Lachit Borphukan, the courageous commander of the Ahom kingdom (in present-day Assam), gained fame for defeating the Mughal army in the Battle of Saraighat in 1671. He used every trick in the book—from choosing advantageous terrain and conducting guerrilla attacks to using his intelligence apparatus. The present Assam chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, will have to display similar ingenuity if he wishes his government to tackle the state’s development challenges and put it on the path of rapid development.
Assam’s challenges are many. Being landlocked with no easy access to a seaport makes it difficult for the state to make a mark in the global trade of goods. The security challenges posed by infiltration from Bangladesh and the annual flooding caused by the Brahmaputra are perennial value destroyers.
In the four months since the new government has been sworn in, it has already faced up to the annual flooding. About 40% of Assam is prone to floods and no development can sustain if it continues to lose about Rs200 crore worth of property every year on an average—not to mention the significant loss of life every time flooding occurs. No wonder the great singer Bhupen Hazarika chided the river for being indifferent to the people’s sufferings. The Assam government has set up an expert committee to study the taming of China’s Yellow River—also known as Hwang Ho (China’s Sorrow)—in a bid to learn about flood control techniques. Hopefully, some concrete course of action will result from this.
The infiltration issue is also being addressed genuinely for the first time. There are about 140,000 D-voters (“doubtful voters”) in the state while the actual figure may be much higher. This was a raging issue during the 2016 state assembly election and the Sonowal government has promised to fence the border with Bangladesh in two years. The infiltration and consequent violence, especially in the Bodo areas, do not augur well for development.
Sonowal has to take advantage of any peace dividend resulting from this and launch a massive development programme. Investment in human capital via deepening access to high-quality education and health is important. The health indicators of Assam are abysmal. The infant mortality rate for Assam is 54 per 1,000 live births, while it is 21 for Tamil Nadu and 40 for India as a whole. Rampant trafficking of young women also has to be addressed urgently.
Assam ranks 22nd among Indian states in ease of doing business and reforms implementation. The total FDI (foreign direct investment) from 2000-15 was around $90 million, while Karnataka’s FDI inflow in 2014-15 alone was $6.7 billion.
One of Sonowal’s primary tasks will to be inject energy into the bureaucracy, which does not compare favourably with that of, say, Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. Sonowal should take a cue from the manner in which Narendra Modi built the Vibrant Gujarat brand when he was the chief minister. The Assam government needs to be seen as proactive. It cannot sit back and wait for investors and tourists to discover the state. The current Awesome Assam campaign is poorly crafted and has been getting negative reviews.
To give some perspective, Assam attracts around 25,000 foreign visitors per annum while Tamil Nadu has 4.7 million foreign visitors. Every rupee invested in tourism gives an eightfold return to the economy. These numbers alone should impel the government to approach this issue on a war footing.
But the real game changer in Assam will be the development of a strong agribusiness industry. Assam needs an integrated agribusiness policy like the Karnataka’s Integrated Agribusiness Development Policy 2011, which places emphasis on both agri-industries and agri-infrastructure. Assam has six agro-climatic zones and produces a variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs. It also produces more than half of India’s tea. “Assam Tea” has obtained Geographical Indication, but the brand needs to be strengthened. And 60% of India’s bamboo comes from the NorthEast, pointing to the possibility of the development of bamboo-based industries. In addition, Assam is popular for Eri and Muga silks, whose popularity unfortunately has not been exploited properly.
Modi has said that the North-East can emerge as the “basket of organic food” for India. But there are challenges in terms of logistics and productivity. For example, banana productivity in Assam is 17 tonnes/hectare while in Madhya Pradesh it is 66 tonnes/ha; for pineapple, it is 17 tonnes/ha in Assam, while it is 63 tonnes/ha in Karnataka.
Assam’s situation today is such that it could be a poster child for the “Skill India” campaign, feeding in turn into all the above-mentioned sectors. While literacy rate is on a par with the rest of India, the state’s per capita income is around Rs50,000 compared to around Rs94,000 for India. Vocational training using the public-private partnership model, and a flow of skilled labour into agri-business, tourism, petroleum and services will help in mitigating the migration problem.
To develop a “Xarvasreshtha Axom”, chief minister Sonowal should present a solid action plan in the next few months, laying out a comprehensive strategy for achieving progress in various sectors. He needs to display political resolve and commitment to action. If he needs inspiration, he need only look back to Borphukan on the banks of the Brahmaputra.
Banuchandar Nagarajan is a political and public policy adviser.
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