Himanta Biswa Sarma defends move on population control

It is unfortunate that the eviction of encroachers from government and forest lands is seen through the communal lens, says Himanta Biswa Sarma.

June 28, 2021 11:59 am | Updated June 29, 2021 07:51 am IST - GUWAHATI

Asam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma

Asam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who has cracked down on the drug trade since taking charge on May 10, said disincentives should balance incentives in the government’s approach to population control.

He has also defended the drive against encroachers on government, forest and monastery land and said it was unfortunate that some saw the effort through a communal lens. He said it was accidental that some evicted people belong to the religious minority group.

“Muslim population in Assam has been growing at 29% and Hindus are growing at just 10%. This means there will be a lot of poverty and illiteracy among Muslims. We need certain measures for slowing down population growth, but we will ensure Muslims themselves take the initiative,” he told The Hindu.

Disincentives, incentives go together in approach to population

Since taking oath as Assam’s 15th Chief Minister on May 10, Himanta Biswa Sarma has waged a war against drugs. But he has grabbed more attention for his advice to Muslims to adopt “decent” family planning measures and for sanctioning a drive to evict encroachers from temple and government lands in which the minorities have mostly been affected. He speaks to The Hindu on these and other issues.

What made you advise the Bengal-origin Muslims to adopt family planning measures and consider linking government schemes a two-child policy in the future?

Today, we have been able to manage our annual population growth to somewhere around 1.6% but further dissection of the last two censuses shows the Muslim population in Assam is growing consistently at almost 29% while Hindus are growing at just 10%. This means there will be a lot of poverty and illiteracy among Muslims. Somehow, we need to bring certain measures for slowing down population growth and for that we need to expand health and educational initiatives.

You must look at our policy parameters when you talk of government schemes. First, we said there should be incentives like free education for girls, financial inclusion for minority women, reservation in panchayat and government jobs for women in general, and the establishment of women’s colleges and university in minority areas. But if you only focus on incentives without disincentives, any policy is bound to fail. To put it simply, if you are punishing someone for criminal activity, you must reward people for good deeds. In a society, you have to have an approach where both incentives and disincentives work together.

But the approach (to population) should come from within the community, because any effort from outside will always be interpreted on political lines. We are doing this through a series of meetings in July with minority organisations and educated leaders among them.

What is the logic behind excluding the tea plantation workers apart from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from the population-based incentives and disincentives?

The Scheduled Tribes population in Assam is decreasing. People belonging to the tea community are essentially tribals although they are constitutionally not recognised as STs. But they are Adivasis and are either SCs or STs in their original homeland. So, our policy is consistent in the national context. It is very difficult to address the issue of the demand to grant them ST status (along with five other communities). The communities enjoying ST status are opposed to the move, and I don’t want clashes because of this opposition. This has been a long-pending issue and I don’t think we can address it in a hurried manner.

You have launched an eviction drive against encroachers on government, forest and temple land. Is this directed at migrant Muslims?

It seems so from the outside. It is merely accidental that some of the evicted people belong to the religious minority group, but we have also evicted non-Muslims. We evicted people from Geetanagar (in Guwahati on June 26) who are all Hindus and indigenous Assamese. It is not that we are targeting a community but unfortunately, encroachment is higher on that side. For me, encroachers are a class who turn out to be Muslims or Hindus when the action is taken on the ground. As Chief Minister, my duty is to protect the forests and I don’t have to see which religion the evicted belong to. The Supreme Court and the High Court keep passing orders for ensuring the forest cover does not reduce. I am just acting according to the national policy.

As for land belonging to ‘satras’ (Vaishnav monasteries) and ‘namghars’ (community prayer halls), we are on the same page as the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front [AIUDF]. There was unanimity across the board when I appealed in the Assembly for Hindus not to occupy mosque land and Muslims not to occupy the land of the ‘satras’ and ‘namghars’. I don’t think my views are different from those of the Congress and the AIUDF.

What is your stand on the National Register of Citizens [NRC] that seems to have been left in limbo?

Our NRC Coordinator has filed a petition in the Supreme Court for a relook at the document. It is entirely up to the court to hear the petition, which will come up for hearing today or tomorrow.

Your government has launched a massive drive against drugs, but the major problem is the inflow of narcotic substances from Myanmar through border States ruled by the BJP or allies. Are you going for a coordinated push?

We have not discussed the issue at the Chief Ministers’ level, because Union Home Minister Amit Shah is coming to Shillong in July and one of the issues is coordination among the north-eastern States for checking the drug menace and trafficking of women and children. He is likely to address all the Chief Secretaries and Directors-General of Police besides the CMs. I think we will see more prompt and positive results.

You have appealed to the Opposition to join hands with the BJP, and the Congress leaders are defecting to your party. Are you going by the Mamata Banerjee playbook in West Bengal?

There is no question of encouraging defections, which is not my agenda. I have said the BJP will prevail in Assam in 10-20 years because of our good work. What’s wrong with asking the Opposition to work together for the development of Assam in the long term?

Has your responsibility as the Chief Minister reduced your role as Convenor of the North East Democratic Alliance (a BJP-fronted forum of regional parties opposed to the Congress)?

Assam has a lot of border issues with Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. As CM, I have to protect the interests of my State and while doing so there will be certain reactions because of sentiments in the other States. As CM, you face certain problems working with the States with border-related issues, but at the same time the relationship developed through NEDA over a period can be utilised for sorting such issues. Apart from tackling flood and erosion, one of my objectives is to arrive at a unified policy for the region in tourism, infrastructure development and connectivity. This is because Assam’s development is interlinked with that of the sister States and we have to find ways of looking beyond the inter-State border issues.

The ULFA-Independent declared a three-month ceasefire after your appeal. Is a peace process possible despite its chief Paresh Baruah’s insistence on discussing the sovereignty of Assam?

That terminology is dicey. He has his ideology impacted by decades of living in the jungles, and I have taken an oath to protect the sovereignty of the country. This is an irreconcilable matter but if we can coin another word to discuss the same issues, we can make some progress. Nevertheless, there are many people I know who are in touch with the ULFA-I for discussing substantial issues without insisting on the word sovereignty.

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