Interview with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.in Guwahati
CHIEF Minister Tarun Gogoi detractors were sceptical when he gave up the comforts of being a parliamentarian and took up the responsibility of governing Assam at a very difficult time, in May 2001. Gogoi proved them wrong. Development cannot wait for peace that was his government's mantra, and it worked. The Congress, in coalition with the Bodoland People's Front (BPF), came back for another term under his leadership in 2006. His deft handling of insurgency and of a difficult socio-political situation has turned him into a key figure in Indian politics.
Gogoi graduated from J.B. College, Jorhat, and took his law degree from Gauhati University. He won his first election in 1971, when he was elected to the fifth Lok Sabha. Gogoi, now 77 years old, has been elected to the Lok Sabha six times. He served as Union Minister of Food (Independent Charge) in 1991-93 and held the portfolio of Food Processing Industry as the Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) from 1993 to 1995.
In an interview with Frontline at his official residence, he said the economic turnaround was his government's biggest achievement.
In a few months, you will complete 10 years as Chief Minister. What has been the biggest achievement of the two successive governments you led over this period? What has been the biggest challenge?
The economic turnaround in Assam is our biggest achievement. When we came to power in 2001, Assam was passing through a tunnel of darkness with a precarious law and order situation and a massive financial crunch to the extent that even government employees were not paid salaries on time. There was stagnation all around. Roads and bridges were in a dilapidated condition. We are now not just paying salaries on the Central government pay scale, but we have also undertaken massive development work in both urban and rural areas, which has changed the State scenario completely. The economic turnaround helped to dramatically improve the law and order situation. The biggest challenge was to change the mindset of the people.
The massive flow of funds from the Central government by way of grants together with the mobilisation of the State's own revenues and aid for projects from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other agencies hastened development activities. All this has changed mindsets as people no longer see a bleak future ahead of them. People have started feeling confident about the future.
What has been the main thrust of your growth strategy? What were the priorities and how far has growth been inclusive?
We focussed on developing infrastructure and improving communication. The construction of roads and bridges was taken up on a large scale. The improved road network and RCC [reinforced cement concrete] bridges replacing the weak timber bridges brought dynamism to the life of the common people. Farmers can now access the markets easily, while office-goers and [school-going] children move faster.
Another thrust of our growth strategy is the all-round development of rural areas with a special focus on agriculture and allied activities. Special emphasis has been laid on the adoption of farm mechanisation and improved technology for self-sufficiency in foodgrain production.
The government's development activities created income-generating opportunities, and improved communication brought more livelihood opportunities. This growth strategy is inclusive as the benefits percolate to all sections.
What measures have been initiated to address the twin problems of floods and erosion brought about by the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers and their tributaries?
Our government has implemented various flood management schemes in the Brahmaputra valley and the Barak valley. Flood-affected and flood-prone areas can be protected to some extent by plugging breaches in the embankments. Erosion is a more serious problem. Since 1954, the Brahmaputra, the Barak and their tributaries have eroded 3.86 lakh hectares of fertile land. This constitutes 7 per cent of the total area of the State. As many as 2,534 villages have been eroded and 90,700 families have been displaced.
I have emphasised the need to reclaim new land from the Brahmaputra river stretch. Prof. Wolfgang Albert Flugel of Friedrich-Schiller University, Germany, and Prof. Nayan Sharma of IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] Roorkee have drafted a concept paper for the development and application of sustainable river management options for the Brahmaputra as part of a European Commission (E.U.)-sponsored project. It aims at channelling the Brahmaputra to mitigate riverbank erosion and reclaim new land. I have impressed upon Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the need to reclaim Brahmaputra land.
We also feel that big dams in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra can help address the problems of flood and erosion and power shortage. We do not subscribe to the views of those who are totally opposed to big dams. We have urged the Centre to constitute the North East Water Resource Authority [NEWRA]. An announcement was made on it, but the initiative could not be taken forward owing to the reservations expressed by Arunachal Pradesh. The Centre needs to take up the matter with Arunachal Pradesh in the interest of the downstream areas in the Brahmaputra valley.
What initiatives were taken for the socio-economic development of the different ethnic groups, tea-tribes and minorities of the State? And how effective were these measures?
Assam is the only State in the country to have an autonomous council for each and every community. We are committed to the all-round socio-economic development of different indigenous ethnic groups.
The problem of unemployment is seen as one of the root causes of insurgency and social disturbances in Assam.
We have focussed on generating gainful employment through the development of skills and on creating employment avenues outside the government sectors through the formation of self-help groups. Over the past 10 years, more than 20 lakh people have been provided self-employment through 2,09,122 self-help groups; more than 50 per cent of these groups are run by women. The scope of employment in the government sector will always be limited, and it cannot provide a solution to the unemployment problem. However, if we can impart skills through vocational education and special training, the unemployed youth can always get gainful employment. Hence we have undertaken a special employment-generation programme for creating gainful employment opportunities, and Rs.200 crore has been earmarked for it in the budget.
The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act has been scrapped. And it is now 25 years since the Assam Accord was signed. However, the problem of detecting and deporting foreigners remains unsolved and various clauses of the Assam Accord remain unimplemented. What is your government doing about it?
Right from the day we took over, we tried to ensure that further infiltration was stopped. We took steps to expedite work on fencing the border with Bangladesh and build border roads for effective patrolling. We have also initiated steps for updating the National Register of Citizens. However, the NRC procedure needs to be simplified to ensure that the names of all genuine Indian citizens are included. The present system is to include the names of only those who apply for inclusion. However, the majority of the people who are not aware of the process will be left out.
Most insurgent groups have come forward for dialogue. When can we expect the peace accords?
Most insurgent groups have realised that the problems they raised can be solved only through negotiation, and hence they have given up arms and come forward for talks. The ULFA [United Liberation Front of Asom] leaders, except its commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, have also come up with a positive response. We hope Paresh Barua, too, will come forward for talks. There are some legal hurdles as these leaders are in judicial custody and their bail application can be decided only by the court. We cannot dictate to the court. However, we have conveyed to the courts concerned that we have no objection to the granting of bail to jailed ULFA leaders. Let us have some patience to take the talks process to its logical conclusion.
What are your expectations as you prepare to seek the mandate again?
We are confident of getting the mandate. People have experienced and benefited from the economic turnaround. If we are given the mandate again we will continue with the same mantra development cannot wait for peace, and when development takes place it brings peace and prosperity.