Demography, Development, Encroacher Eviction And More: Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma Says Punishments As Important As Rewards
The Muslim population in Assam has been growing at 29 per cent and Hindus are growing at just 10 per cent, which means there will be a lot of poverty and illiteracy among Muslims, said Sarma
Assam's 15th Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma who took charge of the state on 10 May after the assembly elections showed the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) victorious, has been in the news for various policy measures announced in the last 30 days.
Sarma has spoken candidly about population control, especially the Muslim population in state which is growing at around 30 per cent, as opposed to the 10 per cent rate at which the Hindu population is growing.
He has cracked down on the drug trade and encroachment on temple, forest and government lands. He also wants to develop Assam's social sector, improve its ranking in the SDG Index, and solve the flood and soil erosion problems.
In interviews to various media portals, Sarma recently outlined his vision for the state, and clarified the population policy. He said disincentives should balance incentives in the government’s approach to population control, and said it was unfortunate that some saw the effort through a communal lens.
Here is a summary of his views on various issues.
Sarma recently advised Muslims in the state to adopt “decent” family planning measures.
“Today, we have been able to manage our annual population growth to somewhere around 1.6 per cent, but further dissection of the past two censuses shows that the Muslim population in Assam has been growing at 29 per cent and Hindus are growing at just 10 per cent. This means there will be a lot of poverty and illiteracy among Muslims," he said.
He further added that the state needs certain measures for slowing down population growth and for that the government needs to expand health and educational initiatives. "..we will ensure Muslims themselves take the initiative,” he said.
The Sarma-led government is also considering linking government schemes to a two-child policy in future.
He defended the move saying that the critics should look at broader policy parameters, and that for a policy to be successful, there should be both incentives and disincentives, that is, reward for good behaviour, as well as punishment for bad behaviour.
"..if you only focus on incentives without disincentives, any policy is bound to fail ..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 be interpreted on political lines," he said.
He also said that his government had also planned many incentives to promote family planning, 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.
He further informed that he was in constant touch with various leaders of Muslim society.
"..this is not a political issue. This is simply about the well-being of our mothers, sisters, and the community. I will meet the leaders of various Muslim organisations next month in order to create some kind of initiative or leadership within the community," he told TNIE.
Sarma also clarified the logic behind exempting the tea plantation workers, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from the population-based incentives and disincentives.
He said that the Scheduled Tribes population in Assam was already 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," he said.
He said that it was very difficult to address the issue of the demand to grant the tea community 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," he said.
Eviction Drive Against Encroachers
Sarma's eviction drive against encroachers on government, forest and temple land was criticised as being directed at migrant Muslims.
He said that the government had evicted encroachers regardless of their religious background. "We evicted people from Geetanagar (in Guwahati on 26 June) who are all Hindus and indigenous Assamese," he said, adding that it was an unfortunate truth that the encroachment was higher on that side [migrant Muslims].
"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 that the forest cover does not reduce. I am just acting according to the national policy," he said.
"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," he added.
The Chief Minister outlined his 10-year vision for the state.
He said that his government will focus on the primary objectives of improving Assam’s rank in areas of infrastructure, SDG index, or indexes like maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate, etc.
He also said that the challenge of flood and erosion that the state faces will need special attention. "We have to work towards achieving a permanent solution. We talk about infrastructure development and the development of the human resources index but unless we solve the problem of flood and erosion, we will not be able to do much," he said.
"To solve the problem, you need a lot of money and technology. You also need an institutional structure. We are working towards that. Of course, we will be dependent on the central government largely. I am sure the support will be available," he added.
He also said that he will try to bring the North Eastern states together on the a unified policy and putting in a unified effort for the development of the region, the first step being solving inter-state border disputes and rivalries. He said he aims to bring uniformity in various policy approaches like tourism infrastructure development, connectivity, etc.
"Assam is the gateway to the Northeast. So, the development of Assam is interlinked with the development of the Northeast," he said.
Sarma said that Assam was seeing high vaccine hesitancy earlier, primarily because the state did not have COVID cases till 10 April, and there was a mindset that COVID was over.
"However, from May onwards, the demand for vaccines has gone up. We tried to match the demand but there was a constraint on the supply side," he said.
"We have created model vaccination counters; our ANMs are working overtime; we have deployed technical people right at the vaccination centres so that digital illiteracy does not come in the way of vaccination. Over and above, we are incentivising our healthcare persons and motivators. I am fortunate that various social organisations and some political parties are taking steps to create awareness on vaccination," he said.
"A few days ago, a member of NITI Aayog and the Union health secretary indicated Assam should be ready to vaccinate 2.6 lakh people every day. They wanted to basically see our performance. So on 21, 22, and 23 June, we vaccinated altogether 10.5 lakh people. That shows our strength," he added.
Drugs, Terrorism And Organised Crime
The Assam government has launched a massive drive against drugs. A major challenge is the inflow of narcotic substances from Myanmar through border states, many of which are ruled by the BJP or allies.
Sarma said that during the Union Home Minister Amit Shah's visit to Shillong in July, the issues of coordination among the northeastern States for checking the drug menace and trafficking of women and children will be discussed. "I think we will see more prompt and positive results," he said.
Recently, the proscribed group ULFA-Independent declared a three-month ceasefire after Sarma's appeal. However, ULFA-I chief Paresh Baruah continues to insist 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," Sarma said.
"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 who are in touch with the ULFA-I for discussing substantial issues without insisting on the word," he added.
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