RANGIA/ GUWAHATI: Several eminent members of Assam's civil society have urged the Chief Justice of India to direct the NRC authority to reschedule the re-verification hearings and hold the exercise within the respective districts of applicants so they don't have to travel hundreds of kilometres at short notice.
The development followed reports of thousands of impoverished Muslims pledging their valuables before making a mad rush to reach the hearing centres, some over 600 km away.
Notices are being served to NRC applicants whose names figure in the draft list to attend re-verification hearings in far-flung areas at woefully short notice of one or two days.
"We request you to kindly direct the NRC authority to re-schedule the hearing either within the district or within the adjoining districts and provide at least one week's time, so that the applicant can attend the hearing and complete the process within the due date stipulated by the Supreme Court," the letter sent to CJI Ranjan Gogoi on Wednesday said.
Thousands returning from Upper Assam districts to Lower Assam areas, after their re-verification got wrapped up on Monday, have agonising tales about how they arranged for money to fund their travel that extended up to 670 km.
Fazal Haq of Chupa village in Lower Assam's Kamrup said he had to pledge two gold bangles of his family with a jeweller so he, his wife and children could travel to Sivsagar in Upper Assam.
Salma Begum of Sontoli village said she had to sell off livestock to arrange for money for her 6-member family's travel to Golaghat.
"There was no food or water even for children, no toilets for women at the centre," she said.
Anwar Hussain from Kanhara village was, however, lucky.
The Army unit at Golaghat gave his family drinking water and allowed them to use the camp toilet.
Jahirul Islam, a native of Chaygaon, said he and many like him had to sell their harvested crops at throwaway prices to fund their journey.
Their predicament attracted media attention when two buses crammed with people seeking to establish their Indian citizenship met with accident leaving two people dead, including a child.
Nearly 100 people were injured in the accidents.
"Everyone wants an error-free NRC but not at the cost of their lives and health. Many of us, particularly children, have fallen sick because of the exhausting journey," says Janab of Goroimari.
Human rights activist Salma Hussain said she and her team made some arrangements to facilitate their travel.
The transporters, she said, were charging a hefty Rs 45,000 for every bus that would take them to places like Golaghat and Sivasagar.
"Many of these people were left devastated by the recent floods. Before they could recover from the trauma, they were served notices to reach places 500-600 km away at a short notice of 6 to 12 hours. They panicked and many started crying. What do we tell them? To be strong? I could not under the circumstances," Hussain said.
As stories of their torment became public, 131 eminent citizens--filmmakers, journalists, advocates, retired government officials and social activists--decided to write to Gogoi, also a resident of Assam.
They appealed to him to direct the NRC authority to make the notice available on the internet, besides serving them physically, so that even Assamese people living outside the state could also access it and respond accordingly.
They requested Gogoi to direct district authorities to make available transport to the applicants for a hassle-free travel.
For those who missed the re-verification proceedings, a fresh hearing should be held at convenient places, they said.
The letter said people of Assam were supporting the NRC verification process but want it to be "error-free and just" because of the huge cost involved in terms of time, energy and financial resources.
It said the NRC updating process is in its final stage and the Supreme Court has directed that there is no need to conduct sample re-verification, which is being done.
"Previously, all notices issued by NRC were available online but this time it is being served physically and sometimes at the eleventh hour making it practically impossible for many to go," the letter said, adding the apex court had said the applicants should be given at least 15 days to attend the hearing after receiving the notice.
The Supreme Court, it said, had also observed that those required to attend hearings should not be inconvenienced.
"It, however, seems that the NRC authority in Assam is violating the Supreme Courts direction or deliberately ignoring its observations," the letter added.
The signatories to the letter include Sahitya Akademi award-winning author Arupa Patangia Kalita, former Advocate General of Tripura Bijan Das, educationist and author Dinesh Baishya, economist Ananta Kalita, women's rights activist Junu Bora, filmmaker Reema Bora and artist Jnanendra Borkakoti.