Himanta Biswa Sarma As CM: A Review Of The First Six Months
From consolidating the peace process, to fast implementation of projects, Himanta Biswa Sarma is creating a case before he goes out shopping for investment in Assam.
Six months is not enough time to judge a government. But the Himanta Biswa Sarma government in Assam has a few exceptions.
First, Sarma was elevated as Chief Minister in May this year, in the second term of the BJP government, which had been in power since 2016.
Second, he had been a key minister in Assam for the 20th year running. This included his stint in the previous Congress government (2001-2016).
The challenge for the new CM, therefore, was to be distinct in approach without much scope to blame the past governments. In short, he was under the scanner from day one and didn’t have the advantage of making promises without accountability.
The performance of the past six months shows Sarma not only enjoyed the challenge but he made it look simpler.
An astute politician, probably one of the best minds that BJP has in its stable and a smart communicator, Sarma is known as a workaholic, and tough administrator, who has the experience of working in almost every department in the government.
And, he is making the best of use of his qualities so far in presenting a government that delivers.
The focus is primarily on consolidation of the peace process and political stability, ensuring better governance to improve the ease of living and, creating the right atmosphere and infrastructure to trigger economic growth.
The job is easier said than done. Assamese politics is divided in various groups and sub-groups along the lines of ethnic identity and language. Such divisions are also the source of unrest in the region. As the largest State in the northeast and strategic in terms of geography, Assam’s share of concerns is bigger.
Sarma is trying to address the problem from the root. In the past, peace accords proved fragile due to intra-community rivalry. If one group agreed to join the mainstream, another faction from the same ethnic identity disagreed.
As the key minister and political negotiator, during the first term of the BJP government, Sarma brought all Bodo factions together to enter a peace accord with the Centre in January 2020.
The process is being repeated with other ethnic groups to ensure “permanent peace”.
The biggest task ahead is to bring the outlaw separatist group Paresh Baruah-led United Liberation Front of Assam — Independent (ULFA-I) on the negotiation table.
Convincing them to give up the demand for sovereignty may not be easy but so far, there have been many positive takeaways.
For the first time, Independence Day was celebrated this year without ULFA giving a call for boycotting it. The militant group had unilaterally announced a ceasefire and extended it periodically.
The latest extension was announced in November.
The outsider-insider debate is one of the central themes of electoral politics in Assam for ages. All India United Democratic Front (AIDUF), which represents Bengali Muslims, fails to get the support of Assamese speaking Muslims.
Sarma topped it up with the Assamese nationalism card (another central theme) to ensure a landslide victory for BJP in 2021.
Going forward, Sarma will surely continue working on these political themes. “Assamese defeated Mughals 17 times and it is time to regain our lost glory with hard work and dedication,” the Chief Minister said this week.
At the same time, he is using good governance as a tool to widen the support base.
His war against drug cartels, rapists, criminals and encroachers has earned popular support.
Drugs sourced from Myanmar has been a major menace in the northeast. It is an easy source of finance to militant groups and a major reason behind the high incidence of AIDS.
Similarly, the state’s human development score suffered due to the high rate of crime — almost three times the national average — against women.
Add to this the incidences of rhino poaching, and rampant encroachment of government land, including forest land, by the alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
There was popular demand for action in all these areas and the State government is now showing intent.
At least two dozen criminals were shot dead in the first five months. Drug and poaching cartels suffered severe damage. Public lands were freed from encroachment. Parts of the land were returned to the forest.
The rest were either redistributed to the landless or used to launch agri-horticultural projects for the indigenous population.
There had been criticism of such drives. There were also cases of tragic deaths. But Sarma refused to budge. While retweeting a cryptic tweet by DGP (Law and Order) and Chief of Anti-Poaching Taskforce on December 1, the Chief Minister said: “Assam will be free of crime and criminal - come what may.”
Law and order is a serious issue in the northeastern setting where 'extortion-tax', and abduction were once commonplace.
However, that’s not the only area where Sarma is focusing on. Dependence on government is abnormally high in the northeast. However, the quality of public services has been abysmally poor.
To increase the speed of work and reduce the scope of corruption in public services, the Chief Minister has ordered full conversion to e-office mode by May 2022.
It means all government records are to be digitized before that deadline.
As part of this effort, the State government launched “Mission Basundhara” to streamline, resolve and digitize land revenue services in a mission mode and make the entire system online.
Lack of clarity in land records is a major source of conflict (the latest being on the Assam-Mizoram border), corruption and social deprivation in the northeast.
Vast parcels of village land are not surveyed and are held on traditional beliefs. Naturally, the poor miss out on benefits of government schemes and even just compensation in case of land acquisition.
Mission Basundhara promises to resolve all pending cases concerning land records including completion of surveys and resurveys, across Assam, by May 2022.
All land related work will henceforth be compulsorily done on digital mode.
It is understood, going forward, that Assam will use digital technologies like geo-tagging to further clean up land data. As an immediate and visible impact, the land revenue offices are cleared of middlemen.
It doesn’t mean corruption is rooted out, but surely, it is down and common people can feel the change.
At a time when organizing annual investment summits and churning out big numbers which will never materialize (learn from West Bengal) became a fashion, Sarma is not looking at joining the race.
He is instead directing his energy in fast-forwarding the pace of infrastructure creation.
While his predecessors may claim the credit for planning most of it, Sarma is aiming to see them done in the shortest possible time.
A flyover in Guwahati was recently completed in 22 months, 14 months ahead of schedule.
A few more are under construction, and all are ahead of schedule.
Currently, Guwahati has one bridge across the Brahmaputra, and three more (at different ends of the city) are under construction.
The Chief Minister promised to complete them in his term only and one will be in place in 2023.
The Central government is picking up the tab to build a ring road in Guwahati. The National Highways Authority of India is adding several over-bridges and underpasses to smoothen vehicular traffic along the highway passing through the outer limits of the city.
The aim is to convert Guwahati into a mega-city, spread on either side of the Brahmaputra, in the quickest possible time.
Northeast doesn’t have a history of such fast movement. But even his opponents will agree that Sarma is capable of doing that. He is using the state public works department (PWD) as a vehicle for passing quick construction mandates and makes it a personal responsibility to see the projects are through in time.
His (Anil Kapoor fame) “Nayak”-like image in project management helped in the fast implementation of major central projects in the past. When BJP came to power in Assam, there were only three bridges on the Brahmaputra that runs across its breadth.
Three more projects were suffering delays.
Now, Assam has six bridges. Three more bridges are under construction. The Centre has recently taken up two more bridge projects (Dhubri-Phulbari 19 km and Jorhat Majuli 8 km) and one tunnel (Numaligarh-Gohpur 15.6 km).
The State government planned another bridge from Majuli to Lakhimpur.
Connectivity is important everywhere. But it is closer to the hearts in the northeast which suffered due to poor logistics for too long. There was no dearth of planning.
The problem was in ground implementation. Even declared National Projects like Bogibeel bridge or Agartala rail link suffered prolonged delay.
When logistics is weak, economic growth is bound to suffer. In theory, Assam has tremendous potential in the agri-horticulture sector. In reality, Mega Food Park, Bamboo Park, food processing bid by North Eastern Regional Agricultural Marketing Corporation Limited (NERAMAC) — almost every project failed to make an impact.
Over the last couple of years, multilateral agencies sponsored several big-ticket projects in Assam in areas like electricity distribution, primary healthcare, agriculture etc.
One major aim of these initiatives is to improve the social infrastructure. From six odd medical colleges five years ago, Assam now has eight. If everything goes according to plan, the tally will move up to 10-11 in the next five years.
Sarma knows very well that in its current situation, Assam stands little chance to attract worthwhile investment. He is committed to changing the basics, creating sufficient infrastructure — both social and physical — to create a case for investment and growth.
Hopefully, he will succeed.
The success of Assam is crucial for the success of the northeast and the Act East policy. India has avoided joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). But it cannot keep competition away for too long.
Assam and the northeast have to change fast.
The choice is between capitalizing on opportunities or being swamped by foreign goods, bringing further misery to local economic activities and value addition.
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