With his government having just completed a year in power, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal speaks on various issues, including his vision for Assam, the recent floods, preparedness for the goods and services tax, plans to attract investments and moves to count the number of illegal migrants in the state. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Just when you completed one year in office you are up against the challenge of floods. What is your short-term and long-term strategy to deal with it?
Flood is a perennial problem in Assam. Since 1951, historically, the people of Assam have been facing the problem of floods... Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge, there is a consistent effort towards development of Assam and other states in the north-east. For the first time, all ministers have been asked to prepare detailed roadmap and programmes for development of the North-east. In that effort, the Union surface transport minister Nitin Gadkari has decided to carry out dredging in Bramhaputra (river), it will be done from Sadiya to Dhubri.
We will be able to increase the depth of the river and the (extracted) silt will be used for construction of four-lane and six-lane roads; also, (some of) the silt will be used for constructing expressways along the two sides of the river. This project would improve connectivity and solve the problem of floods.
We have to create an environment to make people comfortable and protect people from floods. At present we are providing foodgrains to people, shelter, rescue operations are going on. We are taking all possible steps, we have provided veterinary doctors for animals, baby food for small children, doctors for women and children, and ex-gratia compensation to the family members of the deceased is being given within 48 hours. This is happening for the first time, it is not like before when people had to wait for two years to get compensation from the government.
What is your reaction to the goods and services tax? Assam like some other states is a consumption state, it is not a production state so in a sense you will get more revenue. But you also have lots of small traders?
People are spontaneously supporting us because everyone is happy. The entire system is now transparent and not like earlier times when the tax system had different layers because of which people used to suffer. Now the system has become transparent and simple, people are happy and supportive. Registration is going on well.
How do you plan to make Assam an investment destination?
Guwahati used to be considered the gateway to the North-east earlier...We are trying to develop our links with Asean countries—Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei—and also with Bangladesh. I believe it will increase our business activities and trade. It is a golden opportunity for the people of Assam, through the ‘Act East’ policy.
According our plan, Guwahati will not remain the same—it will be expanded like a state capital region in which we will construct twin buildings like the World Trade Centre (the iconic building in New York which was brought down by terrorists in 2001).
In the last state budget also we had created provision for expansion, to develop Guwahati’s infrastructure to enable Asean countries along with Saarc nations—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka— to establish their consulate. Two countries, Bangladesh and Bhutan have already started their consulate.
What is the deadline for the makeover of Guwahati?
We want to make Guwahati the gateway to South-east Asia and also play a bigger role as the new engine for new India. Next winter, we are going to hold a global business summit; we have invited the Prime Minister to be there as the chief guest. We will also invite non-resident Indians and Assamese, business houses of the world. We have set up a separate department, Act East department—for the first time in Assam.
We are going to build an international airport with an aerocity (a complex near airports with hotels and commercial centres); the Union government has already allocated Rs1,100 crore.
The country is talking about rural distress, what are the steps taken by the state government?
We have started a new scheme under which each of the 26,000 villages in Assam will get Rs1.2 crore. Along with this we have decided to give one tractor to each village. They will be given this opportunity to use this tractor to grow more than one crop.
The Assam government has announced a new crop loan scheme for farmers in its 2017-18 budget. The ‘zero interest crop loan scheme’ will be launched soon for the farmers under which they can avail a crop loan of up to Rs1 lakh at zero percent interest. Through this scheme, the state government aims to encourage the farmers to avail loans against the backdrop of low credit flow in the state.
Have there been investments from big corporate houses? Automobile companies, for example?
Right now, Mahindra is coming and we have welcomed them. Hindustan Unilever, Patanjali and Dabur have come forward. The biggest takeaway is that earlier people used to think that in Assam and the north-east, industry can’t grow because of the climate of fear. But now the environment has become so conducive in terms of security that people think that they can come here.
What is the status of NRC (the National Registry for Citizens) on Assam?
NRC is being compiled under the monitoring of Supreme Court. RGI (Registrar General of India who oversees the Census) is looking after this and our state government is fully supporting it. We will play our role with full commitment with respect to whatever the Supreme Court orders.
Your election campaign had three big promises: jati, maati and bheti (identity, land and house). What is the status of these deliverables?
In Assam, there are a lot of people who do not have patta or land document, the relevant constitutional document. Because they don’t have that, they face a lot of problems. They don’t get bank loans, they get deprived of a lot of benefits and so what we did was we made a new committee. This committee under the chairmanship of former chief election commissioner H.S. Brahma has studied the issue. Whatever suggestions they give, mitti ka patta will be given so that no person is left who does not have a land document. If people don’t have land documents, you cannot safeguard your identity. In last so many decades no government has taken care of this, but we will.
Your state government had come up with a population policy...
Right now inter-ministerial consultation is happening on it. Assam (the population) is becoming disproportionate and it will be a loss for our people. That should be uniform.
There is criticism that this policy is discriminatory in nature.
How can this be discriminatory? This is not discriminatory. If you see 2011 Census you will know. It is legally sustainable. For Assamese people—for bonafide Indian citizens—this is a matter of their safety. We have come to power to ensure their safety and that is our priority.
How big a problem is illegal migration?
It is (a big problem). Now NRC is being made and after that you will come to know how many are from the country and how many are not.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has made similar promises in Tripura and Meghalaya.
For the first time in Assam, NRC is being made. No state has the experience in this. The Supreme Court is monitoring it and the Indian government is committed to it, Assam government is committed to it. NRC is being made through people’s support. When it gets completed you will know how many are from the country and how many are not. This will play a big role in the security issue. This links with the issue of India’s unity and sovereignty. Keeping that in mind, this is a big national duty, national obligation and national service for us.
Is there any fear of it upsetting relations with Bangladesh?
Why should there be any fear? What is illegal is illegal.