In Guwahati's Sijubari, 47-year-old Atour Ali has been bed-ridden for the last six months with an acute spinal ailment. Although he is a driver by profession, ill-health has kept him away from the wheel as well as his only shot at earning a livelihood.
But a new challenge looms over him now. He has been excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and a long legal battle stares him in the face at a time when he is extremely short of funds.
"How can I pay for my case in tribunals when even providing for my family has become so difficult? I am under a lot of pressure, and with my health faltering, how am I supposed to attend hearings?" Atour Ali asked NDTV.
Walk into the Pan Bazar locality of Guwahati, and you may chance upon Subhrajyoti Sengupta. Although his ancestors have lived here for 176 years now, his wife - Dolan Sen Gupta - has been excluded from the list. "Our 120-day window for challenging the NRC exclusion will begin only after we get some kind of a document from NRC officials. We may be in this for the long haul," said Mr Sengupta.
NRC authorities are yet to formally notify those excluded from the list, after which the 120-day deadline for seeking legal recourse is supposed to begin.
The government has assured free legal aid to the disadvantaged, but only a few seem to have been contacted by officials in this regard. "It is disheartening that there's no clarity on this," said Atour Ali.
The numbers are hardly promising. Nearly 20 lakh people have been left out of the National Register of Citizens, and they only have 120 days to challenge their exclusion. That comes up to an average of 16,000 legal challenges per day.
According to records with the Assam government, as many as 6.26 lakh cases were referred to foreigner tribunals from 1985 to 2018. Of them, 2.12 lakh cases have been disposed of with over one lakh being declared as Indian citizens and another one lakh declared as foreigners.
"Even if we consider 15 lakh new petitions to be heard in 500 tribunals, and if you add to it the five lakh pending cases and two lakh 'doubtful voter' cases, it will come up to 22 lakh petitions in all. Given the current rate of disposal, it will take the tribunals over 40 years to dispose of all these petitions," veteran lawyer Hafiz Rashid Choudhury told NDTV.
Availability of lawyers is also likely to be a problem. "The mere task of procuring documents for lakhs of people from the district collectors' offices will be difficult. In my estimation, a single case will run for years," said Syed Burhanur Rahman, a lawyer who has been fighting citizenship cases in Guwahati.
While Assam currently has around 100 foreigner tribunals, 300 more are expected to be set up by October. However, even that would require each tribunal to hear over 6,000 cases on an average.
Foreigner tribunals in the state disposed of about two lakh cases in the 34-year period from 1985 to the current year. Now, they will have to hear ten times that number - 20 lakh cases - in one go.