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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Time To Chicken Out!

I have always said it. And I say it again. Nothing that the Assam Government does surprises me. When it comes to bad functioning and callous attitude, no other State Government in India can challenge the Assam Government. We have left Bihar miles behind in this respect. Our State Government has panache for making mistakes and that too in the goofiest manner. We had always complained of bad roads, less electricity and other things like corruption. Ok. So these are things that are demanded by the rest of the country too. But I want to ask that how often do you come across a government that makes a mistake that affects the livelihood of tens of thousands of people? It’s a controversy, no doubt. And one which can land the present Congress Government in Assam in jeopardy ahead of next year’s elections.

It will be almost a month now that Assam is reeling under the outbreak of the avian influenza, better known as the bird flu. Culling operations have been on ever since the word broke out. Poultry products have been shunned and the prices of other meats have risen sky-high. Lakhs of poultry have been culled to avoid the spread of the virus to humans. But just when we thought that everything was getting under control and this epidemic would pass without any casualty, there came a bolt from the blue! The High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal reported that they did not find a single poultry sample that tested positive for bird flu in any part of the country, including Assam and West Bengal. Now we are forced to think what all this commotion was about? What was the State Veterinary & Animal Husbandry Department doing? Which divine intervention propelled the State Government to declare an outbreak of bird flu in the state if there was none?

I don’t know whether to call it as a mistake or carelessness. My reaction to this news was, well, pretty casual. Our State Government has a history of committing mistakes. So it was nothing like a surprise to me. But the problem is that the damage has been done. About 4.19 lakh poultry birds have been culled till now which will now take its toll on the poultry farm industry in the state. Poultry farmers have incurred huge losses and now most of them are rendered jobless, especially in the area of South Kamrup where the economy has totally collapsed with the unemployed youths as the worst affected. Apart from culling, large stocks of eggs were kept aside for the fear of the disease, which have now either rotten away or have hatched. Now people are questioning if there was any truth behind the official ruling of the Government that wild birds, besides poultry were dying of the bird flu too.

The situation has taken a political twist too. An independent MLA, Pranab Kalita has threatened to drag Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to the Gauhati High Court on the charge of killing lakhs of poultry birds in the State, especially in South Kamrup where the economy has totally collapsed. Now we are just waiting to see if the other political parties in the state will follow suit. The State Government was quick to react to this by confirming the outbreak of bird flu. The State Veterinary & Animal Husbandry Department Commissioner-Secretary S L Mewra said that samples that were sent to the HSADL in Bhopal between November 22 and December 20 tested positive for the H5N1 virus. And also that the presence of the bird flu virus was confirmed in the Rajabazar area of Hazo. The problem is that this thing has become rather serious with lots of money gone down the drain in the name of culling. The state’s economy has received a jolt that will take a huge toll on the poultry farming sector in the State. And going by the present scenario of devastation in the poultry farm economy of the state, few people are buying the government’s claim that Rs 1.38 lakh has been paid as compensation.

The coming days will tell us about the truth behind the outbreak of the bird flu. That too, if there really is any outbreak at all! Even if it turns out that the outbreak of bird flu is a lie, I really wouldn’t be surprised. This time, the Gogoi Government has got it for good. And they better clear the air regarding this one before it is too late. After all, nobody can call it a silly mistake on the part of the State Government this time.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Assam's Demand for Equality

It is a welcome sign. Finally our State Government is asking for something which we truly deserve. I normally don’t have good words for the Assam Government. But this time I must say that finally the Assam Government has asked for something which may go a long way in changing the Centre’s attitude towards Assam.

Like militancy-infested Jammu & Kashmir, the Assam Government has also sought “insurgency damages neutralization grant” to the tune of Rs 25,000 crores from the 13th Finance Commission. According to official sources, in the memorandum submitted to the 13th Finance Commission in Guwahati on December 18, the State Government has demanded of the commission to treat insurgency-affected Assam at par with Jammu & Kashmir. The memorandum stated that in the last 30 years, Assam’s economy has been badly affected due to insurgency leading to fall in investment and damage to infrastructure. Under similar insurgency and terrorism-related circumstances, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir got special financial dispensation from the 10th and 11th Finance Commissions. Assam has suffered no less. So the commission should be judicious enough to extend similar grants to Assam also.

This demand highlights the fact that Assam no longer deserves any step-motherly treatment. We have full credibility to receive equal rights and provisions when compared to the other states in the country. We cannot, and neither can the rest of India, ignore the fact that insurgency has created havoc with the economical as well as the socio-political aspects of the state. We have lost so much money in this time period that our state’s economy was left badly crippled sometimes back. Entrepreneurs and investors shirked from making any sort of ventures here. Terrorist activities had left public property in shambles. Blowing up of railway tracks and oil and gas pipelines always have financial repercussions with them. But of course, the number of lives lost cannot be counted in terms of money. The state of Jammu & Kashmir has a special status in the Indian Union and enjoys various privileges as per the Constitution. We are not asking for any big concessions. All we want is some assistance from the Centre in reshaping our economy. And the insurgency damages grant can go a long way in solving that. This concession will also enhance Assam’s stature and the Centre will not ignore Assam like it has always tended to do so. Hopefully, now the tag of a buffer state against China will be removed from us.

Every year, natural resources like oil, gas, tea and timber flow out of Assam to the mainland but very little is given back in return to Assam for her valuable resources. This is a question which has been asked by many Assamese intellectuals over and over again. And the state has always responded by taking actions against them. To combat insurgency and cross-border terrorism, the State Government has to rely more on the Central Paramilitary Force. And for that, it has to bear 10% deployment charge, which is discriminatory as neither Jammu & Kashmir nor any of the other North-Eastern States have to pay any such deployment charge. Unlike the Kashmiris who love to wave the Pakistani flag from their rooftops, we Assamese have time and again shown that we consider ourselves as Indians. The ULFA has lost support throughout the state because the common people do not want to leave India. Each year, many brave Assamese in the defence sector lose their lives while fighting for India. Whenever India wins a cricket match, Assam also celebrates with the rest of the country by bursting a lot of crackers out of jubilation. We are Indians from the core of our hearts. But, unfortunately, the Central Government still gives a secondary status to Assam and her problems. It has always overlooked the possibility that Assam could become the next Kashmir someday.

Today what Assam demands from the Indian Government is equal treatment. All we want is that the Centre should acknowledge our problems and help us out of them. And the seeking of insurgency damages grant is a step in that direction. Apart from helping to shape our shambled economy, it will also ensure Assam’s importance in the Indian pantheon in comparison to states like Jammu & Kashmir. So I sincerely hope that the Centre accepts the memorandum and Assam gets her dues in full.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Some Lost Maps and an Obstinate Dream

It’s official now। The Assam government has lost the original maps of Nagaland from its archives. On December 17, the Assam Government admitted that original maps demarcating the borders of Nagaland have been lost. As a concerned Assamese I can only think where our relationship with the Nagas will head to now. Already we are having a troubled history with the Nagas over border disputes and this incident will only go farther in increasing misunderstandings. One thing is for sure, that the Assam government has now to tackle with an infrastructure that is collapsing day by day.
My first reaction, to this incident of maps getting lost, was to loath the Assam Government for their inefficiency in almost everything! Archival materials are highly important things and have to be preserved with the highest care. But to report the missing of maps with such casualness is highly callous in nature. Who is to blame for the loss that has occurred? Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram told the Rajya Sabha that the Nagaland government had submitted the maps in September 1979 and they were forwarded in October 1979 to the Assam Government for its comments. But the Assam Government has informed the Centre that the maps are untraceable now. Nobody knows what the Assam government has been doing with those maps since then. No comments have ever been forwarded to the Centre on the purpose. I doubt if the Assam Government has ever cared to look into those maps due to which they have disappeared from the government archives as pieces of useless papers. What is more surprising is that the Central Government did not care to keep a copy of the maps. They were sent in the original. This, too, highlights the Centre’s lacklustre attitude towards the problems in the North-East.
Chidambaram’s statement is significant as the separatist National Socialist Council of Nagaland has been fighting for six decades to create a Greater Nagaland by slicing off parts of three neighbouring states to unite 1.2 million Nagas. Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh strongly oppose the demand. The issue of Greater Nagaland is an issue which has vexed the Assamese-Naga relations for a long time. Who knows what important links those maps might have given towards solving this problem? And this problem is not only of Assam, but also of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, Manipur will be the biggest loser if Greater Nagaland is ever formed. About half of the state will be sliced apart as they are all Naga dominated areas. Creation of a Greater Nagaland can pose huge problems for the Indian Government’s plans in the North-East too as such a huge chunk of Naga infested land can result in a united effort by the Nagas to renew their demands for independence or greater autonomy. Already the Naga militants harass the travellers on the way to Manipur from Assam. And there is no one to stop them as they do this on Naga soil.
I sometimes reflect back to older times when I was a little boy। My late grandfather used to narrate me incidents of skirmishes with the Nagas over territorial disputes. As a police officer, he had seen enough of such problems. He told of the brutalities with which the Nagas used to deal with their enemies. A colleague of his, who was known to deal firmly with the Nagas, was tied to a pole and rounds of bullets were fired at him. Not to speak of the merciless way in which the Nagas like to butcher their enemies to this day. These are all bitter memories which the North-East of India has witnessed post-independence. And every state in North-East has its own tale of bloodshed and violence. Manipur still burns from the Naga insurgency in it. Most of my Manipuri friends tell me of the excesses committed by the Naga militants with the travellers on their way to Imphal as the route to Manipur from Assam goes through Nagaland. The opening up of a railway track to Imphal or an alternate route to Manipur via Silchar in Assam can bring some relief to the travellers. But what about the overall problem that afflicts them? There are no answers to that yet.
Though Assam has not faced this problem in the same calibre as Manipur has, it suffers from occasional border skirmishes with the Nagas। There are occasional reports of Nagas entering Assam’s territory and occupying large tracts of land. As Assam has a very low percentage of Nagas living in its territory, this is deliberately done to settle as much Nagas in these areas as possible so as to facilitate its incorporation in Greater Nagaland. The State Government and the police have been totally inefficient in handling these marauders. And I often wonder if we Assamese people have lost the martial spirit we were once famous for. But then why should I doubt my entire race just because the government is corrupt and the police force is inefficient! I have always favoured dialogues over open conflict. Assam, along with the rest of the North-East, has seen enough bloodshed till date. And conflict should always be avoided so as to facilitate dialogue so that an amicable solution can come up to any problem. What I have stated here is nothing like a new gospel for peace. These are things which are said again and again and the common people also know their inherent relevance. But even then talks and dialogues are sidelined and every unethical and extra legal method is taken to take a stand. And this has to stop if peace is to ever flourish in the North-East of India.
Greater Nagaland is not just a Naga problem. It is a problem which has created discomfort for the common people of all the states concerned. Border disputes, insurgency and separatism are all venomous seeds sown by this. And the loss of the original maps is only a reminder of the hurdles we will face in reaching up to a solution to this problem. And there is seriously no use of any more comments on the Assam Government or the State police for that matter. Because it is really of no use! We just have to remember one thing. Maps or no maps! A solution has to come up to this problem before it is too late.