There is a feeling now that the Northeast will grow: Sarbananda Sonowal

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.  

The Assam Chief Minister on a year of leading the first ever BJP-led government in the State

In a clear signal that the BJP-led Central government intends to focus on the Northeast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will unveil the three-year completion celebrations of his government with a rally at the Khanapara ground in Guwahati on May 26. As he personally monitors preparations for the Prime Minister’s visit, with roads in the city getting spruced up, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal also marks a milestone of his own — completing one year on Wednesday of helming the BJP government in Assam. He tells The Hindu that his larger agenda of governance is driven by four points — of achieving a corruption-free, pollution-free, terrorism-free, and foreigner-free Assam. Here are excerpts from a wide-ranging interview:

You’ve been a legislator, parliamentarian and a Union minister, but you’re heading BJP’s first-ever government in what is also your first role in State administration. A year into your term, how would you describe the experience?

This is a very exciting and learning experience for me because running a State government is the biggest challenge in anyone’s political career. But I have the confidence, particularly in the people of the State, because they have always been there by my side. Taking people into confidence and taking everybody along… it was my main objective to strive for everybody’s equal growth. We are blessed with two valleys, Barak and Brahmaputra, and three hill districts. The people living in these places should have a sense of unity… that was what we were aiming for, and that has been there in the last one year. That’s one of the biggest successes of our government. People from every part of the State have developed a sense of belongingness and they have taken ownership of the government. Whenever we unveil a scheme, we see people’s spontaneous support. The BJP-led alliance government in the State has been there to give a morale boost to everyone in the State under the dynamic leadership of our Prime Minister Narendra Modiji. People in this State and region have developed a very optimistic feeling that now the Northeast will grow. During the long term of Congress rule, because of its repeated betrayals, people didn’t have any expectation from them. Because of Modiji’s optimistic approach, the people of the State have a tremendous confidence that in the near future, the State will be one of the top States of the nation.

The Prime Minister will kick-start the three-year completion celebrations of the Central government from Guwahati on May 26. How has the political alignment of the State with the Centre, with the BJP in power in both, concretely helped?

There are two things. Modiji’s decision to address the nation on the occasion of three years of his term in power from Assam is the biggest morale boost to the State people and a grand recognition that Assam, under BJP rule, has performed significantly in the past year. It is a matter of great pride for all of us and will inspire our people to work harder and harder for speedy growth.

Modiji is the first Prime Minister in the history of independent India to extend everything for the speedy growth of the region. He has inspired the entire region and given top priority for our regional growth, the biggest commitment he has expressed through his actions.

The question of proper utilisation of schemes and funds was never there during the Congress regime because there was no good governance system. Now there is discipline in the administrative system. From day one we have gone on a drive against corruption, which has resulted in officials and members of the [Assam Public Service] Commission being put behind bars. A new environment is prevailing in the government system, and from the Chief Minister’s Office to the panchayat office, this message has been communicated.

What would you count as notable achievements of your government in the past one year?

The drive against corruption is our notable achievement. If you look at the number of officials who have been caught red-handed and put behind bars, corruption has been rooted out. Transparency has come back to the system and people have a clear view about the government, particularly on recruitment issues. Now, genuine candidates have a chance of getting better justice.

Driving out illegal encroachers from Kaziranga and the various satras [Vaishnavite monasteries], which is continuing now, is also another important success of this government.

This time, 21.6% revenue growth has been attained. Right from day one, we issued a directive to withdraw all the illegal check-gates on the National Highways. We were able to plug leakages in the revenue collection system and the machinery has become efficient and transparent.

Your government was elected on the back of long persisting angst about illegal migration. The Central and State governments had promised to fence the entire Bangladesh border. What is the current status?

Due to our constant vigilance on the border with Bangladesh — I went twice myself in the past year — a strong sense of responsibility has been instilled among people living in the border areas. As a result, the influx numbers have been minimised, as also of cattle and arms smuggling. Identification of illegal migrants has been carried out very actively by the tribunal constituted under the directive of the Supreme Court. The Government of India has given priority to the sealing of the border and now the process has started with sincerity and commitment. We are hopeful that in the next two years the border will be sealed. The most difficult parts are the riverine parts that go up to 67 km; those parts would be sealed applying the most modern technology.

The National Register of Citizens’ update for Assam has been vexed by repeated extensions. How will it put a lid on things, considering there is no agreed mechanism with Bangladesh to deport illegal migrants?

The earlier government took up the matter very casually. It is a very important constitutional responsibility we have to carry out. We are verifying every document very carefully so that no illegal migrant’s name can be enlisted in the NRC. This document will protect the identity and sanctity of the people of the State. It is a national agenda, commitment and duty. By December 31, 2017, the draft roll will be published.

The deportation issue is different. We have to handle the part that deals with bona fide Indian citizens living in Assam. That is our mandate. The rest would be taken up by the Government of India with the government of Bangladesh.

It is a question of the identity of the people of Assam. Clause 6 of the Assam Accord promises constitutional safeguards to the indigenous people of Assam. The Government of India has recently concluded tripartite talks on the issue that included the All Assam Students’ Union and it was decided to revive the committee to study the issue of constitutional safeguards.

Has it been a smooth alliance with your former party, the Asom Gana Parishad? It is opposed to issues such as the extension of citizenship to Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, as does the All Assam Students Association, of which you are a former president.

Look, this citizenship thing is not a secret, it was very much there before the election too. We declared this point very clearly before the people of Assam before contesting the election, and the people have voted us into power. This is our party’s stand. Minorities facing persecution in neighbouring countries… that is a national decision. The burden will be shared by the whole nation, not a single State like Assam.

What is the Centre’s rationale in continuing to extend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act across the State since 1990, the latest coming in May first week? Isn’t the Assam police capable of handling the declining levels of violence?

Our State police are capable of handling all kinds of situations, but this particular Act is for the entire region. It allows the Indian Army to move into neighbouring States, which our State police cannot do. Most cases in Assam, the State police handle with efficiency.

Your government organised the Namami Brahmaputra festival, which received wide press coverage. But the larger problem of floods remains recurring in the State. What are your measures to tackle this annual menace?

Namami Brahmaputra was mainly organised to connect Assam with the rest of the world through the Brahmaputra river. This was the most viable waterway during the British regime, Brahmaputra to Padma and the Bay of Bengal. Our finished products could find a global market. For 70 years, this has been stopped. We want to reopen that route for speedy growth. Exposure is highly essential for Assam in the 21st century. The festival’s grand success has given a tremendous boost to the people of Assam and the Northeast that this part of the country can develop connectivity with the rest of the world and also grow like the most developed States.

As for floods, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had an MoU with us in which it was promised that the Brahmaputra would be dredged to develop a central stream so that navigation becomes possible. Steamers containing heavy cargo of 10,000-20,000 metric tonnes can then be moved from the Bay of Bengal to different destinations in Assam. The silt and sand dredged will be used to develop a Brahmaputra express highway on both sides of the river, which will also protect us from erosion. With dredging, the riverbed will have adequate depth which will minimise the flood problem in the State.

The floods problem leads us to the other linked issue further upstream, the damming of rivers. Your party’s stand has changed on the issue.

No, we don’t have any reservations on the issue because regarding the construction of dams — you’re particularly talking about the Subansiri [hydroelectric project] — this has been negotiated by the Ministry of Power by way of constitution of an expert committee with four members recommended by the agitationists and four by the government. This matter is now in the National Green Tribunal. The government of Assam has taken a favourable view on this matter for completion of the project for our power generation and to expedite industrial growth. We’re expecting a positive verdict by the 28th of May.

You’ve been a Sports Minister at the Centre prior to taking over as CM. Any specific plans to harness the State and region’s sports potential?

To detect talent available in the villages, through a scheme called Mukhya Mantri Samagra Gramya Unnayan Yojana, we have decided to develop a sports field in all 26,000 villages along with a knowledge centre for skill development facilities for the athletes. Through an annual event, talent will be picked up and groomed in the State capital.

Roads have been renamed in Guwahati, there is talk of a dress code being implemented in government offices… is there a cultural agenda your government espouses?

This [dress code] has been the spontaneous… it’s not an order, it’s an appeal. Whoever is interested can come in the traditional dress once a month. I have seen in the last two weeks that most of the staff come in traditional dress and it has created a lovely environment throughout the State. Traditional culture is always a matter to be seriously observed. Cultural identity is the most important identity for any region. This is the culture of our forefathers. These values should always be restored by promoting our indigenous culture.

The government announced compulsory Sanskrit in schools, but subsequently the move was reversed…

It has not been made mandatory… Sanskrit is the origin of all the languages and the most scientific of languages. The Cabinet took a view and this was put to the public domain for comments and suggestions. It is a democracy, you cannot unilaterally impose something. People’s choice would be taken into consideration.

Given a substantial section of the population is minorities, how are you taking them on board? Do you think Assam’s minorities are different from elsewhere in the country?

As I have said at the beginning, I am taking everybody along… sabka saath, sabka vikas has been the principle. You cannot violate it. You have to bring everybody closer to each other. Let them work as Team Assam. How can you segregate the majority and minority? Let us grow together, work together. It’s a question of unity of existence and living.

What are the focus areas in the next four years?

Agricultural growth and doubling of farm income. That is why Mukhya Mantri Samagra Gram Unnayan Yojana has been taken up. Through this scheme, we are going to give ₹1.20 crore to every village. In two months, we will distribute big tractors in all the 23,000 villages. We want to encourage organic farming. Our natural resources are enormous. We’ll grow without affecting our ecology.

Right from the beginning, we have set our agenda very clearly. There are four specific points. The State will be made corruption-free, pollution-free, terrorism-free, and foreigner-free.

Off work, what are your interests?

There is no personal life in politics. You’re all the time with people. It’s a very challenging task. As you know, in the last 15 years the government was run on the basis of corrupt practices. That was the order of the day those times. Now we have to bring discipline, punctuality and character to the system. To establish those things in the system, you have to work hard and motivate the people around — there are 5,00,000 officials and staff in the State. By taking stern action against corrupt people, we are trying to instill discipline in the system. I must work 24x7. That is the people’s desire and expectation I have to fulfil. That’s what I know.

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Printable version | Mar 27, 2020 6:35:35 PM |

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