95 per cent of the state’s population were able to avail their data through the system.
Enrolment in NRC
The next stage was filling up forms and their submission for enrolment in the NRC which was begun in May 2015 on a system developed by Wipro Limited. A month later, the software firm also came up with a version where people could file applications online. A huge pool of human resources was trained and engaged to ensure smooth and fast-paced implementation of the process but the site crashed due to heavy traffic within a week of the online version being launched.
Subsequently, an alternative offline-online NRC form was developed by Bohniman Systems and introduced at the community service centres across the state. The services of students who were given laptops by the government in recognition of their academic performance was availed as well to expedite the process of online application. These centres were envisaged to serve as public cyber cafes where applicants would fill up online forms even without the internet connection and which could be submitted whenever the link would be available.
A parallel process was started to digitise the applications at Guwahati but trouble was brewing at the data entry stations. Whenever a large number of operators would log in, the site would either crash or drag very slow which was managed by Wipro Limited. Faced with a crisis, the Secretariat decided to shift the work of digitisation to the Seva Kendras with the help of a new software (eform-1) developed by Bohniman Systems. The task was completed by the end of September but only three months were left for field verification by officials of legacy records (List A) and linking records (List B) among the 68 households in Assam.
It was during this brief span that applicants using wrong legacy data to establish citizenship were expected to be detected by the officials. The backend verification work of over 6 crores documents was also nowhere near completion by the end of November 2015. The Supreme Court agreed to extend the deadline which was finally fixed on 31 August 2019. Officials recalled that all the errors in the exercise had crept into the records in 2015 which could have been avoided if the targets for each phase had been realistic.
It may also be mentioned that the concept of family tree was not part of the original plan but introduced in the middle of 2017 as a tool for ascertaining the authenticity of the applications after it was approved by the Supreme Court. Another unforeseen episode for the NRC Secretariat was on 31 December 2017 when the first draft was published. The bandwidth was choked because of heavy traffic with the result that the data centre in Guwahati crashed at midnight which was managed by Wipro Limited and it was restored only in the afternoon on the next day.
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