Dialogue April-June, 2011, Volume 12 No. 4
Priorities for the New Government
D. N. Bezboruah*
By the time this gets published, the counting of votes of the Assembly elections of the State held in April would have been over and a new government would have been sworn in. Normally the counting of votes in the case of Assembly elections is not delayed by over a month after the last phase of voting. But anything goes in Assam. So whether it is again the expected coalition government of the Indian National Congress giving Tarun Gogoi a coveted hat trick, or a coalition of other parties, it is unlikely to make any substantial difference to the people of Assam. This is because there is no political party in the State that is in the least interested in the development of the State. We only have political parties interested in how much can be made out of each ministership or chairmanship of a government corporation. As in most other Indian States, there is no trace of such virtues as patriotism or selfless service for the development of the State. All political activities are geared to the enhancement of personal wealth of legislators. Patriotism and public service is for the birds and for election speeches. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that two aspects of the State government’s functioning should have become most visible since the mid-1980s: the total absence of any real development and a quantum increase in corruption.
When the AGP government, mainly comprising young student leaders, came to power in 1985, people were willing to forgive all the initial hiccups arising from total inexperience of governance. However, people were hopeful that the potential that the youthful leadership had of ushering in clean and corruption-free governance would be fully explored. The very opposite happened. The young leaders started out as though they had to compete with the Congress in proving who could be more corrupt. As a consequence, governments in Assam stopped working from around the middle of the 1980s and each successive government sought to outdo the other in corruption. The sole obsession of almost everyone in government seemed to be how much each one could siphon off from the Centre’s grants and from funds earmarked for specific projects. For instance, during the last ten years, the Assam Government has lost Rs 5,192 crore of the Centre’s grants for having failed to submit fund utilization certificates or detailed project proposals to the Centre in time. It is not a recent trend. It started in the 1980s. A look at the power generation scenario should be a major pointer. During the last quarter century, the installed generating capacity of the Assam State Electricity Board went down from 514 MW to about 120 MW, but rose by about 100 MW two years ago with the commissioning of the Karbi-Langpi project which was first started over 30 years ago but had got repeatedly stalled. Its eventual commissioning was at a phenomenal cost escalation. In a quarter century there was no visible power planning for the State and for the possibility and desirability of having many more industries. Today the State itself generates about 220 MW of power at the best of times, but much less if there is not enough water to drive the two turbines of the Karbi-Langpi project. The rest of the State’s need of power is partially met by buying from other States, but anyone can see that no State with just about 220 MW of its own power is likely to be able to attract any new industries. Barring one or two cement factories, the State has had only one major industry during the last quarter century: the Numaligarh Refinery. This has doubtless had its fallout on the employment scenario in the State. The State has the highest unemployment rate in the country. So a new industry has come up in the last two decades: terrorism. The total lack of attention to development during the last quarter century has also stoked a very lucrative business in the State for which no investment is required. It is the business of siphoning the Centre’s allocations of funds for development projects. No wonder the projects do not get completed.
The total lack of any worthwhile government activity in the State has not only given rise to a high unemployment rate in the State, but has also affected education, health care and social security. A high level of corruption has led to large-scale nepotism in the recruitment of teachers from the primary school level to the university level. In government-run schools there is hardly any education taking place. Many of the rural primary schools are single-room, single-teacher affairs where teaching sometimes does not take place for weeks together. For higher education, most of our students migrate to cities outside the State. Health-care too is at about the worst, with Assam having the highest infant mortality and maternal mortality rates in the country. Rural malnutrition and anaemia among young women are rampant in the State. Added to all this, we have joblessness and frustration driving the youth to alcoholism (with the active support of the government) and crime.
The problems and the social malaise should make it fairly easy for the newly-constituted government in the State to chalk out its priorities. However, this is possible only if the government can overcome the inertia induced by a total lack of performance for a quarter century and the kind of rampant corruption that has made Assam the most corrupt State of the Union. When the Tarun Gogoi government came to power in 2001, it had declared transparency and accountability in governance as its foremost priorities. Today it is about the most opaque government that one can think of. The reasons are not far to seek. It has become a government that thrives on corruption and does not want to change. And corruption in the States of India cannot be controlled until the overweening powers of chief ministers over the allotment of government land and over the distribution of all government contracts is taken away from the hands of a single individual and becomes a collective and democratic responsibility. In Assam, this has become particularly important because successive governments have presided over the permanent forcible occupation of about 87,000 hectares of Assam’s territory by neighbouring States. There is much brave talk about not surrendering an inch of Assam’s territory to any of its neighbouring States, but in over four decades not an acre of annexed land has been recovered from any neighbouring State. People can draw up a list of priorities for the new government only if it has the political will to end corruption and to start working after a long sleep of over a quarter century. A government that can achieve this does not need to be told about its priorities. A government that cannot, will continue to fail in performance even if a list of priorities were drawn up for it by the Kellogs Business School.
Insurgency is often, with a great deal of justice, described as the symptom of bigger social malaises. The prescription from this perspective is somewhat to excuse insurgency violence as a reaction to certain structural inconsistencies in the society. What is often is in danger of being overlooked when the analyst take this perspective is that when violent insurrection becomes prolonged and endemic, the effect can acquire altogether different visage. Indeed, there would come a point when it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish between the symptom and the disease, for both can be oppressive and life threatening in equal measure. This would be somewhat like the HIV/AIDS syndrome. A person afflicted by this dreaded virus can die of the disease but more often of secondary infections or call it symptoms of the presence of the immune deficiency virus in his system.
Manipur at this moment is at such a juncture when the disease and symptoms of the social upheaval it is witnessing have become interchangeable. Take one incident to demonstrate this. Last fortnight, a perfectly innocent man was shot dead in front of his family inside his own house and yet Manipur failed miserably to be outraged. Or to put it more accurately all the outrage that seemed to have been building up, simply frittered away after the murderers owned up to the killing. Quite atrociously, all that everybody is seemingly willing to risk doing, including those who had decided to come out on the streets to protest before the murderers came open, is to appeal to the murderers to furnish reasons for the execution.
Implicit in this tame demand is nothing but an all round cowardice induced by decades of intimidation and violence perpetrated on them, but also by an inherent inward looking and selfish side of the character of the place’s elite. The metaphoric Manipuri lion of the folklores is suffering from a terrible sore throat and can do nothing more than let out the mew of a house kitten even when threatened. What a tragedy this is. One can only hope this condition is not permanent. To ensure this is not so however, the “brave” sons and daughters of the land would have to gather courage and come forward to stand up to oppression of any kind from any quarter.
Implicit also in the same tame appeal is that summary execution even without the semblance of a trial in a kangaroo underground court is permissible, as long as the executioners have an excuse to furnish for the killing. This would further mean giving moral legitimacy to posthumous awards of penalties to already executed victims. Or maybe nobody, especially those who form the supposed enlightened crust of the citizenry, believe in what they are saying anymore.
One is reminded of W.B. Yeats’ description of what Ireland had once gone through because of similar violence as witnessed in Manipur. He had described it in a poem “The Second Coming” as a hopeless situation in which
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst.
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Yeats however was not a pessimist and added in the next line with a wishful thought:
“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
Manipur’s morale today has hit the nadir. Hence, its enlightened citizens must step out of their cocoons to make Yeats’ “second coming” happen in the state. The madness must be put to an end and everybody must shoulder the responsibility together. Everybody must step out to claim their right to dignity and dignified living. In this, to draw inspiration from a cliché, there is no fear bigger than fear itself and it must be shed.
The vocal section of our society who makes so much noise on atrocities by the establishment must also speak in one voice. There can be absolutely no difference between the way summary executions are carried out by many who profess to be revolutionaries and those killed by government forces. The BT Road daylight custodial killing that shook the nation’s conscience was unpardonable, but so should be the killing of a mobile tower caretaker by militants inside his house in front of his family. The fabled lion in the soul of the place must be restored. Only this can be the salvation.
But while this is very much a fight of the people by and large, the government cannot be silent spectator. It cannot forget that the most important reason for its existence is to provide security to life and property of the ordinary citizenry. It has been miserably failing in this duty all the while, resorting to controversial terror tactics itself in the name of counterinsurgency measures, adding thereby to the aggregate of the all round sense of terror.
Meanwhile, the ideology driven resistance movements must also rethink on the road ahead. Fifty years down the road, the situation has not remained the same. The aspiration of the people have changed radically, as is natural everywhere in the world, and moreover, as said earlier, the people have been intimidated into abject cowardice, and they live in fear of atrocities, not necessarily perpetrated by the supposedly oppressive establishment, but equally, if not more by many who claim to be fighting the established order on behalf of the people.
They must come together and thrash the issue out among themselves, and if a sincere and threadbare dialectical engagement reveals that the way forward points towards a reconciliation process, they must be courageous enough to be ready to change course and pursue what is the obvious spirit of modern Manipur and its people.
Two Fasts Two Responses
Having said this, it would still be wrong to presume that Manipur’s and indeed the Northeast’s problem is one which can be resolved by a change of heart of the people of the Northeast alone. This is so because the inconsistencies of national psyche extend much beyond the region. Indeed the crucial point stems from the exclusion of the region from the larger Indian national psyche. Take the case of two protests in recent time to understand this in better light.
Anna Hazare, the 72 year old Gandhian who was on a fast barely a week earlier demanding an anti corruption law be introduced in the country, touched a raw nerve throughout the country, and achieved his end with much public fanfare. Solidarity literally poured in tidal waves from all parts of the Indian subcontinent, although the man himself faced some serious controversies, especially on the question of his reluctance to take on the controversial Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi.
By contrast, another hunger striker, Irom Sharmila, one who has been on a fast for over 10 years now to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA-1958, has not attracted even a small fraction of the same attention in the country. All the national television networks went gaga over Hazare for virtually 24-hours daily nonstop while the struggle lasted but did not even in passing mention the other hunger striker to provide a necessary foil.
This contrast highlights a number of grave issues. Above all, it demonstrates how much disparity there is between the concerns of the north eastern states and the rest of India. Who can now say with any justice that the vexing nationalistic problems in the north east have no deeper basis than lack of development? Rather than this, the emerging scenario of the nations concern over the hunger strike by Hazare should have made it clear that at the roots of the Northeast problem is also an exclusion of the region from the national psyche.
The issue raised by Hazare understandably would without fail strike hard at the nation’s conscience, coming as it does immediately after a series of high profile multi lakh crore corruption scandals, in particular the Commonwealth Games scam and the 2G allocation scam, running into several lakh crore rupees of swindled money. According to various estimates, at least 40 percent of the Indian economy is black. Not only is it about tax money being siphoned off by corrupt government authorities and officials, but also about influential and rich corporations scandalously dodging taxes or else buying their way to pay only part of what they should be paying. The 2G scam was exactly about this.
But there is more. If the corporations have been depriving the national coffer of big money, so has small enterprises and proprietorships, many of whom are extremely successful, and make enough money to make their owners millionaires, although seldom pays enough to make their employees have comfortable livings. According to another estimate, the biggest tax money loss may be on account of this class of entrepreneurs. Few if any of them pay taxes honestly. Many do not pay at all claiming to make no taxable income in connivance with auditors. The sum total of the taxable money that end up untaxed from this class is estimated to be much more than even what was supposedly swindled in the 2G allocation scam and others.
There can be no doubt Hazare’s hunger strike is important and deserves all the attention he and his cause are getting. Even if an anti-corruption bill drafted not by politicians but by civil bodies, as has been widely criticised, may not prove either totally feasible or productive, he certainly has raised questions which should open up profoundly influential debates amongst various circles, including in the corridors of powers in New Delhi, and in the states. We do hope these debates result in the changes envisaged towards ending, or at least drastically limiting, the Indian national scourge of official corruption.
But while this cause is honourable and deserves all the wide solidarity pouring in, what is painful is the utter neglect from virtually all these quarters of the other and much more persistent hunger striker in Manipur, Irom Sharmila. The cause of the woman who has come to be fittingly nicknamed the Iron Lady is not any less. Her’s is as much a moral cause, for she is fighting for the return of democratic means of addressing social problems and not the military ones.
Her method is also not any less nonviolent and “Gandhian”. Yet even in matters of conscience, the peripheral states of India, it seems are condemned to remain peripheral.