A woman holds up a CNIC application that was rejected by NADRA in Karachi | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
A woman holds up a CNIC application that was rejected by NADRA in Karachi | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Ajdar Khan did not know what his Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) was good for. The only time he would need it was when policemen in Islamabad, where he works as a construction labourer, asked him to show his identification documents at one of the multiple security checkpoints in the federal capital.

About three months ago, while he was with his family in his native village Chamal, in Lower Dir district, some government officials visited him. They were there to tell him what his CNIC was no longer good for; he could not purchase a mobile phone connection; he could not obtain connections for civic utilities such as water and electricity; he could not sell or purchase land and secure bank loans. Most importantly, he could not move around within Pakistan and travel abroad as a Pakistani citizen.

The National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) had 'blocked' his identity card on the suspicion that he was an Afghan national. If he wanted to live and work as a Pakistani again, he needed to remove that suspicion and have his CNIC unblocked.

At first, Khan did not bother. The policemen deployed at checkpoints were still letting him pass. They possessed no mechanism to know if his CNIC was blocked. Then the reality slowly started to dawn on him. He could be arrested for being an alien, a foreigner, living in Pakistan without valid documents. This frightened him so much that he stopped going back to his village on weekends and confined himself within his workplace in Islamabad's G-14 sector.

He also started asking around what he should do to have his CNIC unblocked. Someone told him that moving the federal ombudsman could be one option. "I have filed an application with the ombudsman, requesting him to instruct Nadra for the unblocking of my identity card," Khan tells Herald.

The decision on his application will take some time. In the meanwhile, none of his family members will be able to use their CNICs anywhere in the country for obtaining documents such as passports, driving licences and arms permits, and utilising such services as bank accounts, says a Nadra official.

Khan's CNIC is among thousands of others blocked over the last six years — for the same reason: that they were issued to foreigners. The process started in 2009, when the authority set up a vigilance committee to keep a permanent eye on its own database in order to detect if any foreigners were registering themselves as Pakistanis. "Every person listed on the Nadra database belongs to a family tree which goes back two generations at least," says a senior Nadra official. The vigilance committee raises an instant alert as soon as someone is found to be linked to no family tree, he adds, without wanting to be named because he is not the official spokesperson of the authority.

The alert, however, does not result in the immediate blocking of the CNIC. "Of course, there could be exceptional cases," says the Nadra official. Someone could be the first or the only person in two generations of an extended family to have registered themselves with the official database. The entire concept of government-issued identity cards, after all, is less than 50 years old; Nadra's digital database is of even more recent origin. There are hundreds of thousands of families in remote parts of the country who, according to Nadra's own admission, still exist outside its database. They may have never felt the need to get registered with the government.

To verify if a person belonging to no family tree in the database is actually a foreigner, Nadra has engaged various intelligence personnel. An intelligence official conducts ground verification before a decision about the blocking – or not blocking – of the CNIC is made. "Ground verification means that an official goes to the locality where the person lives and verifies whether he is actually a Pakistani national or not," the Nadra official says.

Men stand in queue at the Nadra office in Hyderabad | White Star
Men stand in queue at the Nadra office in Hyderabad | White Star

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh, this verification process is carried out either by the Special Branch of the police, the Intelligence Bureau or the Inter-Services Intelligence. In Balochistan, the Military Intelligence also conducts additional verification.

Once intelligence officials have reported a person to be an alien, their data is deleted and the CNIC is blocked. A Nadra document presented to the federal interior ministry recently puts the number of blocked CNICs issued to foreigners at 4,036. Most of the blocked cards – 3,430 to be exact – belong to people suspected of being Afghan nationals. The remaining cards were issued to suspected Iraqis, Bangladeshis, Iranians, Uzbeks, Moroccans, Chinese and Egyptians — among others.

These numbers, however, appear to be under-reported. Former Interior Minister Rehman Malik is reported to have said while chairing a meeting of the Senate's standing committee on interior a few weeks ago that he had ordered Nadra to block as many as 85,000 CNICs in just Balochistan during his tenure (between 2008 and 2013).

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Malik's successor in the interior ministry, told the National Assembly on November 27, 2015 that a 100,000 fake identity cards have been blocked over the last 12 months alone. Though Malik and Khan did not specify how many of these blocked CNICs were issued to suspected foreigners, there is anecdotal evidence that suggests the actual number of such blocked cards is much higher than the one being reported by Nadra.

In Swabi district, says Sitara Ayaz, an Awami National Party senator, thousands of CNICs have been blocked on the suspicion that they were wrongly issued to Afghan nationals. "I hear similar complaints from Peshawar," she is reported to have said during a Senate session some weeks ago.

The Nadra officials do not want to comment on the numbers but they claim they are taking the problem very seriously. The authority has sacked more than 200 of its officials over the last six years for issuing CNICs to foreign nationals and is collaborating closely with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for the arrest, investigation and prosecution of anyone suspected of registering foreigners as Pakistanis in its database.

"We carry out a departmental inquiry first," says a Nadra spokesperson. "If the person is found guilty in the inquiry, we forward his case to the FIA for starting criminal proceedings against him." Such proceedings are generally conducted under the Foreigners Act and the Prevention of Corruption Act, says an FIA official.

In a recent case, an internal Nadra inquiry found its deputy assistant director Qamar Nadeem guilty of issuing CNICs and fake birth certificates to foreigners. The FIA arrested him on September 9, 2015 after he was sacked from his job, and is preparing cases for his trial.

Women wait outside the Nadra's National Swift Registration Centre in Sahiwal | White Star
Women wait outside the Nadra's National Swift Registration Centre in Sahiwal | White Star

Another Nadra assistant director, Shahid Yousaf, was arrested from Peshawar on August 21 this year for issuing CNICs to Afghan nationals. Around the same time, more than 200 Nadra employees were arrested in Karachi over similar charges.

S obia Bano, a resident of Abbottabad, found her CNIC blocked in May 2013. When she approached Nadra to find the reason for the blocking, she was told that she had obtained two different cards, registering herself twice with two different dates of birth. She was shocked. Bano moved the federal ombudsman and was able to prove that she had never applied for a second CNIC. During proceedings in front of the ombudsman, Nadra officials revealed that someone else had applied for, and obtained, the second card on her behalf. They, however, did not reveal who that applicant was and who was using the second card issued in her name.

The ombudsman was highly critical of Nadra's failure in the case. " ... Nadra's advanced biometric system of record checking should have detected this when the second CNIC was applied and later issued," he wrote in his verdict.

Former Nadra chief Tariq Malik says the authority's system is capable of more than just that. It can detect the applicant and find out who owns the second card, he says. "When a CNIC is issued, everything is recorded, including the name as well as the thumb impression of the person who makes the data entry," he tells Herald. A single click on a Nadra computer can find out the suspected data entry operator and, through him, the person who submits an application for a fake CNIC, he adds.

In Bano's case, it is clear that the second card was issued with the connivance of some Nadra officials. It is also obvious that someone somewhere is trying to protect those officials as well as the person who applied for the second card.

In many other cases, the cards get blocked due to careless mistakes by the applicants, says a field officer working at Nadra's registration office in Rawalpindi. Sometimes, two brothers report their dates of births to be less than nine months apart from each other, he says. Since this is not possible, we block the CNIC already issued to one of the two and ask them both to appear in person at a Nadra office with some documentary evidence of their respective dates of birth, he adds. "In the last six months, we have blocked hundreds of such CNICs in Rawalpindi and Islamabad alone."

Senior Nadra officials acknowledge that blocking CNICs – rightly or wrongly – is a problem that needs to be taken care of. They also claim the authority has an elaborate system of checks in place to detect and stop any wrong entries in the database. "We use data entry software which has almost 400 checks to make sure that entries are not duplicated and no cards are issued to wrong persons," says an official.

Yet, it is well known that numerous wrong entries are being made and thousands of cards are being issued on their basis. The authority's officials say they are aware of this, too, and are taking stringent administrative measures to address it. "In the last three months, we have sacked 29 of our officials involved in issuing CNICs on wrong entries or for committing other related irregularities," says a senior Nadra official.

This article was originally published in the Herald's December 2015 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a special correspondent for Dawn News and tweets @Umer_1967.