Prateek Hajela, the man at the helm of 6-year-long NRC exercise
For roughly six years, IAS officer Prateek Hajela has been one of the most-talked about and important bureaucrats in India for his position leading the gargantuan exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam.
Operating out of his office on the first floor of a multi-storied building in Guwahati’s busy GS Road, the 50-year-old IIT-Delhi alumnus put together a closely knit team that oversaw the Rs1,200 crore process that involved 55,000 officials and 66.4 million documents.
Hajela was appointed as the state coordinator in September 2013 on the recommendations of the then Congress government. At the time, he was serving as the managing director of the National Rural Health Mission.
Also Watch | NRC list out, Assam CM Sonowal appeals to maintain peace
“Hajela was appointed on our recommendation and because he was thought to be competent,” said then chief minister Tarun Gogoi.
Hajela, who served as the deputy commissioner for 10 years, including in Guwahati, immersed himself in the exercise even as the Supreme Court bench started sought regular updates from the state and the Centre.
“He told us that this process is like a hilly road where you can’t see the obstacle beyond the turn,” one of his associates said on condition of anonymity. Hajela has been barred from speaking to the press by the apex court.
The one-of-its-kind NRC process saw many innovations devised by the team to verify its roughly 32.9 million applicants, and associates said Hajela was closely involved in designing most of them.
One prominent such device was the family tree verification to check if anyone has wrongly used the documents of another family. The process saw officials match a computer-generated family tree with the handwritten one and subjecting mismatches to elaborate hearings where all the members had to come together at one centre. He was also closely involved in the firming up of over 53 software applications that made up the backbone of the verification process.
Two people who worked with Hajela said on condition of anonymity he took a keen interest in the back-end software and often wanted to see the applications designed on his iPad.
The Supreme Court insulated him from the state government. In an order in 2018, the top court directed him to not share any information with anyone, including the state government. His communication with the top court occurred through his reports that were submitted in sealed envelopes.
But this secrecy also earned him detractors. “He behaves like a super chief minister,” said Shiladitya Dev, BJP MLA from Hojai.
The NRC exercise also came under criticism by state government officials who said their requests for information remained pending. A senior home department official said that a request to provide details of people who didn’t file claims against exclusion remained pending.
Even Gogoi said the process lacked guidance and coordination. “It seems he is not doing it properly. There should be more consultation,” he added.
Even on the day the final NRC list was published, Hajela was credited by field officers with ensuring strict secrecy and no leakage of data before 10 am on Saturday, the stipulated time for publication. “They are tightlipped,” said multiple senior official across Cachar, Dispur and Guwahati.