Assam is one of the poorer states of India. About 36 percent of its population of 27 million lives below the poverty line and per capita income (INR 13,925) is 40 percent below the national average. The state is marked by poor road infrastructure, tenuous communication, low agricultural productivity, and low levels of industrial activity… — Project Information Document, World Bank, 2005.
This is the kind of report that journalists regularly pull off the Internet and use in their articles. One can sit in Gurgaon and write a story on Guwahati without the botheration of traversing the country west to east. It is not necessary to go to Assam to write about Assam. But this has never been entirely adequate, because the numbers inevitably remain digits, and the stories remain nothing but a collection of visuals. Information, when it is printed or broadcast without firsthand reporting cannot generate depth of feeling. It fosters stereotypes.
This is especially true when it comes to coverage of the Indian Northeast. Violence in Manipur, student protests in Assam, the Nagas demanding autonomy — all of these are presented as if those who live in the seven-sister states have nothing better to do than agitate constantly — and harbour ‘anti-India’ sentiments.
It was only when this Delhi-based writer went out to Assam, to cover the state’s assembly elections this April, that the numbers added up and the stories really hit. It was a humbling, learning experience. And over a fortnight spent in the state, I discovered that Assam is intrinsically much closer to heartland India than any South Indian state will ever be. Despite its geographical alienation, as a ‘northerner’ I found Hindi to be widely understood and often spoken.
I also discovered that Assam is different from its northeastern sister states. That it does not grapple with identity or nationality-based issues. That it does not hate Hindi or ‘anything Indian’, and is not secessionist. And that Assam is a state crying out for basic infrastructural development.
So, revelation No 1 for the Delhi reporter: That the neglect of basic infrastructure, including roads, is so glaring, it is no wonder the Assam economy as a whole is so depressed. It is poor infrastructure —and not insurgency — that has Assam stuck in the morass of poverty and underdevelopment. Here is what the same World Bank report has to say on the condition of the roadways of the state: “Assam’s road network is poorly developed and has suffered from years of neglect, under-funding, inadequate maintenance, and flood damages. Its current condition is an obstacle to achieve the objective of an Assam development strategy. Only 20 percent of the roads are paved, compared to the national average of 58 percent.”
In central Guwahati, the state capital’s arterial road is potholed and perpetually traffic-jammed. Further afield, in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, even potholed motorways are a luxury. Some do not seem to have been maintained since World War II. “Sometimes it takes five hours to cover a 20-km stretch of road. The jerks are so bad that the injured die on the way to hospital,” says Assamiya writer Indra Goswami, who had a harrowing time when she toured the state to research for a novel. As I myself traveled the backwaters, I could see that it was not only a matter of roads. Village after village was surviving without basic amenities like water and electricity. Guwahati itself sees frequent power cuts.
With its infrastructural bottlenecks, Assam continues to see low levels of economic growth. There are therefore limited career options for Assam’s youth. Explains noted journalist Sanjay Hazarika: “With more than 30 lakh students unemployed or unemployable, it gives insurgent groups like ULFA a ready recruiting ground.” If only the state and Centre had dedicated themselves to development years ago, they would not now be forced to spend hundreds of crores every year on anti-insurgency operations.
Revelation No 2 for the Delhi reporter: Factional fighting drags Assam down, and there is a further process of political fracturing underway. For example, the election campaigning of this April witnessed the dangerous rise of parties such as the AUDF (Assam United Democratic Front), which focuses its energies on the Muslim minority vote. Considering the fact that this ‘minority’ today constitutes fully 30 percent of the state population and has always been the traditional Congress party vote bank, the worried Congress now has to play the ‘Muslim appeasement card’. In a recent campaign visit, Congress President Sonia Gandhi felt the need to focus exclusively on the Muslim-dominated areas. In one rally at Naugaon, three hours from Guwahati, Gandhi quite unabashedly told the gathering that it was the Congress that had been and would always be with the Muslims.
But while everyone chases the Muslim vote, the Muslims are still treated as second-class citizens. Merely wearing a dhoti and baniyan vest can make a Muslim a ‘Bangladeshi infiltrator’. Ismail Ali, a daily labourer living in the outskirts of Guwahati, was so tired of proving his ‘Indianness’ to the authorities time and again that he hit upon an ingenious idea. After casting his ballot, Ismail bandaged his finger where the indelible voter’s ink had been applied — so that it would not be washed away and he would be able to brandish this proof of citizenship for at least a few weeks.
Revelation No 3 for the Delhi reporter: The central government has taken too much blame for Assam’s developmental disaster, whereas the role of the state government is not given enough importance. With parties of long-standing such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) having started the politics of divide-the-people-and-rule, the arrival of new entrants such as the AUDF is bound to exacerbate the public by emphasising religion and ethnicity. All of this will deliver more mal-governance, further victimising the 27 million inhabitants.
The very mention of Assam stirs up two distinct images in one’s mind: that of gun-toting ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) militants, and lush, green tea gardens. Both of these are quickly disappearing. With the ULFA in a virtual ceasefire with the Centre after years of fighting, the elections happily went off so smoothly that some correspondents with experience of more violent times were moved to complain of boredom.
The arrival (howsoever momentary) of peace from insurgency is the most significant development for Assam, and this single factor may be able, over time, to undo a lot of the fallout of the existing political instability. Many observers believe that the advent of stability will ipso facto lead to socio-economic advance and good governance. Meanwhile, the state never falls short of crises — the current one being the disaster of the state’s tea.
Assam’s ‘tea belt’ is struggling today with the falling price of the processed leaves, rising costs and increased international competition. Tea estates across the state have gone bankrupt and pulled down the shutters. Those that remain are desperately struggling to keep their heads above water. With competition pushing down margins, these tea estates do not even have the money to replace the tea plants — which after half a century, are at the fag end of their productive cycle. On a visit to one plantation, the anger against Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s Congress government was palpable. When this writer asked Gogoi about the condition of the estates, he said that his Congress government had announced a special revival package for the tea planters, and that their concerns were being looked after. The chief minister should be concerned: the tea belt decides which way 35 of the state’s 126 assembly seats go.
The final revelation for the Delhi reporter: That Assam is no longer the land of tea and ULFA. Like every state, today’s Assam has its own set of problems, but nothing that needs to be looked at through the ‘unique’ prism. Just spending some time in the land of ‘Asom made it amply clear that there are ready answers to many of the state’s woes, but little political will to address them. Assam must override its infrastructural problems, prevent chauvinism from rearing its head again and again in state-level politics, and commit funding towards a long-term plan to revive the tea industry. Although the people are willing, for now the political spirit is weak.