Thursday, September 06, 2012

Paradise Lost?

The flight to Guwahati took 5 hours. Almost as long as it would to reach Singapore. Surely any state capital should have better connectivity…

What is the problem with Assam anyways? As we descend towards Lokanath Bordoloi airport I feel like this is God’s own country - mountains, lakes, lush green fields and the mighty Brahmaputra river.

People who live with nature are naturally peace-loving and simple folk. But those aren’t words you associate with Assam these days… I ask a local resident - let's call him Mr K - to explain to me ki yahan ho kya raha hai.

Well, he says, “It’s the classic case of local vs outsider.”

Thousands of Bangladeshi migrants cross the border every month. The going ‘rate’ for becoming an Indian citizen is Rs 500.

“You and I may not have a ration card but these people will have every proof of identity,” he adds.

What’s more, they will quickly learn Assamese, adopt some local customs and even names, to blend in with the local population.

“Being migrants they are more hungry, more hard-working and more cunning. A lot of land has been taken over by them.”

Seeing them make quick progress upsets the Bodos, who have traditionally dominated Lower Assam.

So, Mr K feels, it’s more of a battle over economic opportunity than religion. Yes, majority of migrants are Muslim but that is the incidental factor, not the main issue.

In any case, Assam is an industrial and economic pygmy. Mr K recounts stories of several corporates who came to the state, pledged to start operations and then backed out.

“Ratan Tata himself came to lay the foundation stone for a 5 star hotel. But the hotel never came up…”

Similarly, Apollo hospitals and Infosys too changed their mind and went elsewhere. Only because the government insisted on 90% reservation for locals.

So who exactly is a local? Mr K is originally from Rajasthan but his family has lived in Assam for close to 150 years.

“My grandfather’s grandfather came to Assam… My grandfather was born here, my father was born here, and I was born here.”

But Mr K will still not be treated as a ‘true Assamese’. Nor will his children.

“There is no discrimination as such but somewhere we know, we don’t have the same status – same shaan – as we would have, living in Rajasthan.”

Mr K runs an SSI unit in Guwahati and I wonder whether the current problems are affecting his business.

“No, because the agitations are in areas about 100 kms away from the city.”

But, constant bandhs and strikes do take a toll. And it is true that work culture in this part of the country is slothful.

“Government offices are supposed to function from 10 am to 5 pm. But at ten, you will see the officers – basket in hand – buying vegetables from the market.”

The wife will cook, husband will eat and by noon the attendance register will get a tick mark.

“Government jobs are the most coveted jobs in Northeast,” he adds.

Recently, the Assam government appointed 27,000 teachers at starting salaries of Rs 11,000-15,000. The grease money to get this job is Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakhs.

“But it’s like a lottery ticket. One time investment - no work, full pay!”

And that’s not the only lottery ticket in the state. ‘Donations’ to numerous organisations are compulsory and have to be treated as cost of doing business.

“If All Assam Students Union comes for chanda I know we have to cough up Rs 10,000. That’s the ‘fixed’ rate.”

While the Assamese accept this, the newcomers and the corporate houses cannot. And the market in Assam and Northeast isn’t even big enough to justify such headaches.

The only industry that has come up in recent times is cement - because limestone is available in plenty. The traditional business of tea, silk and handicrafts continue.

Mr K’s kids live far from Assam. And that is the story of majority of young people from the state.

“After class 10, children go out to study. And hardly any come back.”

Yes, the hills are blue and valleys green. But that is no longer enough.

Must hearts turn black and rivers run red, before we wake up, and do something?

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