Sunday, May 22, 2016

A bag full of expectations and some concerns!!

CM designate Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma, the man credited for engineering the win. Photo Courtesy: PTI

Assam has voted for change and so has Barak Valley. In a historic verdict, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won eight out of the 15 seats in the valley with Cachar alone sending six candidates from the saffron party to Dispur.

The verdict this year is very interesting because, on one hand, the voters voted massively for change and yet, they remained as communally polarized as ever. Therefore, Hindu majority Cachar picked six BJP candidates and Muslim majority Hailakandi picked AIUDF candidates while completely rejecting the ruling Congress. The voters of Karimganj also rejected the Congress and voted either BJP or AIUDF depending on the demographic composition of the constituencies.

Lakhipur’s Rajdeep Goala escaped the wrath of the voters probably because, he had been elected mid-term after the demise of his father, Dinesh Prasad Goala and the anti-incumbency wave against him was not as profound as in the other constituencies. Karimganj North’s Congress candidate Kamalakhya Dey Purkayastha also scraped through by a few hundred votes. Badarpur's Jamal Uddin Ahmed also won by a small margin. Sonai’s BJP candidate Aminul Haque Laskar’s win was also significant and a result of intelligent demographic engineering where he got the votes of the entire Hindu population of Sonai and also significantly polled Muslim votes.

Probably, for the first time in recent political history of the valley, all Congress stalwarts like Gautam Roy, Ajit Singh and Siddeque Ahmed lost the polls. Despite, all problems, Indian elections do finally reflect the mood of the people, and no leader, no matter, how big he is, can fool the voters for long. Indeed, finally there cannot be any alternative for performance and the defeat of all the ministers from Barak Valley is testimony to this very fact. For 15 long years, they did precious little to solve the problems of the region and the valley kept descending into an irreparable morass of backwardness. These polls have given them a befitting reply.

However, the loss of the Congress bigwigs should also be a lesson for the BJP, that there will be no alternative to good work, when they take over the reins. Five years ago in 2011, the Congress had returned to power with a massive verdict. In Silchar, the municipality was with the Congress, the state and central governments were with the Congress and Susmita Dev had won with a good margin in the assembly polls. Only, the MP from the constituency, Kabindra Purkayastha was from BJP.

Yet the Congress did not take any advantage of such favourable political environment and squandered away the position to BJP five years later, which now finds itself in exactly the same state. The central and state governments and the municipality are with the BJP. The party’s candidate has won the assembly polls with massive margin and only the area’s MP is from the opposing party. They will now have absolutely no excuse for non-performance and the results will be damaging next time if they do not perform.  

In its election manifesto, the BJP declared that it will construct multiple bridges over the river Barak, build a mini secretariat at Silchar and reserve all third and fourth grade jobs of the valley for the locals. These tall promises will be fulfilled only if Sarbananda Sonowal adopts a bipartisan attitude towards the valley and treats it at par with the Brahmaputra valley.

An Assamese friend from Rangia recently told me that this year for the first time, they heard so much about Barak Valley in regional media because both Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma kept visiting the region for campaigning. In all his press conferences in Guwahati, Sonowal has repeatedly spoken of the development of both Barak and Brahmaputra valleys.

Yet, many in Barak Valley do look at him with great deal of cynicism given his involvement with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and his active role in the Assam agitation of the 80s. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Joi Aai Axom’ sloganeering in Silchar prior to the 2014 national polls was also seen as a handiwork by Sonowal. While, that gaffe by Modi was rectified this year with a generous ‘Bengali Nababarsha’ wish, Sonowal will have to do much more to win the trust of the people of this region.

He will have to ensure that any fight against illegal immigration does not convert into witch hunt against the Bengalis of the state. With the downfall of the Axom Gana Parishad (AGP), BJP has tried to occupy the Assamese nationalistic space vacated by that party in the Brahmaputra region. The AGP, a poll ally is also already flexing muscles regarding the illegal immigration issue with its limited seats. Sonowal will have to tread a middle path and keep all communities happy.

Infrastructural development has been a prime focus area for the NDA government at the centre and almost all state governments under the BJP have done well in improving the road and power infrastructure. Sonowal will have to ensure that the same happens in Assam. In Barak Valley, the highways have been completely destroyed under the Congress regime. For financial gains, these arterial roads were brought under PWD’s purview from the Border Roads Organisation. These highways will have to be re-laid again and handed over back to BRO so that they are maintained properly.

Other pending projects such as the Mahasadak, the Silchar bypass, the bridge at Sadarghat, the engineering college in Karimganj will have to be completed at the earliest and the road infrastructure of the entire valley will have to over-hauled. The BJP, in its manifesto before the Silchar municipal polls had announced that it will construct a flyover in the town to mitigate traffic problems. Well, if they have the intention, this is the time to execute the project since all the governments are being ruled by the same party.

During the Congress rule, it could be observed that all the leaders of the valley had a cabal of contractors and middlemen around them who would bag all the projects and repeatedly get away without performing. It will be interesting to see whether similar cabals are created around the BJP leaders or not. In conclusion, the message from the aam janta is loud and clear – perform or perish, the next poll is not very far away!!   

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Railways flunk monsoon test...

Railway track covered with mud. Photo Courtesy: Samayik Prasanga

The early onset of rains in Barak Valley and the adjoining Dima Hasao district has plunged the region’s railway connectivity into uncertainty. The double derailment of Poorvottar Sampark Kranti Express within a week and the subsequent landslides at Phiding have yet again raised serious questions about the capability of this newly laid section to tackle incessant rainfall. 

NF Railway’s Chief Bridge Engineer, Alok Kumar Verma in a recent internal communication had said that, “Operation of passenger services between New Haflong and Ditokcherra stations should be suspended with immediate effect on account of distress in the bridges, tunnels and cuttings”. Subsequently, a high level inspection team of NF Railways had inspected the New Haflong – Ditokcherra section and announced it suitable for operations. However, within a week of this development, the engine of the Poorvottar Sampark Kranti Express derailed. 

Interestingly, this section never quite received the go ahead from the Commissioner for Railway Safety (CRS), who in his report had raised multiple issues pertaining to the viability of operating safe railway services on the hill section.  In his report the CRS had said, “The Line cannot be opened for passenger traffic without danger to travelling public”. He had further recommended that “the railway administration engage experts in the field of technology, structural engineering to critically review the present status and recommend suitable preventive measures.”

The cracks visible inside tunnel number 10 are now proving the doubting thomases right, though the railways have not yet made any official comment about the extent of damage inside the tunnel. Austrian tunnelling experts who inspected the tunnel recently did not look satisfied at all with the construction quality. One shudders to think what may happen if the tunnel collapses someday with a train full of passengers inside it.

To add to the problems, landslides are not only confined to the New Haflong – Ditokcherra section, also known as the ‘diversion stretch’, though most of the observations regarding safety were raised for this section only. Rather, the recent landslides have taken place at Phiding between New Haflong and Mahur.

Prior to the commissioning of the broad gauge section, the railways had the experience of running metre gauge trains on this stretch for about a hundred years. They were completely aware about the geotechnical challenges that would be confronted here. Were all those factors considered when the line was being constructed?

Many media reports have claimed that due to continued insurgency and difficult terrain, the geotechnical survey of many stretches on the corridor were not carried out properly. Geotechnical surveys reveal the soil strata and therefore determine the machinery and materials to be used for any construction work. If the surveys were not carried out as per rules, it must have been very difficult for the Railways to carry out construction work as per quality.

Repair work in progress. Photo Courtesy: Samayik Prasanga
While many engineers and experts, both from within the Railways and outside have expressed serious concerns about the quality of the construction work, some other experts and Railways insiders have also suggested that landslides and structural wear and tear is a common feature in all hilly terrains. Both railways and roads tend to get damaged due to rainfall, snowfall etc in all parts of the country in hilly areas and there is very little that can actually be done. NF Railways’ General Manager VS Jaggi also seemed to suggest the same during his recent visit to Silchar.

It would indeed be impossible to keep the line open on all days during the monsoons but the Railways should at least ensure that their rescue and repair teams are on vigil all the time so that repair work can be started immediately after any landslide. In addition, adequate arrangement for food, water, medicines for stranded passengers must be made every time there is a disruption.

The Silchar – Lumding broad gauge is a dream come true for the people of Barak Valley and the adjoining states. Even as the services continue, the Railways must carry out very stringent quality checks of the materials used for construction and structurally check every single bridge and tunnel. If they find any inadequacy, they must address the same immediately.

The margin for error is very low for such hilly areas where the top soil is loose and disintegrates early in comparison to the Himalayan hills. Any oversight as regards safety can prove extremely dangerous and result in massive loss of lives. Let us hope the Railways will handle the crisis with competence and minimise disruptions as much as possible.

It is appalling that the Assam government does not maintain the road links to Barak Valley at all. Both the highways via Shillong and Haflong are in a pathetic condition and fail to provide a viable alternative in the event of disruption in rail services. Indeed, there would be very few such pockets in India where connectivity is such a hassle. Let us hope the new state government will have something better to offer!!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Assam elections: what lies ahead for the state’s Bengali Hindus

Even by conservative estimates, the Bengali Hindus today constitute about 10 to 15 percent of Assam’s population. While they have substantial population in the Barak Valley, there are many legislative assembly constituencies outside the valley also where they are a deciding factor in the electoral battles.

The popular perception in Assam, especially the Brahmaputra valley is that the Bengali Hindus of the state migrated here due to religious persecution in East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh. However, the history of the community in the state is probably a bit more complicated.

A significant number of Bengali Hindus came into Assam with the British since the colonizers required the services of the educated Bengali babus to execute their official work. In Barak Valley, a substantial population of Bengali Hindus has been settled for many generations with many tracing their roots back to at least a couple of hundred years. And yes, after the partition of the country in 1947 and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh also, many had to migrate due to religious persecution across the borders.     

The community has always contributed significantly, especially in the fields of art, culture, music and sports. The recent anointment of Guwahati girl Priyadarshini Chatterjee as Miss India can probably considered the latest addition to the list. However, politically, the community has largely remained at the peripheries and has made no conscious attempt to represent itself effectively in the parliament or the state assembly.

Some individual leaders have certainly emerged who have held important ministerial positions both in Dispur and New Delhi, but they have never portrayed themselves as representatives of the community as such. However, due to their substantial numbers, the community is gradually being seen as a potent vote bank.

That’s why we have often seen Assam’s leaders invoking Tagore and Netaji in their speeches to attract the Bengali Hindus. We have also seen leaders like Tarun Gogoi delivering speeches in Bengali in places such as Lumding and Hojai apart from Barak Valley. BJP, traditionally has enjoyed the support of the community and still depends heavily on the Bengali Hindus for their electoral returns. Last year, they had also brought out a notification announcing protection for Hindus who had to migrate to India from the neighbouring countries due to religious persecution.    

So, with another state election passing by, what lies ahead for this embattled community which bore the brunt of the Assam movement in the 1980s and still faces discrimination in getting government jobs in the state. A close study of the attitude of the leading political parties would reveal that the picture still looks rather grim despite all the tall claims.

During the campaigning, on multiple occasions, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi referred to the warm ties he shared with the Bengali Hindu people. He proudly said that many in his family had married Bengali Hindus and how they felt at home in each other’s company. But during his 15 years of rule, Gogoi did not take one substantial step to mitigate the problems of the community.

The Congress does not object in principle to the issue of providing citizenship to the Hindus who migrated from Bangladesh due to religious violence, but this contentious topic was never brought up for discussion or debate by the party. On the other hand, poor people were branded ‘D’ voters and routinely harassed. Gogoi flatly refused to intervene and dismissed the issue as a law and order problem where the ‘law must take its own course’.  

The BJP has ridden to prominence in Assam with the help of the Bengali Hindu community. In the 1990s it got unprecedented support from the community in Barak Valley which helped it garner substantial success. But since then, the political priorities of the party have changed. Today, it is trying to occupy the Assamese nationalistic space left vacant by the downfall of the AGP in the Brahmaputra Valley.

As a result, even after notification announcing citizenship for migrants facing religious persecution, precious little has been done to enact a bill.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept completely quiet on the issue during his fiery speeches in Assam because any promise in this regard would have deeply dented the party’s prospects in Brahmaputra valley. Party president Amit Shah’s promise that the bill would be brought once the party gets majority in the Rajya Sabha does not sound genuine enough since the principal opposition Congress is also not officially opposed to such a bill.  

Honestly, suggesting solutions to come out of the current state of affairs seems difficult. Many have opined that the community must become politically more conscious and carve out a political party which speaks for them, but such a step is ridden with obstacles. Many from the community who are in active politics have made a name for themselves as acutely corrupt and inefficient. If the same people become the custodians of the community again, then there won’t be any credible results.

Probably the citizenry will have to become more vocal, create social organisations and pressure groups and pressurize the government of the day to solve the issues. Apart from raising contentious problems such as lack of job opportunities, other issues such as social stigma and continuous branding as illegal entrants to the state will also have to be discussed.      

Silchar through the Lense