Your views on the successes and failures of the Tarun Gogoi-led government in Assam.
The Tarun Gogoi government has ruled the state for three consecutive terms and it should be taken as an index of the popularity of the government. One of the reasons for Congress’s resounding electoral success is that it has not faced a strong opposition which is fractured with all of them unable to present a common agenda to attract voters. In some respects, Tarun Gogoi’s government seem to have done comparatively better than previous governments.
When he took over, government finances were in shambles. But in the last decade, financial management in the state has improved.
The most important achievements are in the agricultural sector where the state has become self-sufficient and is also in a position to provide surplus. Some focused attention seems to have been given to education and health. There is greater expansion of higher education by opening the sector to private investment. In the health sector, a few central schemes have been implemented. But here again, primary education in rural areas and rural health missions have not too well.
Assam has among the highest rate of anemia in the country while the infant mortality rate under 5 is very high.
A common complaint is that although the government claims to supply free medicines in government hospitals, in reality it is not happening and there are allegations that funds are being misused.
The public distribution system (PDS) for supplying essential commodities to below poverty level (BPL) families has remained leaky and poorly supervised. It is popularly perceived that corruption is rampant among politicians and bureaucrats, a result of which funds are misused instead of reaching intended beneficiaries. Unfortunately the ruling dispensation has not been able to remove this perception from the public mind. There are many complains about MGNREGA; job card holders are not getting adequate jobs as guaranteed. There are complaints in some panchayats that undeserving people have been registered and given job cards.
Do extremist groups take advantage of such situations? Do you believe Maoists are active in the state?
In areas where development is minimal and where the administration’s footprints are rarely seen, extremist groups have exploited youth discontent.
They have been able to carry on with their activities and propaganda, managing shelter as well as winning sympathisers. Those areas need to be identified by the government and special programmes for rapid development of the infrastructure should be taken.
Recent trends suggest that Maoists have been able to establish connections with some of these extremist groups. The government has been able to bring some insurgent groups, including the major chunk of ULFA, to the negotiation table, but this should not make the state government complacent, given that centrifugal forces are keen to use any opportunity to strike back.
Insurgent groups with whom the government has initiated talks have divergent demands, often at variance with each other.
The state will have to do a fine balancing act, one which satisfies insurgents and people of the state alike.
Recent trends suggest that the crime graph has risen substantially. As a result, people have become restive and are steadily losing faith in the law and order machinery.
It is not uncommon to say that people have been taking law into their hands.
What about infrastructure, the severe electricity shortage problem for instance?
The power scenario in the state is quite bleak, particularly since there has been no planning to increase production. This has to be tackled efficiently because it has a direct bearing on development projects.
Infiltration and encroachment are other big issues.
Neither earlier governments nor this one have taken effective steps to prevent encroachments in reserve forests and government reserved lands.
Forest encroachment in Assam is the highest in the country and the popular perception is that encroachers of foreign origin have been used as vote banks by successive ruling parties, including the Congress, who are not keen to stop them for obvious reasons.
Infiltration from Bangladesh has not stopped but the vigil on the border has improved some what.
What do you think of the recent controversy over big dam projects?
There is serious civil society resistance to construction of a dam on the Suwansiri river, which they say is being built on a highly seismic zone, without adequate safety plans in an area dominated by loose rocky soil.
Though the displacement issue is not very serious, people in the downstream who have perennially battled floods, fear that water released from the mega dam will cause devastating floods.
An expert committee formed by the state government instead has pointed out that there are serious design flaws in the dam under construction, but the government has decided to ignore this report in order to expedite construction. They are pointing fingers at the Maoists who they claim, are conspiring against the dam.
Although Maoists are making their presence felt, the government has not been able to provide convincing evidence to link them with the anti-dam movement.
People of two districts, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji, are strongly opposed to the construction of the dam and the government will have to handle the issue sensitively, not by using force but by inducting reputed experts for a second opinion.
The Planning Commission reportedly has engaged an expert committee in this respect and we will have to wait for its report. But it should be the duty of the state government to discuss the report with stakeholders in a transparent manner and allay their fears. If the government claim of Maoist involvement in the anti-dam movement does not have a convincing ring and in the event of their failure to convince the stakeholders, the resultant frustration may allow Maoists to get a foothold in the movement.
How is the state’s progress in commerce and industry?
In the manufacturing sector nothing much has been achieved and the state has not able to attract FDI. There is vast tourism potential but infrastructure required for pushing it has received little attention and even the packaging of the tour is not satisfactory.