The Assam government has finalised a plan to relocate foreign nationals from jails following a Gauhati High Court order last year.
In the first phase, the detention centres inside jails in six districts of the state—Dibrugarh, Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Jorhat, Tezpur and Silchar—will be shifted to rented buildings. The deputy commissioners have already submitted the proposals, including the estimate for funds, to the state home department for renovation of the houses that have been taken on rent.
A temporary measure, it is expected to be implemented by 31 March. Subsequently, the detainees would be relocated to the permanent detention centre currently under construction at Matia in Goalpara district. Commissioner and secretary, home and political department, G.D. Tripathi confirmed the “short- and long-term” plans of shifting the detainees from the jails. He said the relocation to the detention centre at Goalpara is expected to be completed immediately after the Assembly polls in the state.
The centre which is being constructed by the Assam Police Housing Corporation at Goalpara can house nearly 3,000 detainees. The delay in completion of the project was due to the lockdown enforced from March in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, causing shortage of labour and disruption of the supply chain for procuring building materials.
Another official claimed there were “better chances” of the detainees being relocated directly to the centre at Goalpara post-elections. “There is no rationale in wasting money on the renovation of the rented buildings, which is only a temporary measure. The total expense for the rented accommodation could be a few crores of rupees,” he said.
Currently, there are 425 detainees at the six detention centres in Assam. Some among them had been released following two orders from the Supreme Court in the last two years. In 2019, the Supreme Court said that foreign nationals who had been detained for over three years should be released, subject to fulfillment of certain preconditions. Last year, the apex court ordered conditional release of detainees who had completed more than two years in jail to prevent overcrowding in jails in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The court said the detainees would need to furnish a personal bond with two sureties.
In October last year, Gauhati High Court stepped in with a ruling that the detention centres must be outside the jail premises. The government was allowed to “look for hiring private buildings for the purpose”, if suitable government accommodation was not available.
Earlier, the Supreme Court in a 2012 order involving Pakistani prisoners had clearly stated that foreign nationals be kept at an appropriate place with restricted movement pending their deportation. The places where they are to be kept may be detention centres, but they must have the basic facilities of electricity, water and hygiene.
Complying with the Supreme Court order, the Union Home Ministry had issued communication in 2012, and again in 2014, to all state governments and union territories, instructing them to relocate all foreign nationals from jails to suitable accommodation, underscoring the need to uphold their basic human rights and dignity.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati.