Assam's future: Need to strengthen intra-regional linkages
The emergence of Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, an immigrant of East Bengali origin, as the central theme in the campaign for the just ended assembly elections in Assam again exposed how the 'migrant factor' can polarise the state on ethnic lines.
Ajmal, who heads the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), symbolises the growing political clout of the migrant community, which is perceived as an existential threat by the indigenous groups.
This ethnic fault-line is largely a consequence of an ill-conceived policy of settling the migrants in the fallow and wasteland areas of Assam to what was billed as 'grow more food' in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the same period a large number of working hands were also imported from various parts of India to work in tea plantation, transport, road construction, oil fields and coal mines.
Ironically, the Assamese elite initially made a strong pitch for import of migrants as they deemed it necessary for the economic growth of the region. Subsequently, when they realised that the policy was only benefitting the colonial economy at the cost of swamping the province with 'outsiders', they got alarmed and started resenting the move.
But by then it was too late. Goalpara, a then Bengal district annexed to Assam in 1874, witnessed an increase of population by 30 percent in 1901-11, with immigrants forming a fifth of the total population.
Thus, what was quintessentially an economic issue turned into a social problem, which continues to fester.
What was witnessed in the run up to the Assam elections is the extension of the growing sense of insecurity and ethnic consciousness, amplified by relative deprivation, in the northeast.
Similar insecurity is also manifested in the growing clamour for the 'inner line permit' in more and more northeastern states to restrict the inflow of the so-called 'outsiders' even as attempts are being made to integrate the region with Southeast Asian economy through Bangladesh as part of India's Look East Policy, now rechristened as Act East Policy (AEP).
Such churning should serve as a warning for policy makers in New Delhi who perceive AEP as a panacea to all the ills inflicting the region. Failure of the early development initiative in the northeast was mainly because it did not pass on the benefits to the main stake holders -- people of the region.
Assam contributes around 50 percent of total tea produced in India and it is also India's oldest oil producing state. It also has substantial reserves of coal. Yet such high value resources could not economically benefit the province and the region. Why is it so?
Take the example of the tea sector. The local population has very little stake in the gardens, mostly owned, managed and nurtured by 'outsiders' and are developed as 'virtual islands' without proper linkages with adjoining villages.
Besides, a majority of the big tea gardens in the state are owned by companies headquartered in Kolkata. Since they sell a large portion of their produce in the Tea Auction Centre in Kolkata, Assam loses out on the vital Sales Tax revenue.
Even benefit of the oil and coal sectors to the state's economy was negligible except for providing employment to some local youths. And whatever little it gained was also unevenly distributed among socio-economic groups and is restricted to certain areas only.
Obviously other neighbouring northeastern states have not at all benefitted from the exploration of Assam's vast natural wealth due to lack of intra-regional and intra-state integration. These states' own resources, on the other hand, largely remained untapped. Strangely, the region is better connected with mainland India than with its peripheries.
Trade and commerce developed and centred around these industries are also mostly controlled by migrant population (mainly from Rajashtan) and naturally they constitute the new capitalist class that emerged in the region after the departure of the colonial masters.
Due to lack of skilled manpower, the local population also loses out to migrants in employment, which in rebound further deepens the outsider-local divide.
This hostility -- delineated in militancy and other forms of violence and ethnic clashes -- along with governance deficiency acts as a deterrent for the capitalists to re-invest the profit into the region. Not surprisingly northeastern states are placed at the bottom on the World Bank's 'ease of doing business' index.
Against this backdrop, the focus of any new development paradigm should not be restricted only to establishing trade linkages between the region and the adjoining global markets. After all, its existing linkages with the vast Indian market did not yield desired economic prosperity or social harmony.
Intra-regional linkages should be first strengthened and then supplemented by production and skill development.
For this, it is imperative to develop the region into a centre of 'Make in India' and 'Skill India' initiatives so that the main stakeholders - the people of the region - remain the driving force of its economy without having to depend on migrant community for labour or capital.
Or else migrants like Badruddin will continue to haunt the collective psyche and the ethnic cauldron will keep boiling.