The per capita income of Assam is among the lowest in the country. Tendulkar Committee estimates also suggest high poverty rates in rural parts vis-à-vis urban areas. Assam’s location away from the main demand and production centres of India is also regularly cited as a key reason for its low levels of economic progress. Apart from the geographical location, climatic conditions of Assam are also cited by many as a factor hindering growth of the state. Frequent floods and soil erosion in and around the Brahmaputra and Barak valley have repeatedly pushed families into severe poverty. Cross-border conflicts also have many a time adversely impacted the state economy.

Spatial analysis suggests a high concentration of poverty in areas close to water and barren land. This is paradoxical, as the region near the Brahmaputra and Barak valley is richer in terms of access to soil with a rich nutrient base as well as water. This is a common theme across India. Rich agricultural areas can sustain far more people and as a consequence, poverty is higher than other areas. In other words, a poor family can survive for longer in an agriculture-rich zone, but the same family will need to migrate away in an agriculturally poor zone. That is one facet of poverty, yet another is the issue of frequent and severe flooding of the Brahmaputra that affects not only the adjoining areas, but also inland areas as many of the tributaries are impacted by this scourge. The impact is massive as it prevents low-cost and sustained infrastructure creation. Obviously, the poor are affected the most.

Another high correlate of poverty, therefore, is the presence of water. So much so that if one wants to find water in India, one can look for poverty, and surely will find some surface water in the surrounding area. The failure of the government to deliver good-quality water for drinking, washing and other daily needs, forces people to locate their living quarters close to surface water. This correlation is another aspect of poverty that occurs across India and is surprisingly found consistently in both rural and urban areas.

The upper Assam districts have a higher level of development in terms of per capita income compared with the lower ones. This is linked to the two big industries of Assam—petroleum and tea. More development, however, is not always synonymous with low levels of poverty. In fact, high concentration of poverty can be seen in the entire upper Assam. The above-mentioned two employment sectors, which form the backbone of Assam’s economy, have pulled in cheap labour from within the country as well as reportedly from other neighbouring countries. Unstable form of employment, exploitation of Adivasis or the backward communities are the primary reasons for high poverty in these relatively “developed" parts of Assam.

Other major classes of areas where we find a high incidence of poverty are those near forests. The link between forests, poverty, and poor law and order conditions is now coming out to be a standard story across India. What is the causality—are forests responsible for poverty or do poor law and order conditions cause poverty? Or does poverty cause poor levels of governance? The jury is still out, but we have enough cause to hazard a guess. Poverty is prevalent in many areas, not merely close to forests, and therefore, cannot be seen to be the main cause of terrorist movements.

On the other hand, the link between forests and poverty is quite commonly found in many states and so is the case in Assam. Forests are typically difficult to service in terms of providing different kinds of government services—be it security and safety or basic education. On the one hand, economic activities are difficult and costly, and on the other, if a law and order situation arises, it is difficult to control. The poor, therefore, get entangled in the trap of poverty. The perilous condition of the poor gets hidden in the forest. The solution, therefore, is also very apparent—building good-quality transport and communication infrastructure that connects forest areas to the rest of the economy.

Our concept of spatial poverty that can be identified and measured via remote sensing allows us a far greater set of policy insights. The most important being that we are able to link poverty with the environment that gives rise to it and sustains it.

Laveesh Bhandari and Minakshi Chakraborty are economists based in New Delhi. The views of the authors are their own and not those of the organizations with which they are associated.

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