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Foreigners Tribunals across Assam suffer due to lack of infrastructure

NEW DELHI: Even as the Union Home Ministry recently disbursed its budgeted allocation for operationalising the 200 additional Foreigners Tribunals across Assam, the same number of members have been “attached” with the original 100 quasi-judicial bodies as no new infrastructure, including buildings to house the courts, have been built or provided.

MHA officials were chary in revealing the amount disbursed to the Assam government in May this year. However, in a May 2019 letter to the Assam Chief Secretary, the MHA had granted “in principle” approval to the state government’s proposal to initially set up 400 FTs at an estimated expenditure of Rs 563.6 crore. The initial target was subsequently brought down to 200.

To make matters more complicated, hundreds of thousands of appeals cases related to persons whose citizenship could not be established during the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam, are not being heard as the rules governing the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) are yet to be framed. The Foreigners Tribunals are mandated to adjudicate whether a person is a foreigner or an Indian citizen.

The 200 Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs) were to become functional from September 1, 2019, as a consequence of a May 2019 Supreme Court order. They are part of the 1,000 proposed FTs which, MHA sources said, “whose establishment will now be delayed”.

However, the FTs remained idle for the first six months since the members did not have any work. Sometime in March 2020, the new members were assigned the task of disposing over 1 lakh “pending references” arising out of the NRC exercise. The MHA also approved this Assam government proposal.

To begin with, 50 newly appointed members were designated as “attached members” with 50 of the 100 original operational FTs in August 2020. But the immediate challenge faced by the Assam government was little or no infrastructure for the new FTs.

“Not only physical buildings and courtrooms, each tribunal lacked other basic necessities such as chairs, tables and file cabinets among other things,” an Assam senior advocate associated with a February 12, 2021, Gauhati High Court case involving the Assam government, the Centre (MHA and the Ministry of External Affairs) and the Accountant General, told. “The Assam government did not respond when the matter involving the lack of infrastructure was raised,” the advocate said.

Subsequently, in an October 25, 2021, meeting chaired by the Assam Chief Secretary, it was decided that there should be a “rationalisation of members”.

Accordingly, an Assam government “policy decision” did not “assign regular work” to the 200 newly appointed members of the FTs “since the possibility of NRC rejection slip being issued in (the) near future is very bright”.

However, an order placing all the 200 new members at the disposal of the original 100 FTs was issued in January 2022. “This effectively means that the Centre has now allocated the budgeted amount for setting up the 200 new FTs which are only on paper,” a source said.

While each of the FT members are paid Rs 90,000 monthly salary (about Rs 22 crore annually for 200 members) besides perks, the problem has been compounded by the Assam government’s failure to appoint about 2,000 employees such as peons, attendants, computer operators etc, making it difficult for the members to execute their tasks.

When contacted, Congress Lok Sabha MP Pradyut Bordoloi said that FTs are the “MHA’s responsibility” as it reimburses the state by making budgetary allocations in this regard. “The FTs are not functional because the rules governing the CAA have not been framed. There are a lot of grey areas,” Bordoloi said.