04, Mar 2021 | CJP Team
A survey by CJP’s Assam Team of personnel, infrastructure and other facilities at District Legal Services Authority (DSLA) offices in 10 Assam districts has revealed just how ill-equipped they are at present, and they could get completely overwhelmed when lakhs of people who had been excluded by the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published in August 2019, would approach them for legal aid.
After the and it was discovered that more than 19 lakh people had been excluded from the final NRC, CJP swung into action to provide paralegal and legal assistance to those excluded from the final NRC. This is how CJP’s Assam Team noticed that there was a lack of concerted efforts being made by the state government for providing legal aid to those excluded from NRC, as directed by the by Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
Now that the final NRC has been published, and 19,06,657 people have been excluded from the final list, CJP’s campaign has become even more focused. Our objective now, is to help these excluded people defend their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals. For this we have already started conducting a series of workshops to train paralegals to assist people at FTs. We will also be publishing a multi-media training manual containing simplified aspects of legal procedure, evidentiary rules, and judicial precedents that will ensure the appeals filed against the NRC exclusions in the FTs are comprehensive and sound, both in fact and in law. This will assist our paralegals, lawyers and the wider community in Assam to negotiate this tortuous process. For this we need your continued support. Please donate now to help us help Assam.
In early 2020, CJP petitioned the Guwahati High Court (previously Gauhati HC) on the issue with three families of those excluded. Senior counsel Mihir Desai assisted by Advocate Mrinmoy Dutta appeared in the matter. The petition was withdrawn after the Hon’ble High Court opined that this was a fit case for a public interest litigation.
From April 2020 to November 2020, the organisation was involved in detailed correspondence and representations to both the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and the Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA).
Though the Assam state administration announced that legal aid will be provided by the state, we feared that they did not have adequate personnel, proper training and infrastructure for the same.
CJP’s Assam team conducted a survey to verify the claims made by the Assam State Legal Services Authority (ASLSA) about availability of personnel and other resources to deal with Citizenship related cases, once those excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) start getting their reasons for rejection. The objective of the survey was to test the Assam government’s claims about the spread and expanse of the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA).
CJP’s team examined closely the lacunae in the DLSA apparatus in different districts of Assam. The pilot survey covered the following 10 districts:
Here is a summary of our key findings:
- These 10 districts have about 273 active advocates devoted/appointed especially for legal aid, and 333 Para Legal Volunteers (PLVs).
- The minimum qualification of PLVs in seven districts is Class VIII pass, in Chirang it is Class X pass, in Goalpara the PLVs are Higher Secondary (HS) pass to Graduates and in Dhubri the minimum qualification is HS.
- In none of the 10 districts surveyed, has any training on the Citizenship, immigration, NRC, Foreigners Act, etc. been provided so far.
- As regards front office, the findings are as follows:
- Dhubri: No Front Office was seen.
- Goalpara: Front Office lacked adequate number of staff.
- Baksa: No Front Office is seen, but they have the space where such an office can be set up
- Barpeta: Front Office is too small with no place for any visitor to sit. On ten visits by representatives of the petitioner, no staff was seen in the front office.
- Darrang: The Front Office is badly maintained. It is not clean and hygienic.
- Udalguri: The Front Office is not adequately staffed.
- So far as the Monitoring Committees are concerned, in all the 10 districts, the committee consists of only one advocate apart from the Chairman and the Secretary.
Apart from the Dhubri District, where 7 Foreigners’ Tribunal (FT) cases were handled by the counsel of the DLSA in 2019, and 3 cases were handled in 2020, in other districts, no FT cases appear to have been handled by the counsel of the DLSA. If they are, such records were not available, making the information unclear.
This table offers a quick summary of district-wide findings:
Our team discovered that some of the DSLA staff (like in the case of Barpeta) was contractual. The criteria of selection and reselection appeared arbitrary. In some places there was a fixed tenure, in others there was no limit and people could be reselected depending upon the senior official’s decision.
Also, it is difficult to gauge the nature of communication between DSLA officials and people seeking legal aid, as it was office staff of the DSLA, and not the lawyers or paralegals that initially spoke to the people who came for legal aid. Moreover, if DSLA appears to stay away from FT cases in most districts, then how can one expect them to have any experience, let alone expertise required to handle such cases?
Even in the case of Dhubri DLSA where 7 FT cases (2019) and 3 FT cases (2020) have been dealt with, there are no specialised trainings in FT, Foreigners Act, Citizenship Law, Immigration Law etc. There is also no information available about the outcome of these cases, i.e how many were declared foreigners, how many were found to be Indian and how many were appealed in the High Court.
Over 19 lakh people who have been excluded from the NRC are expected to defend their citizenship before Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs). Most of them belong to financially and socially backward communities and cannot afford to pay for legal services required to present their case before the designated FT. They will rely on DSLA lawyers and paralegal volunteers.
Extrapolating from data available from 10 districts, there are less than 1,000 advocates (273 x 3.3 = 900.9) in the DSLAs in the total 33 districts of Assam. Assuming all 19-lakh people go to 1,000 DSLA advocates, each advocate will have to handle 1,900 cases! Assuming each case requires a minimum of at least three hearings to provide documentary evidence and then witness testimony to authenticate the presented documents, and the day the FT passes its order, each advocate will have to handle 5,700 hearings! Now assuming they handle three FT hearings a day, given that their other non-citizenship related cases also require attention, they will still spend a bulk of 1,900 days on FT hearings, which comes to more than 5 years… at the very least! This does not include the time spent on getting information on the case in the first place and arranging for documents and witnesses. Moreover, those who are eventually declared foreigners might want to appeal against the FT order in the High Court. That also needs to be accounted into the calculation, not just in terms of time, but also expenses on documentation, travel and arranging for other logistics.