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The regional divide in conflict-torn Assam

Disturbingly, the gap between Bodoland and the rest of Assam appears to be as wide in 2011 as it was in 2001 despite the creation of the BTAD and the increased allocation of public funds for the region over the past decade. Photo: AFPPremium
Disturbingly, the gap between Bodoland and the rest of Assam appears to be as wide in 2011 as it was in 2001 despite the creation of the BTAD and the increased allocation of public funds for the region over the past decade. Photo: AFP

A Mint analysis of a range of district development indicators shows people living in the Bodoland region are worse-off than the average Assamese

Over the past few years, Assam has almost become synonymous with violence in the national discourse. Most episodes of large-scale violence in the state have been concentrated in the western part of the state, where leaders of the Bodo tribe have been demanding a separate state. Although an autonomous council, the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD), was formed in western Assam in 2003 after the government struck a peace agreement with Bodo militants, the move has failed to bring peace in the region.

The claim for Bodoland is based on cultural and economic grounds. Is Bodoland really more deprived than the rest of Assam? Have development indicators improved after the formation of the BTAD?

In this analysis, the districts of Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Darrang have been included in the Bodoland region. Although BTAD includes some parts of the erstwhile Barpeta and Nalbari districts, they are included in rest of Assam since a large part of these two districts lie outside the Bodoland region.

When it comes to ownership of household assets such as TVs or cars, Bodoland districts lag the rest of Assam. Bodoland’s score on the mean asset index is lower than the rest of Assam. The contrast is starker when it comes to access to amenities such as water connections and drainage. For instance, with less than 2% of households having access to a water connection, Kokrajhar ranks 19 among the 23 districts of the state in terms of access to tap water.

Disturbingly, the gap between Bodoland and the rest of Assam appears to be as wide in 2011 as it was in 2001 despite the creation of the BTAD and the increased allocation of public funds for the region over the past decade.

The asset index used to rank districts in this analysis is a composite index based on census data on ownership of household assets such as cars, motorbikes, TV, radio, access to banking, phones, and bicycles. The amenities index is a similar gauge based on access to amenities such as toilets, tap water, and electricity. Both indices have been constructed using principal components analysis, and have been normalized to take values between 0 and 1, with values closer to 1 indicating greater ownership of assets (or access to amenities). Newly created districts have been merged with their parent districts to ensure comparability between 2001 and 2011 figures in the analysis.

In terms of consumption expenditure, urban Bodoland under-performs the rest of urban Assam, according to data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). But it may be more fruitful to look at the mean rural consumption expenditure since most people in Bodoland (and in rest of Assam) live in villages. In terms of rural consumption expenditure, Bodoland is slightly ahead of Assam. But these numbers should be treated as rough indicative estimates given that the sample sizes of NSSO surveys in the north-eastern region tend to be small.

On balance, the claim that people living in Bodoland are worse-off in many respects compared to people in other parts of the state is not without basis. However, granting greater autonomy to BTAD or carving out a separate state could be a risky proposition. Recent history does not inspire much confidence about the present crop of Bodo leaders, who have governed Bodoland over the past decade without much to show for it.

As the development indicators show, power for the former Bodo militants who comprise BTAD’s leadership has not translated into any meaningful improvement in the standard of living of Bodoland’s residents. While their contribution to the region’s development is questionable, the BTAD leadership’s contribution to the growing ethnic polarization in this multi-cultural region is beyond the pale of doubt. Repeated public pronouncements by politicians of the ruling party against non-Bodos have only served to increase the sense of alienation among non-Bodos, who constitute a numerical majority in the region .

Many years ago the American social scientist Mancur Olson showed that complex societies see the rise of sectional interests who aim to grab public resources to their advantage. Later research by other economists showed that the provision of public goods tend to be lower in areas with high ethno-linguistic diversity or polarization because it is difficult for people to agree on the provision of public goods which benefit everyone. Bodoland today appears to be a classic case of a deeply fractured society where it has become difficult to agree on public goods.

Had the BTAD leadership lived up to its promises of ushering development, and helped maintain social cohesion in the region, the 2003 peace accord would have lived up to its name. As an earlier Mint article pointed out, the accord has only helped fuel the politics of competitive intolerance in the region.

The upshot: the issue of statehood has become far more complex than it was even a decade ago.

This is the final part of a five-part data journalism series on intra-state inequality in India. The previous four parts examined the regional divide within Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra , Karnataka, and West Bengal .

The interactive map for this story has been designed by howindialives.com, a Delhi-based start-up that is developing a search engine for public data to make it more accessible to decision-makers

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