Monday, Dec 08, 2003
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By Walter Fernandes
ASSAM IS in the news again for all the wrong reasons and the usual causes of the United Liberation Front of Assam and other militant outfits being behind the unrest are being dished out. Unemployment is being cited as another reason. While there is no denying that these are among the reasons, one has to go beyond them to understand the deeper cause of decades of neglect of the Northeast in general and Assam in particular.
Without justifying the happenings, it is important to focus on the failure of the economic forces to create jobs in the region though the level of education of its people is high. Liberalisation has added to the problem by creating a crisis in the Assam tea industry, backbone of the State's economy. Immigrants encroach on the land intensifying the problem, because due to the absence of productive jobs, even the well educated continue to depend on land. Jobs in the administration, the other alternative, are declining. Besides, the Assamese feel that the economic forces are devaluing their culture and imposing their own culture on them. Amid such tensions, the politicians were able to exploit to their benefit, the Railway Recruitment Board examinations for 2000 C and D group employees. And the cycle of violence and counter-violence followed.
Low investment in productive jobs is the first issue. The Northeast is treated only as a supplier of raw material of petroleum, tea and coal to the rest of India and a consumer of finished products. In 1996, Assam had 166 large and medium industries and the remaining six States together had 50 more. In contrast, Orissa that is considered a backward State had 374 industries in the same year.
Liberalisation has added to the State's woes. Assam produces 56 per cent of India's tea and 25 per cent of the world's total. The WTO forces India to import tea from other countries at a lower price. Besides, a few companies that control 60 per cent of the world tea market are stated to be stockpiling the goods and refusing to buy new stocks. As a result, the price of tea has collapsed.
Then come the immigrants. The focus has been on the Bangladeshi Muslims but studies indicate that at least half, if not two thirds, of more than the three million immigrants are from the Hindi heartland, mostly Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They come as cheap labour and take up jobs that the local people do not do easily. Even where the locals are ready to work, the employers prefer immigrants because they work for lower wages. The local people, therefore, perceive them as competitors.
In this context, the Assamese have developed rigid and exclusive identities within the region. Their land and forests are both their sustenance and the centre of culture and identity. As a result, in recent years there have been many conflicts for land and forests that have resulted in massacres. Be it the Naga-Kuki conflict in Manipur, the Bodo-Santhal and Dimasa-Hmar tension in Assam or the Tripura tribal demand for a homeland, all have their origins in competition for land.
The people also resent the control of their economy by persons from outside the region. They identify this control with Hindi. Militancy is one of their reactions. The ban the militant outfits imposed on Hindi films from November 15 in Assam and much earlier in Manipur was a manifestation of this. But as they are unable to influence the decision-makers, their anger is diverted to the vulnerable daily wage earners who also encroach on their land. Every now and then one hears of the killing of Biharis in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam where encroachment is high. A critical moment can trigger a stronger reaction as it did when lakhs of candidates reached Guwahati to appear for the railway recruitment examination. The students from Assam, who do not see much hope for their future, joined the movement for 100 per cent reservation of jobs for people from the region. That led to attacks on the Northeast-bound trains, and the vicious circle of more violence.
The Centre's reaction has been to treat insurgency only as a law and order issue or blame it on a foreign hand or give it a communal colour by focussing on the Bangladeshi immigrants and ignoring those from the Hindi heartland. Another reaction is announcement of crores of rupees to be poured into the region without any investment plan. It can only result in corruption as what comes into the region is appropriated by a few leaders. For example, for two decades, amid the fanfare that accompanies their visit, subsequent Prime Ministers have made a symbolic gesture of announcing thousands of crores for the development of the region. A close scrutiny shows that the Planning Commission had already allocated much of what was announced as new.
With no follow up in the form of investment plans, no new jobs are created. That leads to further disillusionment of the youth. Neither the communal bias nor the exclusive focus on law and order can take the region out of this trap. Nor can 2,000 jobs solve the problem of massive unemployment. Both the Centre and the local leaders have to concentrate on regenerating the economy and creating low investment productive jobs.
Instead, the Centre plans to turn the region into the powerhouse of India by building more than 40 massive dams during the next decade, to supply power to the rest of India. They will result in more loss of livelihood but not solve the problem of unemployment. Will our leaders find long-term solutions?
(The writer is Director, North Eastern Social Science Centre, Guwahati.)
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