Five Year Plans routinely admit to growing imbalance in the development of Assam and the North East, but precious little is done to change the situation, says Assamese writer-academic Hiren Gohain

It is an old story that the North East, by and large, to mainstream India, has been associated with colourful hill tribes, exotica and of course, underdevelopment which intermittently leads to uproars — mostly violent — against ‘outsiders’. Noted writer-academic from Assam, Hiren Gohain, delivering a talk on Assam in New Delhi recently, began on these expected lines. 

He said, “People from the rest of India find the frequent complaints about Assam being left underdeveloped, often leading to inductions of outrage and violence, tedious and incomprehensive. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how without the presence and contributions of the so-called outsiders, targets of any development would have taken place at all.”

In the lecture titled “Assam: Perspectives and Development” to commemorate the memory of late development scientist Srikant Dutt at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Mr. Gohain, former professor of Gauhati University, effectively linked this perspective of mainstream India to the history of turmoil periodically seen in Assam, and also in the North East at large. He pointed out, “If the outcome of this development made the outsiders grow prosperous and powerful and the natives are relegated to the position of bystanders, the picture gets to look different and to some extent understandable.” 

He added a vital point often buried under the prevailing perspective, that “there have been a number of inquiry committees like that of L.C. Jain’s in 1990 and S.P. Shukla’s later, where they had not dismissed this perception as entirely primordial. They offered various prescriptions to lift Assam and the North East in general out of such a morass. But the process of development goes on in total disregard of them.”

Intermittently, in the speech, Mr. Gohain highlighted the ineptitude of the Planning Commission in elevating the State’s condition in spite of allocating funds year after year. “The preamble to every Five Year Plan makes a routine rant about the growing imbalance in respect of development among the States but offers little to adjust the situation. The Commission is fixed in a framework of thought which couldn’t be overlooked.”

“Like the hated autocracy of colonial India,” said this former Delhi University lecturer, “the planning of development was subordinated to a centralised, increasingly bureaucratic institution, [which is] subject to political and social pressures from above and [is] incapable of critiquing its own perspective and policies,” Mr. Gohain said, adding, “That might not have been intentional but the inbuilt insularity led to the growth of a faithful complacency about its growth and policies.”

He strengthened his argument through a range of examples. “There has been a massive inflow of money [into Assam] since the 10th Five Year Plan but it is simply pocketed...The State Domestic Product leapt from Rs. 1,635 between 2000-2001 to Rs. 2,786 in 2010-11. It is explained that this increase in due to development in manufacturing. But industry accounts for only 13.68 of Assam’s SDP. If the rise is ascribed to industry, how is it that industry accounts for so little? It must be then due to rise in tourism, hospitality, banking and insurance, if not the numerous chit funds which stay for some years before vanishing without a trace.”

The lopsided development of the State was underscored through a number of statistics. “Recent media reports have put Assam in the 19 position in order of development performance. The total number of IPC crimes in Assam is 54.2 per cent against the national average of 11.5 per cent. Crime against women is 87.5 per cent against the national average of 41.5 per cent. While poverty among rural labourers is 70 per cent, it is 80 per cent among urban labourers.” He stated, “But the number of registered motor vehicles has gone up sharply. You know where the money is going.”

Owing to private-public partnerships, “corporate houses have been granted contracts at a premium to patronise malls, supermarkets, food chains…we have them all in Guwahati now.”

Mr. Gohain further pointed out instances of the Centre’s failure in delivering promises. “Twenty-eight years after signing the Assam Accord, the promised gas cracker project to produce naphtha took off in 2007 in collaboration with Reliance. Inefficient Central planning has increased its cost from Rs. 3,600 crore to Rs. 5,460 crore. It was to be completed by 2011 but it is yet to take off. Meanwhile, 500 local families have been uprooted without any compensation. Similarly, the Bogibeel Railway Bridge over Brahmaputra, which began construction in 2002 and was to be completed by the 9th Plan, is still being constructed even as the 12th Plan is getting off the ground...The project’s estimated cost, meanwhile, has risen from Rs. 1,767 crore to Rs. 3,100 crore.”

Mr. Gohain also took listeners through winding courses of history to drive home the point that “the underdevelopment of Assam is far from a natural condition”. He blamed the western model of development route the nation builders undertook, “their burning desire to catch up with them through planned development”, failing in the process “to realise the strength and tenacity of institutions such as caste and tribe so deeply rooted in the societies.” He also pointed out the inherent flaws of the 19th Century Bengal Renaissance, which had a profound influence on the awakening in Assam. Through statistics, he highlighted how “a terrible famine was engineered by the Colonial rulers towards the end of World War II” which had a back breaking effect on Assam’s economy. Mr. Gohain was scathing in his criticism of Centre’s policy when he said, “There seems to be a continuity between the callousness of the Colonial authorities and the marked reluctance of the leaders of independent India to invest in Assam.”

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