Vying for New Delhi's eye
Barak Valley needs to have a strong representation in Lok Sabha to bring forth its issues which are usually eclipsed by those of the state
Both the seats in the Barak valley of Assam-Silchar and Karimganj go to polls today in the second phase for which campaigning was in full swing. While there are 14 candidates in the fray in Silchar, there are 19 contesting in Karimganj. However, the main fight in Silchar is between BJP and Congress; and Karimganj is seeing a 3 cornered fight among BJP, Congress, and AIUDF. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the star campaigner for BJP, and Rahul Gandhi have already visited the valley and addressed rallies. Other leaders have also flown in and out for both the major candidates including the rallies of Himanta Biswa Sarma and Priyanka Gandhi.
Clearly, the elections this time are at a very crucial juncture and many of the issues affecting the region have a direct bearing on the elections. Needless to say, political parties would also need to address these issues and so far the campaign has shown that the priorities are not necessarily similar. What is very pertinent to note is that Barak valley always needs a strong voice in Delhi to be able to project its issues beyond what would come from Guwahati as an issue of Assam as a priority. Also, for more than a decade, the age-old practice of having a Rajya Sabha MP from the region has not been carried forward by Congress and so the responsibility on both Lok Sabha MPs to be visible in the national capital is very high.
That brings us to the issues at hand and how they are so crucial for the future of the valley. Both on the political and economic front, there are many points that are best raised during this election season as during intervening periods but a certain degree of indifference is seen among the political fraternity.
The most important point that touches many people in the valley is the issue of National Registrar Certification (NRC) that is still underway under the guidance of the Supreme Court of India and also a somewhat related impact of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) that BJP had already passed in the Lok Sabha and has mentioned in its election manifesto. In the NRC process, many genuine Indians have faced a lot of trouble at the various stages of its preparations and the process remains incomplete. While both PM Modi and Rahul Gandhi have assured that no Indian will be out of the list, political workers on the ground have not been found to be vociferous in demanding common man's comfort and ensuring no harassment. While BJP has proposed and supported CAB, Congress has opposed it. The issue remains that even if CAB is passed by Parliament, the next steps of the application for citizenship after a mandatory wait of six years will have to be smoothly managed and supported by the political and bureaucratic system.
The issue of people languishing in detention camps for years is a very sensitive one. Both leaders skipped the issue this time although Narendra Modi had assured during his election campaign in 2014 while speaking at Silchar to stop the detention camps. There are 108 inmates in the detention camp in Silchar which is in a very bad state and local BJP leaders should have made the efforts with state government and Centre to remind them of the prime minister's promise and free the detained inmates from those camps which are more worse than prisons. The case of 103-year-old Chandradhar Das in Silchar camp and the recent death of Amrit Das in the Goalpara detention camp have shaken the whole of humanity but there is no action on the ground. The only hope is the Supreme Court which has asked the Central and state governments to provide ways and means in which people in detention camps could be allowed to leave. Interestingly, neither the Congress president nor anybody else has uttered a word about these camps and their hapless inmates.
However, the most important focus for the Barak valley has to be on the economic front. Both the major political parties have to make this an important point of their campaign as the potential of this region has remained unutilised in all these 70 plus years of Independence. On the other hand, many industries have closed down and condition of the once prosperous tea industry in the region is in shambles. While Rahul Gandhi has mentioned in his Panchgram rally to get the Cachar Paper Mills of Hindustan Paper Corporation in Panchgram to be running in six months time, it seems to be more of a poll promise as he would be unaware of the situation that this once profit-making mill has been led to by many in his own party with the help of vested interests. Narendra Modi kept silent on the whole issue in both his speeches this year at Ramnagar, but his government worked on a model and due diligence for the revival of the mill. However, it is crucial that the employees are paid their salary which is pending for more than two years. The recent move from the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) hearing has generated some interest in the issue but it is crucial to take a political call on the matter and have the mill running. After all, it is the only heavy industry in the region and prospects of the paper industry are still very strong. At the same time, people who have led the mill to such a situation with corrupt practices should be punished at earliest.
Barak's special economic focus has to be strengthened with more infrastructure, skill development, and entrepreneurship. A mission-mode approach developing agriculture and its ancillaries will be crucial in raising the region from its current stagnated situation. The focus to project Assam as an investor-friendly state and a major player in Act East policy of the Union government is being supported by the state government and the Advantage Assam summit in February 2018 while supportive events of Namami Brahmaputra and Namami Barak held in the run-up to that summit in 2017 have shown an intent of BJP dispensation to look at Barak specially. But actual investments on the ground has not been significant and this should be a focus of both the camps to be able to project to New Delhi in order to take advantage of the unique geographical location of Barak valley and allow trading and other avenues with adjoining states and neighbouring countries. The three districts of Barak Valley are directly connected to four northeastern states while Bangladesh and Myanmar borders are very close. There is an interest among ASEAN countries to have more economic engagement with northeastern states and Act East policy will be an enabler in that direction.
Likewise, the completion of the East-West corridor of the Mahasadak in the Silchar Guwahati sector is crucial and all the bottlenecks at many of the quarters in the Cachar and Dima Hasao corridors have to be done at a fast pace with the roads fully operational. This will lead to wider economic activities in the region. The prime minister mentioned about the corridor in his speech at Ramnagar but for the last 5 years, the Haflong-Silchar corridor of just about 110 kilometres is yet to be completed. The potential of the inland waterways from the region despite being picked up has still not progressed and will be a gamechanger in trade and commerce once implemented. Prospects of the tourism corridor immediately take off when this road sector is up and functioning.
So these elections offer the best possibility for the people of the Barak valley to put the right pressure in gaining the attention of the major political parties for taking care of valley's interests seriously. The people have to be conscious while voting to see that they choose those candidates who will be able to raise their voices sincerely in Delhi, and deliver, not hide behind political statements and assurances. Enough of that has happened. Over the years the pulling capacity of politicians from Barak valley both in Guwahati and Delhi has dwindled and many of the representatives have not been able to make a mark even on burning issues that affect the people and region. Unless this responsibility is assigned on the elected legislators and parliamentarians it will be a downward slide on many fronts. Hopefully Lok Sabha elections this time will be the turning point for Barak valley politicians to be able to live up to people's expectations.
(Subimal Bhattacharjee is Director of Jookto which works in grassroots in northeast India and a former country head of General Dynamics. The views expressed are strictly personal)