Manik Sarkar

‘We are bridging the rural-urban divide’

Print edition : August 22, 2014

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. Photo: S. Subramanium

The government has created sources of drinking water in all villages. Here, a public tap in Nalbagla village.

With its focus on education, the government aims to set up schools in all the villages. Here, girls going to school in Mandai.

TRIPURA Chief Minister Manik Sarkar is one of the key factors behind the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front’s massive electoral victories and overwhelming popularity in the State. He is not only the chief architect of Tripura’s growth, but a symbol and a unifying factor of the ruling Left Front. Known for his simplicity and honesty, Sarkar is the proud bearer of the sobriquet “the country’s cleanest and poorest Chief Minister”. Coming from a humble background (his father was reportedly a tailor), he became the Chief Minister and a member of the CPI(M)’s Polit Bureau in 1998 and has been voted to power for four consecutive terms. In this interview with Frontline, Manik Sarkar discusses the reasons for the Left’s electoral triumphs and his party’s undiminished popularity in Tripura. Excerpts:

Three back-to-back overwhelming victories (Assembly elections in 2013, Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and panchayat elections in 2014) at a time when the CPI(M) has suffered electoral setbacks in West Bengal and Kerala. What is the secret of your success?

During election time we do not make any promises that we will not be able to fulfil. We do not say impractical things or untruths. After being elected, we make sincere efforts to keep whatever promises we make. If we fail to do so in certain cases, we go to the people and explain to them why we failed. If we feel it necessary, then we ask them to come forward and help us overcome the problem.

This outlook with which we proceed has helped increase the people’s faith in us, in our government, and in our party. We are with the people and we are trying to take along with us all the people in our journey—a journey along the path that the people themselves have shown us. We do not attempt to do what most people would not want. If we are contemplating something that we feel will benefit the majority, but we find that most people have not understood our objective, then we explain to them, and we proceed only after convincing them. We do not force on the people anything that they do not want.

You can call this the secret of our success, or the story of our success, but it is as simple as what I just said.

Rural development has been one of the major achievements of your government. Please tell us something about it.

What we are trying to do is bridge the rural and urban divide. Our focus is on infrastructure development in the villages—something that did not exist earlier in Tripura. We are attaching a lot of importance to connectivity. Today, there are several roads that lead to a village. Earlier, there were places where the paths were not even fit enough to walk on; now cars ply on them. Earlier, there were roads that could not be used during the rainy season, but now we have all-weather roads.

Secondly, we are committed to taking electricity to all villages. By that I don’t mean just planting a pole and attaching some wires to them. We are taking electricity from one end of rural Tripura to the other. Even those who are not well-to-do are not left out.

Thirdly, we are providing drinking water to all villages. There was a time when in some places our mothers and sisters had to wake up before dawn and sneak into Bangladesh with their pitchers to fetch water. From time to time they would be chased by the security forces at the border, sometimes they would also be caught.

The situation has changed completely. We have created sources for drinking water in all the villages. It is also a fact that in some villages we have not yet been able to achieve the target laid down for the number of drinking water sources per person. But there is no habitation without access to potable water. Alongside increasing the number of water sources, we are also trying to provide treated water in the villages.

Another of our thrust areas is irrigation. We have less land to begin with; our population is increasing; development is bringing in new roads, schools, colleges, shops, and other infrastructure; families are getting bigger and more houses are coming up; as a result, the size of land under agriculture is shrinking. If we do not increase production, then a food crisis may crop up—we have traditionally been a food-deficit region. In this situation, we have taken up a plan to attain self-sufficiency in food. For this purpose we have focussed on spreading irrigation all over the State.

Our next focus is on education and setting up schools in all the villages. Every child will have to go to school. We are spreading education right from the pre-school level to the college level. Earlier, there was not enough infrastructure for education in the rural areas. There were very few schools and in many cases, if children wished to continue with studies after Class 8, they had to travel long distances or come to the city. For children from poor families, coming to the city could not be an option. Now the situation has changed. Nobody can claim that he wanted to send his child to school but could not do so as there was no school nearby.

We are providing books free of cost till Class 8, and also midday meals. For those children coming from BPL [below poverty line] families, we are supplying free books up to Class 12, so they can go to college. Just as in the case of schoolchildren, we also provide stipends to 95 per cent of the college students. Because of all this, education has spread tremendously in the rural areas.

Now we come to the field of health. There was a time when nobody even thought of developing health infrastructure in the rural areas of Tripura. To go to a hospital meant to go to the city. The scene has changed completely today. We have around 1,100 gram panchayats, including ADC and non-ADC regions [ADC region means the areas under the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council], and in each of them we have set up a health sub-centre; there are only 26 such sub-centres left to establish, which we will complete in a few months. We provide medicines to these sub-centres, and there is a multipurpose health worker who administers treatment to very basic illnesses. For more serious ailments, there is the primary health centre. We have already set up 90 such PHCs, and there will be a total of 133. After this is the community health centre, which is a little bigger than the PHC. Above the community health centre is the subdivisional hospital, then the district hospital, and after that the tertiary hospital. We have seen that 95-97 per cent of the people of Tripura use these hospitals for treatment. It is true that patients may not get all the medicines from these hospitals, but we have doctors who treat them, and out of five medicines, we will be able to provide at least two. For the poor people, treatment is free in these hospitals. We need to improve the health services further, but there is a huge distance between where we have arrived today and where we stood before.

Another thing that we are providing is infrastructure for markets in the rural areas. Earlier, people used to sit under trees and conduct business. Now we are providing proper space to conduct marketing activities, with a place to park vehicles, a phone booth, running water, toilets, and road connectivity to nearby villages so that farmers can bring their produce directly to the markets. We call these growth centres or Comprehensive Area Development Centres.

We have built community halls for people to hold functions and conduct meetings, etc. all over rural Tripura. Essentially, these things that we talked about are all available in cities, and we want the rural people to enjoy them too. This has brought about a change in the lives of the rural people, and I would say that development in the rural areas is faster than that in the urban areas. But there is still a lot of work to be done.

However, the most important thing is peace. Once, extremists prevented any development work from taking place. They tried to cause a rift among the people. There was a time when Tripura meant a hub of extremists. This has gone in the last seven years. Without peace and stability there can be no development. We have been able to convince people to remain secular and that has created a good atmosphere for development.

How did you overcome the extremist menace?

Politically, administratively and ideologically. We never believed that the use of arms alone can defeat the insurgents. The extremists tried to raise certain ideological issues that had no practical basis, which we, from our ideological point, countered and debunked. They raised political questions, which we answered politically; and they had no answer to the questions we raised. And administratively we silenced them with our development work. Where, despite everything, they continued with their terrorist activities, we deployed security forces. In all this we took the people’s support and involved them in our fight.

After so many years in power, how have you managed to keep arrogance out of your demeanour?

[Smiles.] It can be done if one remains alert. My position and responsibility are not forever; and staying in power is not our sole purpose. The people have got us here. We are nothing by ourselves. Our strength is the people’s strength. How can we be arrogant or disrespectful to them? If we see that someone from our party is misbehaving, we warn that person. If he continues in the same manner, we ask him to leave. We look into all the written complaints that come to us.

How have you managed to maintain harmony in spite of the conflicting interests of the various ethnic and religious communities residing in Tripura?

If you have food, work, shelter and medicine, then there is no scope for disharmony and conflict. There was nothing special that we needed to do. If we address the fundamental needs of the people, then there will be harmony.

All these social commitments that your government has undertaken require funds. How do you plan to raise them?

We need revenue generation. We cannot depend completely on Central funds. Outside the normal revenue sources, we are trying to generate revenue from forests, rubber and electricity. We have the highest onshore gas reserve. It will take time for big industries to be established here, but we are working on developing small and medium industries. But we are not taxing the people. Whatever money is coming in, we are utilising it on development projects. This has brought about accountability among the people as well. They have become more aware of their duties and social obligations, as they can see we are fulfilling ours.

If trade with Bangladesh picks up, it can really turn around our economy. What we need is improved connectivity with Bangladesh through rail and road, water and air. We have special ties with Bangladesh, and they also want to help Tripura. If this happens, then Tripura will become a gateway to the east.

The other great help would be from the Indian Railways. Hopefully, the conversion to broad gauge rail will finally take place in the next few years; it is something we have been waiting for a very long time.

Do you think there is a danger that the immense popularity you enjoy among the masses and your towering image may overshadow your party?

No. We function collectively. We are all responsible for our victories and failures. Success or failure is a product of the collective effort of our party. No individual alone can be held accountable. I am telling you frankly, if a personal image has come into being, even for that the party is responsible. I have no role in it. I am the product of the party.

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