Development in Assam: Some Issues and Concerns

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Pakistani economist late Mahbub ul Haq had challenged the conventional understanding that higher economic growth rate eventually translates into the economic upliftment of the poor. He proved that relationship between economic growth and human development is not obvious.[1] Then, what does development mean to us? Is it mere growth? Is it really possible for us to become an economic superpower having huge population malnourish children? Or does the development only possible by ecological destruction? These are the basic questions which shall haunt us thorough out this discussion and Assam as a state of Indian Republic will be the centre of our discussion.

To discuss the development issues of Assam, we need to peep into its history a bit. Assam became a part of British colony after 1826 through the Yandaboo treaty. The colonial administration sent John Major Bulter of 55th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry in 1837. What stroke the mind of Bulter was the absence of human settlement and the large natural resourc. He describes “dreary and desolate wilderness” that “seemed totally devoid of man, beasts, or birds; a deathlike stillness everywhere prevailed, broken only by the occasional barking or halloo of the ooluck or ape”.[2]

The colonial administration understood that the large and green waste lands will not feed them up with revenue. They introduced policy to bring settlers from undivided Bengal and other provinces of colonial India. They started tea plantation, introduced railway, discovered coal fields, oil fields, established hospital, established schools and colleges. A lot of other development initiative came up with the advent of colonial administration. But were those development initiatives really introduced for the development of the people living in this geographical area or these were only meant for serving the interest of the colonizers? Let us have a very quick look on the past. In the initial days people from Bengal and other places were not interested to migrate, the horrific transportation and fear of deadly diseases were the major cause of their discontentment. At the same time carrying coals, the raw materials, especially tea were the major challenge for the colonial administration. The diseases like malaria not only infected the natives; it also infected the military and other officials of colonial administration. Hence, some development interventions were inevitable to serve their interest. Thus, they introduced railway and some health initiatives. Same is the case with establishment of post office and educational institutions. Thus, the exploitation continued till independence in the name of development. The colonial rulers claimed legitimacy to do so. Because, they thought they were superior, they were educated, they were DEVELOPED! Being developed our development was an obligation for them! But, wasn’t it their development at our costs?

The British left Assam, colonial rule ended and Assam became a state of Indian Republic. Though the country became free from the colonial rule, but the partition broke the back-bone of India for ages. The demarcation of international border was done most casually. The Red Cliff line changed the aged long neighbours into foreigners overnight. After the partition communal violence erupted both in India and Pakistan. Eventually, Assam became one of the worst affected states out of the communal violence occurred in Assam as well as in East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh). The Hindu minorities in East Pakistan faced brutal attack. A large scale Bengali Hindu entered into Assam. The newly formed administrative system was burdened to rehabilitate a large number of refugees. Till 30 September’1954, Assam government rehabilitated nearly two lakhs twenty five refugee families and provided about one lakhs fifty thousand bighas of land. The same is the case is Assam; fifty three thousand Muslims were displaced by the communal riots.[3] Later on the number crossed six lakhs! When, the then Assam Chief Minister Gopinath Bordoloi refused to take the responsibility of refugees, Prime Minister threatened him to stop the development fund![4]

In post colonial era, Assam remains neglected by union government as far as development is concern. The second five year plan years plan (1956 – 61) stressed on industrialization. The objective was to push the economy to secondary sector from primary. Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) were coming up. But Assam remained outside the ambit of industrial development. What we observe is that economic exploitation increased by manifolds. Extracting oil and natural gas is one of most deepened exploitation. Assam is losing this precious non-renewable energy source and getting very little. Assam was receiving only Rs. 42/- per ton of crude oil as royalty, whereas union government was collecting six times more than Assam as cess till the Assam Accord. Same is the case with tea and plywood. Assam was getting the sale tax of Rs. 20 to 30 crores per annum on tea, whereas West Bengal received 60 – 70 percent more as the head offices of tea companies are located in Kolkata. Assam was receiving Rs. 35 to 40 lakhs annually for plywood extracted from Assam, while union government got Rs. 80 crores![5]

The student body, All Assam Student Union raised voice against those economic exploitations. They started anti-outsider movement against the business class. Some of the agitators even burned down the business entities of Marwari communities in Fancy Bazar of Guwahati. Later the movement was twisted to communal violence against the Miya Muslims[6] as Bangladeshi. After the six long years of agitation, ‘Assam Accord’ was signed. Development issues of Assam were given due importance in the Accord.  The accord agreed to establish a Gas Cracker Project in Assam.[7] In 1994 i.e. nine years after the accord was signed the then Prime Minister of India PV Narasimha Rao laid the foundation stone of the project at Tengakhat of Dibrugarh district. The project remained abandon for another thirteen years. In 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh again laid foundation stone of the same project in another location called Lepetkota in the same district.[8] (But it is still being alleged that the local people are not getting opportunity to get employment in the project.)

These kinds of exploitation and discrimination have not only fuelled the rise of civil movement but also insurgency. ULFA’s armed movement for freedom is meant to get rid of these exploitation and discrimination. In later days the insurgency itself has become a constraint for the development activities.

It is widely spoken allegation that the union government is not giving due attention for the development of Assam. Assam a state has its unique socio-economic, political as well as geographical difference with the main land India. Some of the policy prescriptions are not friendly with the situations of Assam. This has resulted deadlock in many cases. One of such area is Agricultural. The devastating flood and erosion of river Brahmaputra and its tributaries are destroying the agriculture every year. Brahmaputra board is not being able to deal this crucial aspect. As a result agricultural growth remains disheartening.

The development model designed by the centre is not working properly for the peripheries. The centre is extracting the natural resources, cheap labours. Tea labourers are even dying of starvation.[9] On the other hand, the state is forced to import a huge amount of consumable commodities including fish.

The economic liberalisation policy opened up the economy in the beginning of 90s. Assam also witnessed uneven development trajectory. Guwahati being the gateway to northeast India a number of development initiatives came up, especially by the private players. Retail, hospitality and real estate are prominent. Cheap bank credit gave a boost to the real estate business. The cheap labour force also played a very significant. The construct labourers are basically the flood and erosion induced IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) of the state. In between 1951 to 2001 Assam has lost 429657 hectors of agricultural land and which is almost 7% of the total agricultural land of the state.[10] We also see a sharp growth in the tertiary sector of the state. In between 2004-05 to 2010-11, tertiary sector grow from 47% to 57% where as primary sector declined from 34% to 30% and secondary sector declined from 19% to 13%. To understand this phenomenon we will have to have the reflection of human development on this growth of tertiary sector.

The Human Development indices clearly show the disparity of development. Same is the case with Gross State Domestic Production, India’s average GSDP growth rate is 8.6% whereas Assam’s GSDP is only 5.8%. Per Capita income disparity is more interesting. During independence Assam’s per capita income was better than average of India; now the same less than half of India’s average.

Apart from the economic exploitation and discrimination, environment hazardous again remains as a major issue as far as development is concern. Professor Monirul Hussain wrote in his paper “State Development and Population Displacement in North East India” that “Development neither neutral nor equal, it is biased and unequal. In many cases, it is brutal ruthless and inhuman”. Many development interventions have created severe negative impact of ecology and environments. Professor Hussain has described how the development of Guwahati has displaced the poor tribal from vicinity of city and made them homeless, how the Paper Mills of Jagiroad (Morigaon) Panchagram (Cachar) have populate the environment.[11] The whole debate of sustainable development is getting momentum once again when the Uttrakhand disaster has proved how deadly might be the consequences of eco-hostile development practice. But New Delhi is still playing with the lives of common people and ecosystem of Assam by pushing bag dams in Northeast and Assam. The Sobansiri dam has every potentiality to cause another Uttrakhand like disaster in Assam. It true that, after economic liberalization India government is being forced to follow the dictation of its corporate bosses, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh while talking about Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) procedure, he admitted EIA as a ‘bit of joke’. He added “under the system we have today, the person putting up the project prepares the report”[12]

But at the same time a bold “no” may mean a lot and can make a substantial change in the world as far as sustainable development is concern. Company like Coca Cola which is always focused on economic bottom line, it is now forced to take eco friendly business decision. New York Times reported “…but when the company lost a lucrative operating license in India because of a serious water shortage there in 2004, things began to change”[13].

To protect our common future each and every development intervention must be judiciously decided and such intervention should make positive transmission of the social system. The fruits of the development should reach most marginalized person of the society rather being just growth which create disparity in the society.

[1] Islam, Faizul M. (2007) A comprehensive Analysis of Socio-Economic-Political Indicators of Bangladesh vis-a`-vis Its Four Asian Neighbors, Development Issues of Bangladesh III, Published by The University Press Limited, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

[2] Sanjib Baruah quoted in his book “India Against Itself”

[3] Baruah, Hem (1962), Red Rivers and Blue Hills.

[4] Deka, Harekrishna (2010), Prabajon Aaru Anuprabesh (Migration and Infiltration).

[5]  The impact of Insurgency activities in Northeast on Socio-Economic Development and its solution thereof (2010) published by C-NES (Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research), a policy think tank headed by Sonjoy Hazarika, Last accessed on 26th Jan’14. (Most recently, Government of India again changed their policy. After the Assam Agitation Assam was getting 20% royalty, through this policy changed now Assam is getting only 16.66%. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi wrote to union petroleum minister more than once and met him personally. But union government is not listening to him.

[6] A large number of Muslims came from Bengal under the patronage of colonial rule. They came to Assam for better livelihood as their lives in Bengal were miserable for the age long exploitation of Zamindars. Their ancestors converted to Islam from lower caste Hindu to escape from the atrocities of upper caste Hindus. The term ‘Miya’ is derogatory in nature in political discourse of Assam. But the literary meaning is ‘respected’. Our intention is not hurt the sentiment of people of that community but to have a specific identification.

[7] A Note on Economic Development of Assam vis-a-vis North East Last accessed on 26/01/14

[9] Choudhury, Ratnadip (2012), Did They Die of Hunger, Tehelka Last

Accessed on 25/01/14

[10] Hussain, Monirul, (2006), Internally Displaced Persons in India’s Northeast, EPW

[11] Hussain, Monirul (2002), Dimensions of Displaced People in North-East India, Edited

[12] Dreze, Jean and Sen, Amartya (2013), An Uncertain Glory, Penguin India. The authors quoted Ramachandra Guha.

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