Misplaced blame

Published : Aug 24, 2012 00:00 IST

In the flood-affected Mayong village in Morigaon district, some 80 km from Guwahati, on June 28. While urban Assam looks prosperous, the rural areas remain neglected.-BIJU BORO/AFP

In the flood-affected Mayong village in Morigaon district, some 80 km from Guwahati, on June 28. While urban Assam looks prosperous, the rural areas remain neglected.-BIJU BORO/AFP

The region suffers not from neglect by the Centre, but from corruption and mishandling by the State governments concerned.

EVERY time there is a flood or a scam or turmoil in north-eastern India, the first reaction of the media and politicians from the region is to blame the Centre for failing to understand the problems peculiar to the region. But the truth is that for more than a decade, this has not been the case. Many people from the region say the Centres neglect has decisively ended, even if the prejudices that they are subject to in other parts of the country have not. Neglect in the matter of developmental measures is an accusation from the past. For the present neglect, the State governments from the region are to be blamed. Let us take Kokrajhar, the place of the recent mayhem, for instance. I first visited it 27 years ago. It was then a small, sleepy town with ramshackle shops and houses and a railway station built during colonial times in Assamese architectural style using clay and wattle. Today it is a busy station with multiple tracks, large platforms with roofs and numerous trains stopping by. The town has hideous-looking concrete buildings all over indicative of the prosperity of many of its citizens now.

With the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) functioning since December 2003, several flyovers and hospitals have been built and many development schemes are in place. The circular BTC Secretariat in Kokrajhar looks impressive and has a covered corridor that connects it to an even larger building.

There is scope for more prosperity though chances of its fair distribution are still far away. Roads have improved and embankments have been strengthened. The Gaurang river has a new bridge. Even the Thana Kalibari temple in Kokrajhar and the Guru Tegh Bahadur gurudwara (established in the early 17th century by the Ninth Guru) in Dhubri reflect new-found prosperity. Earlier they were much humbler and shaky structures, though attractive. Small places like Fakiragram have vastly improved medical and educational facilities. There are colleges and schools all over Bodoland. Gauhati University has a campus in Kokrajhar, the credit for which goes to the now-fractured BTC.

National Highway 31 from Guwahati to Dhubri is being converted into a four-lane expressway. There is a huge rail-cum-road bridge over the mighty Brahmaputra from near Bilasipara on the North Bank to Goalpara on the South. There are railway tracks on both sides of the Brahmaputra. The funds for all these projects had come from the Central government. Many Bodos are employed with the government or have opened businesses, leaving their fields to be tilled by Bangladeshi migrants, who are now considered the reason for the present discontent. Sadly, the rural areas remain neglected.

All over urban Assam, one can feel a refreshing vibrancy an energy that was not noticeable a decade ago when the State was recovering from insurgency and the lahe lahe (slowly) mentality. More than 10,000 primary school teachers were recruited in July as soon as the Supreme Court lifted a High Court-imposed ban; another 80,000 are to be recruited. Ambulances reach the remotest villages at the earliest possible time. Mobile phone networks cover 80 per cent of the State. Large projects such as the Dibrugarh Cracker Plant and the Boghibeel bridge over the Brahmaputra may be completed earlier than anticipated despite their slow start. Agriculture, too, is getting some belated attention.

All across the north-eastern region, there is comparable development in sectors such as agriculture, education, health and even industry. Seventeen years ago, we drove from Lungwa, which sits astride the India-Myanmar border, carrying the injured driver of a bulldozer that had fallen over a cliff to the then miserable and filthy District Hospital in Mon, Nagaland. The hospital was symbolic of the all-pervading neglect of the region in those years. Not only has the hospital changed for the better but each of Mons 16 circles has a functioning health centre. In Arunachal Pradesh, medical facilities are reaching the farthest circles like never before.

The north-eastern region exports broccoli, kiwi fruit, pineapple, cashewnut, strawberries and flowers. It even hopes to send rice to markets across the country soon. Private as well as government schools are opening all over the region.

Several hydel projects, large and small, funded by the Centre, have come up. In Meghalaya, the first phase of the 190 MW Myntdu-Leshka hydel project was made operational recently. In Mizoram, the 60 MW Tuirial hydel project is expected to start functioning next year and bring an end to the States power deficit. In Arunachal Pradesh, many small hydel projects are under various stages of completion. Many of these projects are being executed by North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited (Neepco), which inevitably subcontracts some stages of the work to companies outside the region. The large hydel projects of Arunachal Pradesh are unfortunately being delayed by a few rabble-rousing non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In Kiphire, Nagaland, the 150 MW Tizu-Zingki Basin hydel project is being revived after 32 years of public protests.

In January this year, I travelled to Upper Assam and the North Bank, where everyone I spoke to was in favour of these large hydel projects. The projects are the only way Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland can end six to 12 hours of power cut every day. A lecturer in Gohpur suggested to this writer that the new airport in Hollongi (Naharlagun) in Central Arunachal Pradesh ought to be large enough to handle aircraft that can ferry the large machinery required for these projects; this will help avoid the roads that troublemakers in Assam have closed to traffic.

There is neglect from within the States, both financial and political. Towns may be prosperous, but villages certainly are not. Most reel from lack of development. Every year crores of rupees in aid lapses because it is not spent. By the end of the last financial year, Rs.730.064 crore remained unspent by all the departments under the Assam government. The remote and backward regions of Assam had an allocation of Rs.929.94 crore, of which Rs.586.95 crore was not spent. (See table for figures from four of the 11 backward districts in Assam.)

The lack of utilisation of funds by elected representatives is shocking. Amongst the sitting MPs and MLAs from Assam, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has the highest utilisation record. He has spent 97.23 per cent of the Rs.30.05 crore released to him; others do not come anywhere near him. The next highest utilisation, of 82 per cent, was by Nazneen Faruque, a Rajya Sabha member.

Yet, despite evidence to the contrary, accusations of utter neglect by the Centre keep recurring. This refrain was heard recently after the floods in Assam even though the Centre immediately sanctioned an ad hoc grant of Rs.500 crore.

In the floods of the past four years, about 500,000 hectares of land has been eroded and close to a million people have been impoverished by the loss of land. Every year, huge grants are made for flood relief, but these do not reach the people. Floods allegedly are festival time for the State government and the NGOs dealing in flood relief. The money received is lavishly spent for other purposes.

Manipur is the only State that can be called neglected. Yet, the Centre can only be accused of not ensuring that the funds are well spent. This is a State where diversion of government funds is rampant. Petrol is sold at Rs.100 a litre here, yet every petrol station has a long line of scooters and cars waiting to fill fuel. For a State with very limited means of income generation, where is this money coming from? Corruption.

Tripura is the only State where there is no governmental indifference towards one community or preference for another.

If there is lack of development in many sectors in the north-eastern region, the cause is from within. Also, there is prejudice, enmity and suspicion amongst communities. Borapansury village, about 120 kilometres from Aizawl, Mizoram, is home to about 10,000 Chakmas. For the past 20 years, they have been demanding in vain the reopening of the primary health centre in the area.

Villages all over the north-eastern region are generally in a pitiable condition, especially if they are not on the main roads. The projects planned by the States for them remain on paper for a long time, while funds get whittled away.

Many people in the region resent the silence of the Centre towards their humanitarian problems and the indifference and prejudices of the rest of the country towards them. No north-easterner can have a tension-free visit to at least the north of India because of the deep-rooted prejudices.

Armed forces can and still barge into any house in the region and pick up anyone they want for investigation or harassment. This is one vexing issue that will remain until the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is withdrawn.

Romesh Bhattacharji, former Chief Commissioner of Customs, is a freelance writer based in New Delhi.

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