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DISCUSSION : ONCE MORE ON THE ASSAM MOVEMENT

Certain aspects of the Assam movement seem to have been neglected in the Left political and intellectual circles. Statistics are notoriously vulnerable to empiricist misuse, and this note, therefore, deliberately refrains from quoting some telling figures. It rather seeks to raise relevant logical questions and suggest appropriate historical perspectives. It is believed that a proper consideration of such questions will help in orienting the Left to problems of Assamese society.

(1) Present-day Assam roughly covers the area ruled by three 'native' races of Assam - the Bodos, the Ahoms and the Koches. All three of them, especially the ruling houses, were more or less Hinduised, and they consciously identified themselves with historic Kamarupa. They not only fought each other continually, but interacted with each other. They were other continually, but interacted with each other. They were patrons of a culture that has historically developed into Assamese culture, and under their aegis an Assamese nationality had also developed over the ages. Another powerful unifying factor had been the great medieval Vaishnava movement , which created the institutional framework for assimilating masses of tribal people into the mainstream Assamese society.

But it has remained a 'weak' nationality, because, apart from tea plantations, the society remained largely untouched by forces of modern capitalism down to the 1950's. And plantations notoriously are enterprises of the 'enclave' type, and do not trigger development. The different ethnic groups owing allegiance to the overall Assamese way of life were not welded into a cohesive national group strong enough to be able to withstand outside pressure. There have been cases of defection or dissociation, especially in the recent past. It is also a weak nationality in the sense that it is materially and culturally backward compared to some other national groups in India. Lately it has occurred to the Assamese that they are not even in undisputed possession of the territory which they claims as their own.

Hence there is a sense of insecurity among the Assamese which is deep-rooted. Their fear of being overwhelmed is a powerful factor, and the Left circles will to take it seriously.

(2) The fear is compounded by the memory of real peril in the recent past. The colonial authorities had imposed Bengali as the official language of the province in schools and law courts. The myth of a Bengali conspiracy behind that decision has now been effectively demolished by the unearthing of relevant official documents. But the fact remains that Assamese could be restored only after decades of struggle by the educated Assamese. The colonial authorities had also tagged on large chucks of Bengalis and Assamese, to the chagrin of both Bengalis and Assamese, and encouraged a vicious valley-politics to keep two communities at each other's throat. Again, in the early decades of this century the colonial authorities began to encourage mass migration of poor and land-hungry peasants from the eastern districts of Bengal (now in Bangladesh) in tens of thousands. Their idea of course was to have the benefits of agricultural development and intensive use of the land-resources without spending a single farthing. The powerful Assamese landed families kept quiet because it also promised a sizable increase in their income and property. Like the immigrant tea garden labourers these peasants were also treated by the colonial government like cattle. Nor did the landed families come to their rescue. Thus the field was fertile among those distressed peasants for rabid communal propaganda. Meanwhile, the Civil Disobedience Movement of the 1930's had floundered, and its growing frustrations strengthened the appeal of communal forces all over the country. This aroused intense nervousness among the indigenous peasantry and the middle-class of Assam. In the 1940's the Muslim League ministry of Assam, aided and abetted by the British government, made a determined bid to increase the proportion of Muslims in Assam through immigration under the camouflage of 'Grow More Food' campaign. Now, even the landed families joined the chorus against the immigrants. Typically, a section of the British officers also appeared in the role of champions of the Assamese, and the Census Commissioner for Assam in 1931 permitted himself flights of encroachers'. The national leadership of the Congress decided to ignore Assamese fears and anxieties in their anxiety to appear secular. The movement against 'Grouping' in Assam before independence was quite strong. Following independence a powerful section of the Calcutta press carried on a senseless but bitter campaign against the acquisition of separate High Court and university by Assam. Such facts have generated a kind of 'siege mentality'.

After independence Assamese chauvinism also grew at a fast pace, with the connivance and under the active patronage of the ruling classes in Delhi and Shillong. Assamese chauvinism tries to get results- the exclusive enjoyment of financial and other benefits of the State government by a small and privileged section of the Assamese Hindus- by playing on those fears and anxieties of the Assamese masses. But it is a mistake to confound those fears with chauvinism.

(3) Having failed to weld a strong Assamese nationality out of the heterogeneous ethnic groups, especially the latecomers, and that too mainly because it refused to share the fruits of development with them following independence, the Assamese middle-class is seeing everywhere around it signs of incipient revolt. The revolt is likely to take the form of ethnic separatism. Hence, it is trying desperately to assert its hegemony by whipping up traditional fears. For a year or so before the movement, the Assamese press had been hysterical with reports of huge influx of Bangladesh is and their assorted crimes. For reasons that merit some investigation, at about the same time a 'sober' and 'cultured' newspaper in Calcutta with a readership in Assam published a serious of detailed, 'factual' reports on how the indigenous people of Tripura and Sikkim had been overwhelmed by a flood of outsiders. (One may wonder if such dangers have now appear no more concerned about the fact of the indigenous people of those two states, The real secret behind such mindless ecstasies was whispered in the elegant drawing rooms of the well-to-do Assamese families of towns: if the Muslims and other groups team up and reduced the Assamese Hindu legislators to a minority in the Assembly, how will it be possible for the latter to retain the lion's share of the loot from the state? But the explicit propaganda reiterates the time-honoured call: Assam is in danger. There is a more sophisticated slogan for the vain intellectual: our cultural identity has been threatened.

The Left is quite justified in holding in disdain the managers of this sanguinary farce. But not, I am afraid, in ignoring the sentiments of the Assamese masses. In the competitive capitalist environment of our country the Assamese petit bourgeois sees nothing monstrous in the idea that a race or nation can thrive only at the expense of other races or nations. Even the peasantry, dependent for bare subsistence on land and land alone, is fearful at the rate land seems to have passed into the hands of the 'outsiders'. They cannot be expected to know of the deals that their present leaders had struck over their own heads with the leaders of those outsiders in the not-so-recent part. This kind of perception is given an intoxicating quality by the rhetoric of nationalism. Assam, it is felt deeply and strongly, does not deserve to be dominated by people bearing an alien culture.

The Left can scarcely agree to a programme of massive deportation or disfranchisement . But it is not clear how far it can go in allaying Assamese fears of becoming strangers in their own home. Does it support assimilation ? If so, to what extent ? Recently a Leftist youth leader from Delhi argued with me that assimilation should be only to the extent of command over the Assamese language for practical purpose and no more. That is a concession that would hardly register with the average Assamese. While assimilation must not mean a subject status for the immigrants, and while the process should be made more humane, it certainly needs to be speeded up with administration measures. Otherwise the Left will be a party to the silent decision to dissolve Assam and the Assamese. It is not so widely known outside Assam that the various Congress ministers in Assam had fostered in the 30 and more years after independence a certain kind of Muslim separatism. Children of immigrant Muslims in some villages do not attend High Schools, but High Madrassas, staffed in part by teachers from outside the state cultivating a separate Islamic identity. Thus under the banner of secularism the Congress has nurtured Muslim exclusiveness in Assam, in order to ensure block votes from that community. Should such divisive policies be allowed to thrive ? (This is by means the same as denying the right of Muslims to study their religious and cultural heritage as part of education). If the Left endorses such policies, it will permanently insulate itself against Assamese sympathies, and push the Assamese into the arms of the secessionist forces. This policy also ensures the return of Congress (I) to power on the basis of combined minority votes. Indeed, certain Congress (I) circles are openly speaking of turning Assam into a federation of small states, each with its own language. That is the last straw for many a patient Assamese.

(4) While the Left is duty-bound to expose and resist the vile Fascist plots to tyrannise or enslave the minorities, and the various undemocratic demands of the movement, it cannot question the legitimacy of the issue that has been raised. Efforts ought to be made to restrict or control immigration. Further, no foreigner has a right to settle in a country without the free consent of the natives of that country. But the apparent detachment of the Left to such issues creates the misleading impression that it is unconcerned about those issues themselves, which for reasons stated above, have agitated the Assamese common people. Since the Left further views the movement as a CIA inspired campaign confirmed to a small section of the Assamese, it is led to the verge of support for various draconian measures taken by the government, and the indiscriminate retaliatory violence of the C.R.P. While in the early stages the Army and the CRP were deployed strictly in order marked by a political design. It appears that when movement becomes weaker, and saner opinion tends to gain ground , the extend of limited if genuine self-criticism in the Assamese press, the CRP is suddenly unleashed on innocent people to dispell that mood and provoke a mood of black anger and irrational hatred among the Assamese. This can hardly be a mere coincidence.

I think it will not do at all to dismiss the entire movement as a secessionist conspiracy. The Left should try to play a mediatory role in all sincerity by going to the people and trying to understand their fears and grievances. Haughty aloofness irritates and alienates. Even if the efforts to mediate eventually fail, those will at least deliver the Left from its present isolation from the vast majority of the Assamese. These might also have helped to isolate the Fascists among the leadership of the movement.

(5) All acts of violence and sabotage have been branded a as 'secessionist' by the government. There is not the slightest doubt that these are monstrous acts of cruelty and outage. But not all of them are calculated to pave the way for secession. Certain misguided elements in the movement consider them the only answer to the government's repressive measures. These terrorise the minorities and democratic people far more than the government, which remains unshaken. Those groups are actually being treated as hostages by fanatics within the movement. The government's failure to establish rapport with the Assamese people, and its reliance on repression as the most effective method of dealing with the movement is an open secret now. But if the Left indulges in the same kind of mudslinging it will hardly help to create a bridge of understanding . Of course this is not to advocate indulgence to the culprits.

(6) If national forces are in decline in India, as is sometimes asserted in Left circles, what accounts for the breadth and depth of popular participation in various movements organised by the Assamese middle-class around national issues like boundaries of the state, the official language policy, and regional underdevelopment (e.g. in the Oil Refinery movement )? Has the Left been able to organise similar mass movements in the state around issues like high prices? Don't we need to learn a lesson from that ? Does it necessarily mean a surrender to chauvinism and reaction ?

Though this is the first time that I have spelt out these reservations openly, this does not mean a fundamental shift in my stand, for such criticism has been quite implicit in the articles on Assam I have been writing since 1973. The intention is not so much to discredit the Left , for the Left rendered a yeoman's services to the cause of democracy and secularism in the last three years in Assam, as to plead for an orientation to the concrete realities.

POST_SCRIPT : I do not believe that the present movement can be called a genuine national movement in the Marxist sense. But it certainly derives its strength from unresolved national issues.

Dr. Hiren Gohain 

'I won't bow down before any political pressure' 

 J P Saikia took over as chairman-cum-managing director of the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation (NEDFi) only four-month back. He has a brilliant track record in banking sector and his chequered carrier includes a distinguished stint in the State Bank of India (SBI). When Dr Jayanta Madhab, the founding chairman of NEDFi, stepped down, he was the automatic choice to head it. He assumed charge of this premier path-lender financial institution at a time when the clamour for lifting the region from the pitfall of underdevelopment is getting louder and louder. But, reality imposes limitation. As against the backdrops of-poor infrastructure, acute power shortage, transportation bottleneck, continued militancy and steady decline in industrial production-striking a balance between economic viability and social responsibility is not less than a tight-rope-walk. However, Mr Saikia is optimistic about the North-east's economic growth prospect and hopes everything will be brighter, better and vibrant. In an exclusive face-off with The Economic Daily Mr Saikia outlines his views on various issues confronting the future of NEDFi and economic growth of the North-east. Excerpts: Question: How do you enjoy your new assignment in NEDFi after playing a long innings in SBI? Answer: Of course, my new job is a challenging one. It has added more responsibility on my shoulder. NEDFi has a paramount task in economic resurgence of the north-eastern region in coming days when the people's expectations are high. Q: Could you brief a little on the two main projects initiated by NEDFi last year- Patchouli and information technology (IT)? A: As regard Patchouli programme, we are hopeful of resuming exports from the next year. Patchouli cultivation has a very bright prospect in this region particularly in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. We have already acquired 500 bigas of land for this purpose and implementation is on full scale. Besides, keeping an eyes on rich forest resources of the region, we have also taken thirty bigas of land from the Assam government for setting up of a herbal garden to encourage production of medicinal plants. On information technology side, the DSA Group has already set up a call centre of 240-seat capacity at our IT park in the city. The call centre will be fully operational by March and trial will begin from the first week of February. It will create direct job avenues for 600 youths in phase wise and will be the largest call centre in the eastern India. Another IT park will come up in Agartala by next year at a cost of Rs 1 crore initially and a memorandum of understanding has been signed with the Tripura government for this. We are also considering the possibility of setting up of more such parks in other north-eastern States. Q: What would be the major thrust areas of NEDFi in coming years? A: Our priority will be to cater to the needs of three sectors - harnessing information technology to create better job opportunities, more stress on industrial growth centres and enhancement of micro financing scheme. Realizing the huge requirement of small size loan in villages and small towns of the region, the NEDFi has, so far, disbursed Rs 2 crore to 300 self-help groups under micro credit programme. The mechanism involves delivery of loans through established NGOs, village development councils and philanthropic organizations. Q: What sort of favours do you need from the Central and the State governments for better functioning of NEDFi? A: Recently, I have submitted a business proposal of Rs 750 crore for the next five year to the Centre. Of which, the Centre is supposed to give Rs 200 crore and the rest amount will be mobilized and generated from our own resource-base. I am hopeful of getting a fair deal from the Central government. We also require supports from the State governments for better transportation and road connectivity facilities. In many cases, the locations, where industrial units are to be set up, lack approach roads and such obstacles raise cost of production besides causing cost and time overrun. Power situation in this region also presents a dismal picture not to mention of our experience with frequent power-cuts. Uninterrupted electricity supply is an utmost necessity as it is a pre-requisite to stimulate industrialization. Poor infrastructural facilities coupled with communication bottleneck make private investors feel shy in investing in the region. Q: Are you facing any financial constraints in implementing the projects? A: So far, there is no problem. As I have already told you, I have sent a business proposal to the Union finance ministry, the result of which is awaited. After that only I would be able to visualize if any crisis is ahead or not. Moreover, NEDFi, has set a record of achieving 100 per cent annual target over the last six years of its existence and the Centre has never hesitated to release funds for it. The Prime Minister has given a target of disbursing Rs 50 crore loan annually to this region. The target was fulfilled in the last year and we are hopeful of achieving the goal in the current year too. Q: In which way you want to lead NEDFi in coming days? A: See, NEDFi's one-point task is to inject fresh life into staggering economy of the north-eastern region. NEDFi sees for itself the responsibility of regional development while catering to the financial needs of various projects in the region. Because of its image and credibility the Union government needs NEDFi to play a dynamic role in development of the whole North-east. The NEDFi has made a total investment of Rs 450 crore in the past six years, which includes 204 projects sanctioned in seven States of the region. We have also initiated a number of studies identifying sectors for national and international funding under the Techno-Economic Feasibility Study Fund. We are also providing credit assistance and technical consultancy in areas like petrochemicals, health-care, food processing, jute, cold storage facilities, power generation and tourism promotion. Q: Whether any industrial magnet of repute has come forward with proposal in recent time to set up industry in this region? A: L G Electronics has shown interest in setting up a production unit near Guwahati. Discussions are on and if the deal is finalized there will be an investment of not less than Rs 50 crore. Birla Group is also coming here very soon and they will start off with an educational institution. Efforts are being made to attract outside investors in steel and cement sectors also. It's heartening that some entrepreneurs and promoters have taken keen interest in making investments in our Burnihat industrial growth park and in other places. Q: What is the recovery rate of NEDFi-financed projects? What is your observation about the local entrepreneurs? A: Right to say, the recovery rate is very discouraging. We have a scheme for the new generation of the region called 'North East Equity Fund', for which Rs one crore is being kept as reserve. Under this scheme, aspiring unemployed youths are extended financial assistance to set up small industrial units with locally available resources. But, the poor recovery of earlier sanctioned loans is sending wrong signals and in some cases the beneficiaries have diverted funds to unproductive purposes. Q: What do you think about the future of industrial development of the region? Is insurgency posing a threat? A: Insurgency and worsening law and order situation in the region has been diverting resources and attention of the State governments which otherwise could have been available for economic development. An outside investor thinks twice before making an investment in the North-east due to bad law and order condition. Otherwise, the region could have lured more investors and attain faster industrialization with the incentives and exemptions granted by the Central and the State governments. As things stand today no small initiative can bring about rapid economic development. With years of development back-log together with slow pace of infrastructural growth, what is required is a "giant leap." There is also a need for confidence- building exercise among the entrepreneurs. Q: Your predecessor Dr Jayanta Madhab had said that he was compelled to put in his papers because he resisted political pressure in NEDFi's functioning especially in matters of sanctioning loans. Do you face any such pressure? A: I can't totally disprove and rule out such pressures. Actually, in this type of lending and financial institutions, political intervention is more or less a common phenomenon. But, this much I can assure that I will not succumb to any political pressure. The NEDFi is guided by the principle of sanctioning funds to those projects which are economically viable. No interference will be tolerated which goes against its principle.

KUNAL KANTI BHATTACHARJEE kunalchat@yahoo.com)

Miles to go before 'expenditure control' becomes a reality for Assam 

Business is going to change much more in next ten years than in last fifty years- says the world's most successful man and IT baron Bill Gates. And for the cash-strapped Assam government, coming out from the grip of acute financial crisis will be easier than ever before if it can fill up the gap of deficit by increasing revenue and cutting down expenditure in next five years-feels H N Das, chairman of the Fiscal Reforms Committee, constituted by the Gogoi government five months back. "The annual contribution to the State exchequer may be as high as Rs 1,100 crore if the present government can carry into effect our recommendations," says Das when asked about the effectiveness of the report. The committee while calling for path-breaking reforms in each and every sector suggested a curb on fresh employment and reduction of employees at the rate of two per cent per year over the next five years. It views that the image of the government can be changed and modernized once the e-governance is introduced in right earnest. It says that the computerization of important departments including treasuring through local areas network will ensure less corruption, increased transparency, greater convenience, revenue growth and cost reduction. "Good governance which means a transparent bureaucracy and avoiding cost and time over-runs is possible once we utilize the information technology," says Atul Sarma, another member of the panel. Besides recommending freezing of dearness allowance and dearness relief to the government workforce for at least three years, it also urged for a curb on travel and control of expenditure on vehicles. It is confident that it the entire amount gained from the increase in revenue coming from the suggested reform package along with saving affected by control of expenditure is spent on development projects, the total employment in the state over the next five-year period will be more than the number of posts abolished. Even though the Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has not set any specific time-frame for implementing the report, it can be easily gauged that the government employees would have to bear the first brunt. The committee while analysing the background of financial crisis in Assam comes out with the conclusion that increase in number of employees and consequent increase of expenditure on salary, wage and pension-is the main cause responsible for the present situation as 51 per cent of the expenditure goes on meeting this. The total expenditure on salary, wages and pension has gone up to Rs 4,990.55 crore in 2001-02 and that of the total number of employees and pensioners has touched the figures of 4,59,701 and 1,11,356 respectively. The education department, which shares 41.42 per cent of the government staff, is the first one to come under heavy fire. "The department is even ignorant about the exact number of teachers working with it", says the committee, adding that the expenditure remains very high on education and became ten-fold in the last year due to increase in workforce and illegal recruitment. The security-related expenditure due to insurgency and law and order problems has also gone up significantly-more than seven-fold. Calling for reduction of aid to autonomous bodies at the rate of 10 per cent per year, the committee also raised serious concern over the mushrooming of NGOs over the past few years. "Easily available grants from various departments encourage 'fly-by-night' type of organizations which disappear soon after clearing the government cheques." It said. At a time when the Chief Minister has to leave for New Delhi every month to persuade the Centre to bail out the State in order to pay salaries of employees, the committee views that the present crisis calls for certain amount of sacrifice from every quarter. "The Assam government will come out as one of the most efficient State governments in India if employees, citizens and political parties eventually bear the extra burden of taxation," it pointed out. Suggesting massive tax reforms it called for enhancement of land revenue, excise, motor vehicle, passengers and good taxes. It also advised the government to review the present structure of green leaf and professional taxes, stamp duty, registration fee and also electricity tariff. Regarding the State-run undertakings, the committee found that barring three out of 49 existing PSUs - Assam Gas Company, Artfed and Assam Co-operative Jute Mills - all are running at huge losses and have become a heavy burden. Suggesting immediate disinvestment in 16 PSUs, it urged the government for liquidation of stakes in 14 PSUs which are not economically viable. It also favoured fragmentation State Electricity Board (ASEB) into three strategic business units which would work as independent profit centres. It also suggested joint venture mechanism allowing 51 per cent equity to private sector for profit-making and potentially profitable PSUs. It suggested shutting down of loss-making and non-viable units. It may be mentioned that 49 PSUs in which Rs 4,500 crore invested so far are running into a accumulated loss of Rs 4,060 crore. While the administrative system has failed totally during the past half-a-century to augment income generation assets, the mismatch between income and expenditure has caused climbing up of fiscal deficit to Rs 2,534.71 crore in 2001-02. According to the committee, all these wrong steps ultimately resulted-failure to pay salaries in time, failure to fund plan projects fully, diversion of funds from plan to non-plan, decline of capital expenditure and increase of revenue spending. On the revenue front, the committee felt that-leakages in check gates, tax offices, business establishments and overall economic backwardness-have caused serious losses to the exchequer. The total debt burden of the State government has crossed Rs 10,013 crore mark in the last financial year. The cost of debt servicing along with salary and pension today constitute a bulk of revenue and capital expenditure as these three items constitutes 60 per cent of the overall spending. Adding to woes is the frequent floods that visit Assam every year leaving behind trail of death and destruction. "As the calamity fund is hardly sufficient the government has to resort to flood control measures through 100 per cent borrowing," the report stated. Obviously, the main mantra for tiding over the fiscal darkness remains "expenditure control". But there is a doubt whether the State government will be able to follow in the bold footsteps when the Chief Minister himself says "expenditure control is one thing and the ministry expansion is another"-which forecasts further burden on the exchequer. So, we have to travel miles and miles before monetary frugality becomes a reality for the State.

KUNAL KANTI BHATTACHARJEE (kunalchat@yahoo.com)

Guwahatians likely to face acute water shortage

Can privatization assure viability of water supply schemes in Assam? 

Privatization or Active community involvement - which can ensure viability of water supply schemes? The experts opinion is however, sharply divided on this. A section of them feels it is only through privatization the financial viability of urban and rural water supply schemes can be assured. Another group feels participation of users in planning and maintenance of their own water supply projects, can give better results.

Assam Public Health Engineering Minister, Dinesh Prasad Goala, thinks it's right time now to examine the financial aspects of urban and rural water supply schemes in Assam, most of which are running in heavy losses.

He says water supply schemes have already been started in various parts of the State but poor maintenance and operation are posing threats to them. Financial constraint is a hurdle as water tariff charged from the people is very low, he points out.

Emphasizing the need for community participation, Goala says, the Central government has also stressed on the involvement of local people in operation and management of water supply projects as it is not possible for the government to run those schemes on its own.

Admitting carelessness on the part of public health engineering department, Goala states: an awareness should be created among the public regarding the supply of pure drinking water. "An approachable tariff and a sense of self-responsibility can guarantee supply of water in proper time," he viewed.

Expressing doubts over the long term existence of water supply schemes in the State, Assam Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Board Managing Director Himangshu Sarkar, says the revenue collection is very less and maintenance cost is much higher. "Water taxes are not sufficient to meet the generating and distribution cost and the rising revenue gap becomes the burden of the State government."

In fact, the World Bank has also expressed doubts over the sustainability of water supply schemes in the States of Maharastra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, due to poor management and operation.

Pointing out the financial viability of water supply schemes in the State has not been achieved till date, Sarkar informs that people at large do not bother to pay for the services as they treat water as a 'free commodity' and want to get it free of cost.

Since 1989, when the urban water supply scheme was been started in the State, a large section of people do not bother to take advantage of water supply connections as because underground water is easily available in Assam.

Accepting the fact that poor economic condition of the people is a hurdle standing in the way of success of these water supply schemes, Sarkar says, out of 78 towns in Assam, where water supply schemes are being run, 54 have a population-base of less than 20,000 with rural background, where health consciousness is not prevalent to a large extent.

He however, agrees that the funds allocated by the State government for this purpose is also meagre as it comes only two to three percent of the total budget allocation.

Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Chief Engineer (water supply), Sarath Bezbarua, views that private sector participation is the only solution to make the water supply schemes economically viable.

He says for survival of water supply schemes a comprehensive pricing policy, covering all sorts of cost, should be introduced. Favouring induction of 'registration fee', Bezbaruah says commercial activities associated in this regard cannot be ignored and to reduce transmission and distribution losses, users should be charged a non-refundable amount of registration fee.

D Bhattacharjee, Director (HRD), State Public Health Engineering (PHE) department, suggests setting-up of users committee through community participation at the local level and says involvement of users in the operation and maintenance of water supply projects can ensure financial viability.

The most interesting fact was revealed by A B Paul, additional Chief Engineer, PHE. He says unlike electricity, for which people are always ready to pay, water is being seen as a 'gift of nature.'

Pointing out the basic difference between power and water supply, Paul says, when the electricity services were first started in Chicago city 200-year back, no-body wanted to use it free but the day a human being borns in this earth he sees water abounds every where. "It's not ability to pay but willingness to pay which acts as a barrier in revenue generation," he views.

Paul informs that the market price of water produced by the State PHE department every year stands at around Rs. 85 crore and at present 180 pipe water supply schemes are being run in the State.

Citing examples from a survey report he said 60 per cent of the users take water at home against payments in Barak Valley. "The only thing they demand is - guaranteed supply of water."

He further informs in Jorhat, where the scheme was introduced in 1994, and presently has 40 lakh house connections - no defaulter is found till date.

However, Indian Water Works Association president, BK Bhasale when contracted, says the situation like 'cost-revenue gap' is same in every State of India. He accuses the local governing bodies - municipalities, town committees and panchayats - of not paying back the revenues collected from the users to the producers.

All experts are of the view that in order to ensure sustainability of supply schemes in Assam 'water' should be treated as an 'economic wealth'. An expert also suggests introduction of paid services for purified water and free services for non-purified supply. 

Corruption can be checked, it can't be eliminated: GP Baruah

State small tea growers yet to get patta land in Assam

Despite tremendous development potential of small tea growers in the State, the small tea growers are facing a plethora of problems. Very few of them have patta plots of land. So, they face a lot of problems in obtaining bank loan.

Talking to this reporter, Mr. Gautam Prasad Baruah, a city-based business strategist and economist, said that small tea growers can usher in a new era in the tea industry of the State.

Mr. Baruah has suggested the State Government to allot patta to the cropland of the small tea growers so that they can avail bank loan easily.

Regarding the quality of the tea brands of Assam he stated that, the producers are yet to improve the quality of the brands.

"Flavour and strength of liquor of Assam should be improved to earn better price. The quality of tea should be upgraded by availing better field practices," he said.

In view of the open market policy, Sri Lankan and African tea brands are gaining ground. To place with the high degree of competition in the international market, Indian tea industry captains should update their marketing strategy in order to widen the market share.

"In fact, the price of Lankan and African tea brands are lower than that of Indian ones. The reason is not far to seek. The cost of production of Indian brands is higher than Lankan and African brands. India adopts labour-intensive technology in the production of tea brands while the African and Lankan tea industry barons use capital-intensive technique in the production. As a result, the cost of tea production is higher in India than Africa and Sri Lanka," Mr. Baruah stated.

Apart from the development possibilities, Mr. Baruah also averred his views over the economic gloom of the State. He has advocated drastic economic reforms in order to revive the State economy as a whole. According to him, local investors and entrepreneurs should come forward to set up production units to revitalize the State. "We should not look for outside investors all the time. Outside investors fear to come to Assam for prevailing disturbed law and order situation. Only the local investors are to pave the way to rapid development of the State," he remarked.

He said, "The State Government should reduce expenditure. How it will cut expenditure it is up to the government. Downsizing the employees may be one of the important reform measure. Today, the State has about 5 lakh employees as against 2.60 lakh staff in 1985-86 which marked 70 percent increase during the period. However, the services aspect of the State Govt. Employees has not improve. Does it help our tax-payers?"

On the dismal scene of fiscal health of the State he quipped, "About 80 percent of the total revenue is spent on the payment of staff salaries and maintaining administration, 15 percent revenue is spent in the repayment of debt and only 5 percent remained for development activities."

Commenting on 'corruption issue' he said, "Corruption has become a way of life. The valuable subject 'Moral Studies' should be reintroduced at the primary and secondary levels."

Accordingly, Mr. Baruah informed that, he had urged Mr. N Vittal, Vigilance Commissioner, during a recent meeting to write to all the school level to root out vexed problem of graft practices in different fields.

"Corruption and prostitution are two phenomena in human civilization. These two elements cannot be eliminated, but can be controlled, to some extent. External vigilance is the price of liberty, said W Wilson, so, if you want to reduce corruption, you are to revise vigilance," he added. 

Can Agriculture Dept.'s contingency measures save farmers in Assam today ? 

While the State is facing a scanty monsoon rainfall, the Department of Agriculture has chalked out contingency plans to check possible ravages of flood in the months to come. Though the farmers are currently working hard in their cropland yet they seem to pass through an uncertain future as after delayed monsoon floods collapse crops every year in the State. Now, the question is : How far the contingency plans of the Agricultural department will be able to help the poor farmers in the State ?

"Flood is a regular feature in Assam during May to September. It affects an area of about 3 to 5 lakh hectares of land under cultivation depending on magnitude. The year 1999 was marked by an unusual drought like situation which prevailed from November 1998 till 3rd week of April 1999. The unusual drought like situation spread over a period of almost 6 months, damaged standing crops and drastically reduced the yield to 40% to 50% Rabi Summer/Pre Kharif crops. Total area affected was 2,35,775 hectare covering 3,48,2086 farm families. This drought like situation was followed by the regular flood affecting 1,09,878 hectare of crop area and also by the attack of Rice Hispa in Kharif paddy affecting 72,737 hectare," informed Mr. E Bimal Singh, Deputy Director, Department of Agriculture, Assam.

"During the year 2000-2001, the State experienced three waves of floods. The first wave of flood came in the middle of June 2000, second wave was in the latter part of July and last wave was in the early part of September 2000. During Kharif 2000 total cropped area affected was 2,92,903 hectare and total family affected was 6,36,102. The similar situation is now prevailing in the current year 2001-2002. Loss of standing Kharif crops both early and late flood is apprehended," he informed.

In fact, the flash floods and early floods are most common in the districts of Dhemaji, Lakhimpur, Gohpur sub-division of Sonitpur district, Majuli sub-division of Jorhat district. In recent times, these districts are also facing acute problems of sand deposition converting fertile land to barren land overnight. Heavy river bank erosion is also causing concern to the large number of farmers.

The main objective of contingent planning is to minimize the losses of production by way of selecting appropriate alternate crops, suitable variety and adopting appropriate crop production technology.

AK Bora, Director of the Department felt that more funds from the Revenue Department would be needed to check the recurrence of floods in the State. He further informed that all field officials of the Department have been instructed to monitor the adverse situation arising out of the devastating floods.

Meanwhile, the Department has formulated a set of measures to check the devastating flood in the State this year.

For occasionally flood-affected areas, where flood recedes early in season and rice can be transplanted in middle of August, varieties like Ranjit, Bahadur, Pankaj, Lakhimi, PNR 381, Monohar, Sali etc. may also be selected with normal seedbed sowing.

Chronologically, flood affected areas where flood water is expected to recede by the last part of August and first part of September, varieties suitable for staggered planting like Monohar Sali, KMJ-17-19-1, Andrew Sali etc. may be selected with seedbed sowing in normal sowing time.

In areas where transplantation of rice is not possible by mid-September, early maturing (short duration) varieties like luit, Kapili, Culture-1 may be selected for direct seeded crops with spouted seed.

In general under normal conditions 5 to 6 KG seed is needed for transplanting one bigha of land. However, for late sowing/transplanting seed rate should be increased as the germination percentage mainly of Monohar Sali falls very fast beyond June.

In the areas of hills and in late transplanting situation, 4-5 seedling is to be planted per hill to maintain panicle number per unit area with 40-5- days old seedling. Therefore, higher seed rate is necessary for late transplanting situation, he added.

Falling demand & prices put tea industry in a tough spot;

GTAC introduces 'on-line auction' facility

Tea industry in Assam runs into rough weather

Sipping a cup of tea gives you some extra energy. Tea has so much to tell, more so if the magic brew comes from the gardens of Assam, world's most diversified, successful conglomerates. Grown in lush plains of the land of 'red river and blue hills' this rich brew from Assam is being served over the globe. Tea tells more so if cultivated, plucked and processed in Assam.

Novelist Mulk Raj Anand, nicely portrayed the lives and styles of tea community in his famous novel "Two Leafs and a Bud" - which depicts the significance of tea in socio-economic life of Assam.

With the advent of globalisation and removal of quantitative restrictions, Indian tea producers are now facing cut-throat competition. Although Assam's production level has shown growth, there is a very apparent slowing down in recent years.

Against a projected compound growth rate of 4 percent as envisaged by the Tea Board, Assam achieved only 2.2 percent during 1981-92. Assam tea industry will therefore have to shift attention to productivity in as much as concentrating on its effort on quality.

The recent stagnation in the domestic tea market and declining prices, will surely put Assam's tea industry in a tough spot as it is the backbone of the State economy and to face the current crisis of downward price trend, the tea industry should have to strive for two things - quality improvement and cost effectiveness.

For more than a century and a half, the tea industry has contributed immensely in economic development of Assam and so far remains biggest tea producing area in India. It accounts for nearly 55 percent of India's total tea production and about 80 percent of country's exports.

When tea auction was started in London in 1839 based on Assam and China teas and in Calcutta in 1861 based mainly on Assam tea, no consideration was given to the fact that the natural advantage was with Guwahati. It was not realized that in this process, Assam was being deprived of a major share of the benefits of its most important industry.

It was only in late 1960s the then State Finance Minister late Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who later became the President of India, initiated action to examine the feasibility of setting up of a tea auction centre in Assam. In May, 1970, the State government appointed a committee headed by former Chief Secretary late Dharmananda Das, under the active support of the late Chief Minister, Bimala Prasad Chaliha. The committee adopted the Guwahati Tea Auction Rules and the first ever tea auction was held in Guwahati, on September 25, 1970.

The first lot of tea was auctioned in the Nehru Stadium Guest House, 31 years back, by no other than legendary RG Baruah, the first Chairman of Assam Tea Brokers Ltd. Since then, the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre (GTAC) has undergone many ups-and-downs till date. In 1985, auction was shifted to GTAC's newly constructed permanent building at Dispur. The building with facilities - including an ultra modern auction hall - has become a landmark for the city of Guwahati.

GTAC's growth is reflected in terms of throughout numbers of sellers and buyers. The total membership of GTAC has reached nearly, 1,000 mark which includes - 662 sellers, 292 buyers, 9 brokers and 33 warehouses. The list of buyers include - Hindustan Lever, Tata, J V Gokal and Company from Russia and various other companies from China, Kenya, Sri Lanka and West European countries.

From a mere quantity of 2.75 million kgs sold in 1970, GTAC achieved a record sale of 151.3 million kgs of tea in 1993, traveling a pretty long way to become one of the largest tea auction centres of the world. GTAC has also contributed to the growth of Guwahati by stimulating local entrepreneurship and creating employment facilities for more than 3,000 job-seekers.

"Guwahati being the gateway of the North-east, is the ultimate choice as an auction centre. Producer's preference for the centre is eloquently evident in the steady increase in arrivals in local warehouses," says Jayanta Kakati, Secretary, GTAC.

Consequently, Guwahati has now emerged as the premier tea market in the world for CTC tea, next only to Colombo.

"GTAC primarily caters to the domestic market and buyers from all over the country gather in this city to ensure their active participation in the biweekly held auctions," says N N Deka, an assistant Superintendent with GTAC.

With the arrival of Internet and e-commerce boom in this corner of the world, GTAC is also planning to introduce 'on-line auction' facility within a short span of time. "We don't want to be left behind others. Transactions in GTAC will be on-line in next two years," informs Kakati.

In fact, GTAC will grow larger and larger with improved communication system which is far from satisfactory when compared with other parts of the country. Natural advantages of GTAC will be augmented and prospect of further growth will receive a boost if e-commerce facility is inducted.

Though Assam produces highest amount of tea in India yet the tea companies, operating in this region, do not have their headquarters here. For the convenience of tea companies having head offices in Kolkata, to some extent, trade has been monopolised there, depriving Assam from its due share of revenue and other benefits.

For a long time, student bodies, political parties and virtually, the entire tea community here, demanding the shifting of headquarters from Calcutta to Guwahati.

"There are around 700 tea estates in the North-east. Works can be carried out in a faster way if headquarters are brought here. At present, for an official approval and procedure, companies have to wait for the instruction from Kolkata, which causes unnecessary delay," resents Kakati.

Tea from luxuriant estates of Assam, loved the world over for special quality. Assam produces 15 percent of the global crop. On the global scenario newer tea producing nations - Kenya, Malawi - have entered the fast track showing remarkable increase in productivity level and therefore posing threat to tea industry in Assam.

Assam Tea Industry : Production Trend

Year

Area in lakh hect.

Productionin million kgs.

Average Yield kg./hect.

1940

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

1993

1994

1.78

1.56

1.62

1.82

2.01

2.31

N.A.

N.A.

117.78

147.77

157.50

212.03

300.70

379.89

402.95

399.33

662

947

972

1165

1496

1643

N.A.

N.A.

Source : Tea Board

Growth Rates of the Assam Tea Industry

Calendar year

Production (million kg)

Average yield kg./hect.

Rate of growth of Production ( in % age)

Area under tea (in hect.)

1981

1982

1983

1984

1985

1986

1987

1988

1989

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

305.13

299.08

321.64

338.53

352.54

335.49

363.74

369.43

379.86

379.98

387.87

387.81

402.94

399.33

1503

1415

1510

1576

1631

1493

1603

1616

1656

1643

1667

N.A.

N.A.

N.A.

-

(-) 1.98

7.54

5.25

4.12

(-) 4.85

8.42

1.56

2.82

0.01

2.10

(-) 0.02

3.90

(-) 0.89

203,038

211,323

231,007

214,714

216,117

224,718

226,883

228,617

229,428

231,150

232,650

N.A.

N.A.

N.A.

Source : (i) J. Thomas & Co. (ii) Tea Board (iii) I.T.A. Circulars

Index of 3 yearly moving average of production : Assam

Year

Index of production

1981

1982

1983

1984

1985

1986

1987

1988

1989

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

-

100.00

103.61

109.38

110.88

113.60

115.42

120.22

121.96

123.95

124.81

127.29

128.53

-

Source : GTAC

KK Bhattacharya

Assam shares 92.72% complaints in North-east

How N-E states respond to Banking Ombudsman ? 

Assam shares about 92.72 per cent of the complaints against banks filed before the banking Ombudsman by the customers in North-east nowadays. The rest 7.28 per cent of the complainants belong to Meghalaya and Nagaland. However, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura have shown no response to the Banking Ombudsman scheme during the financial year 2000-2001.

The Reserve Bank of India constituted a 'neutral forum' between the nationalised banks and the customers to deal in different complaints or cases subject to 'sufficient cause' and rules of the bank-concerned. That is, the Banking Ombudsman scheme has been designed to upgrade the quality of customer services in different banks of the country. Its key objective is to enable resolution of complaints relating to provision of banking services and to facilitate the settlement of such complaints.

There is a Banking Ombudsman office in the RBI regional office on the Railway Station Road, Guwahati. The scheme has, indeed, been playing a vital role in the development of banking sector in the North-east since the inception of Guwahati office in June 1996. The office has registered 37 complaints out of 108 cases during the financial year 1996-97. It registered 114 cases out of 239 complaints in 1997-98, 65 cases out of 234 complaints in 1998-99, 47 cases against 110 complaints in 1999-2000 and 55 cases against 145 complaints in 2000-01. Up to 1999-2000, all cases have been deposed off. However, 38 cases remained pending during the financial year 2000-01. Out of 38 cases, 18 cases were registered by the end of the year under review. In the meantime 7 cases, out of these 18 cases were deposed off by April, 2001.

Talking to this writer, Mr. Gautam Prasad Baruah, Banking Ombudsman, North-east said, "The Banking Ombudsman has been set up by the RBI for speedy and inexpensive redressal of complaints of bank-customers against deficiency in banking services. The body is faster than a civil court in disposing cases. There had been no pending cases for four years."

"The response to the Banking Ombudsman scheme by Assam is quite good in Assam. The State shares at least 80 percent of the complaints set by other N-E States. The response from Meghalaya is all right, Nagaland - not high, Arunachal Pradesh - not much. However, Mizoram is showing no response to the scheme. The people of Mizoram are either satisfied with the bank performance or they are not aware of the scheme; notwithstanding the fact that the State is one of the important States with higher literacy rate."

"There are three ways to redress the complaints against a particular bank. First of all, the complaint and the bank come to a mutual agreement and the Banking Ombudsman tries to help them to consider mutually acceptable terms. At least 70 per cent of the conflict is redress in this stage. Secondly, if certain conflict is not resolved by a mutual agreement or mutual discussion, in that case a hearing is organised when both the parties put up their case in a formal manner. After hearing the case, the Banking Ombudsman gives his recommendations to them, i.e. the Complainant and the bank. In case they agrees to settle the matter, the case ends there. Thirdly, either the party does not agree, the matter goes to the third stage where the Banking Ombudsman inform parties to hear the case again and in this hearing an award is given by the Banking Ombudsman if the award is acceptable to the complainant, the award becomes a binding on the bank."

A customer of any commercial bank (including a foreign bank) and a scheduled primary co-operative bank can approach the Banking Ombudsman.

When a customer can approach the Banking Ombudsman? Replying this query, Mr. Baruah said, "You can approach the Banking Ombudsman as soon as your bank has rejected your complaint or if you are not satisfied with your bank's reply or if the bank does not respond to your complaint within two months of your writing to it. But remember to send your complaint to the Banking Ombudsman not later-on than one year after your bank rejecting your claim or sending its final reply."

Poor collection of samples adds impetus to food adulteration

66 per cent cases pending in court 

Poor collection of samples has widened the scope of adulterating food items by dishonest traders and dealers in the State in a big way. According to the latest report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), poor collection and examination of samples rendering cases of adulteration remained undetected. It also unveiled that 66 percent of the food adulteration cases instituted had been pending in courts for over three years.

The average collection of samples per senior food inspector (SFI) and food inspector (FI) per month ranged from 1.81 to 2.14 during the period between 1995 and 1999 (five years), which was negligible. It was also seen from the records of six districts, local health authorities (LHAs) test-checked that the average monthly collection of samples per SFI and FI during those five years ranged from 1.50 in Tinsukia to 3.34 in Barpeta. It is noteworthy that the State Government attributed (August 2000) the reasons for poor collection of samples to non-availability of funds, which is not tenable as there were savings every year against provision of funds. Audit analysis revealed that the poor performance was due to non-stipulation of norm of sample, collection per SFI and FI, and irregular deployment of manpower. As a result, the surveillance of sellers, manufacturers and agents of food items was inadequate.

"Functioning of the laboratory used for examining samples was also affected for want of sophisticated equipment though funds were provided by the Union Government for the purpose," the report said. During the period between 1995 and 1999 seven food poisoning cases were reported in which 30 persons died after consumption of adulterated milk, puja prasad, etc. As many as 800 people were affected by food-poisoning cases in different parts of the State; even many of them died after eating contaminate grams in the recent past.

Reflected in the CAG Report, mention has been made of the poor collection of food samples by SFIs and FIs. Together with this, for providing licenses to manufacturers and traders of food articles, the Assam Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules was introduced in 1960. Yet it was only in 1997 that licensing authorities were appointed. It is a pathetic fact that until July 2000 no license had been issued in the State.

Monitoring at all levels was very poor and no evaluation was done. Implementation of the Food Adulteration Act, 1954 (a Central Act) and The Assam Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1960 did not gain the expected momentum in the State.

Up-to-date position of pending court cases could not be furnished by the food health authority (Director of Health Services, Assam is the ex-officio of FHA) of the State. It was seen from the annual report of 1998 that of 565 cases pending in courts, 385 cases (66 per cent) were pending for over three years. Scrutiny of six test-checked districts local health authorities also disclosed that as of December 1999 only 84 cases were pending in courts for over three years.

Having reviewed the situation, arising out of the poor collection of food samples by SFIs and FIs as well as the tardy issue of licenses, Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi instructed all concerned government officials to take immediately precautionary steps for implementing various Rules on food adulteration in the State.

With a view to ensuring availability of unadulterated food and drink (other than drugs) to consumers, protecting them from fraudulent trade practices and providing guidance/norms to the manufacturers/dealers of food articles, Central Government enacted 'The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954'. Under Section 23 of the Act, the Centre had made 'The Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules 1955'. In exercise of powers conferred by Section 24 of the Act and for giving effect to the provisions of the said Act, the State Government had made 'The Assam Prevention of food Adulteration Rules 1960' which was amended in 1983.

There are three key objectives of the Food Act. They are : to prevent adulteration of foodstuff and manufacture, storing and sale of adulterated foodstuff for human consumption; to ensure the purity of food items sold to public and to eradicate the antisocial evil of adulteration; and to prohibit misbranding of foodstuff and to prevent fraud on the consumer public.

The State Public Health Laboratory (SPHL) in Guwahati performs the analysis of food samples sent to it under PFA Act, 1954. Besides the food samples sent to the laboratory by private persons and other governments and agencies of the North-eastern region are also analysed by the SPHL for which fees at prescribed rates are realised in advance.

Timber traders violating SC ban on felling trees in N-E 

Violating the Supreme Court ban on felling trees in all North-eastern States, a large number of timber traders and saw mill owners are still engaged in felling trees throughout the region.

In a significant breakthrough, the Bureau of Investigation of Economic Offences (BIEO) of the State caught red handed a good number of offenders dealing in illegal timber trade in the region. Early this morning, the BIEO rounded up two Punjab body trucks at the Nine Mile areas on the outskirts of the city, carrying fresh timbers of Rs. 2.25 lakh from Mairang areas of Meghalaya. They were carrying non-Sal and Pine trees. Interestingly, number plates of the trucks were deleted in order to eye-wash the police and the people. Later on, the numbers of these two trucks were ascertained as 25A-7116 and MLO5-B 7873. On the basis of a document BIEO officials found that Mr. Moresh Shyam of Mairang, Meghalaya was the owner of the truck number 25A-7116. However, no paper was found from the truck number 25A-7116. Both the trucks were coming down from Mairang of Meghalaya. But their destination could not be established as the drivers and handymen of the vehicles had managed to flee before the police seized the trucks.

Getting a special information from Mr. Bhaskar Konhain, president of the Kamrup District Youth Congress Committee, an investigating BIEO team -- comprising of Biren Sarma, DSP and Bolen Nath, Forester (Grade-I) - reached the spot where the two trucks were parked (in between Jorabat and Khanapara on the GS Road). It is reliably learnt that about 20 Youth Congress workers helped the BIEO officials to round up the trucks. It is noteworthy that the Kamrup District Youth Congress Committee had initiated a drive to close all 'last number lottery ticket' counters in the city. The drive against corruption would go on and on, said a youth Congress leader.

He further claimed that the timber traders could manage to deal in the 'illegal trade' as there was an 'unfair nexus' between the timber smugglers and the local police officials.

In the meantime, police busted many rackets of timber smugglers in different parts of the State. On November 1, police detected illegal timbers of Rs. 3 lakh at Fancy Bazar. The timbers were the sorts of finished bits belonging to one Kiran Bhotra. These bits were later handed over to the Forest Department, Kamrup Division.

On November 2, the BIEO detected a huge quantity of Gomari and Khokan bits at Rangia. The approximate value of the timber would be Rs. 3 lakh. They were handed over to the Forest Department of Rangia.

In a separate incident, as many as 18 timber traders surrendered before the police at Tezpur, on November 10, police sources added.

CBI may start Vitamin-A probe after four years 

The CBI is likely to take at least four years in initiating investigation into the UNICEF-sponsored Vitamin-A immunisation drive which has claimed many lives of children of the State. Earlier, the State Government has ordered a CBI inquiry into the death of infants after being fed with Vitamin-A in a UNICEF sponsored mass immunisation programme. An Assam government spokesman informed that, the Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, took the decision on November 20.

Highly-placed sources close to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said on condition of anonymity that the bureau had to initiate formal investigation after four to five years of different scams like LoC scam, Palmoline scam etc. in Assam.

"This time too, the CBI may start its investigation after four years. The reason is not far to seek. The State Government had to intimate formally the Central Government (Union Home Ministry) first. Then the Centre will direct the CBI headquarters. The headquarters will direct the Eastern Zonal office in Kolkata and the Eastern Zonal office will direct the North-eastern regional office of the CBI, Guwahati, to start the formal probe. Thus the process is too long to get prompt result," the sources added.

On the other hand, Assam police sources said that, two teams of CID of the State visited the Barak Valley and the Nagaon district to stock of the situation there. Officials sources averred that, only two death cases of children were filed in the Barak Valley - one at the police station of Sonai and another at Lakhipur police station in Cachar district. The Sonai case was an unnatural death case while the Lakhipur case was a regular death case. Khabir Ahmed, SP, CID led the police team to Cachar which visited the district from November 13, 2001 to November 18, 2001.

"No doctors disclosed the cause of death of the victims. All death certificates marked opinions reserved," sources added.

It is noteworthy that the State Government has been pushed to a corner by this tragedy and the Opposition political parties have been howling for the CBI inquiry. The State Government, UNICEF and the Union Government have remained clue-less about the tragedy even as the blame game is on each passing the bucks to the others.

The UNICEF pointed the finger towards the overdose while the Union Government says that they had asked Assam Government not to use the consignment, while the pediatrics in Assam say that mass immunisation of Vitamin-A was not at all necessary in Assam. Meanwhile, the Union Government has suspended the entire nationwide Vitamin-A immunisation programme till the inquiry reports found out the real picture.

Initially, more than 10,000 babies fell ill in lower and Central Assam but most of them recovered within the first 12 hours after complaints of vomiting and Diarrhea.

Keeping all conscious people in speculation over Vitamin-A solution and its 'overdose theory', the State Government today made a list of 15 samples collected from six districts for laboratory test, while as many as 15 children died in different parts of the State. The three brands of Vitamin-A are Nestor, Niculas and Piramol, which were used in Sonitpur, Kamrup, Goalpara, Dibrugarh, Cachar and Nagaon.

Highly-placed sources close to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare told this reporter: "The drugs controller of the State today prepared a list of 15 samples of 'Concentrated Vitamin-A Solution', which were used in immunisation drives in the State recently."

The letter, bearing the list, addressed to the officer on special duty (OSD) to the Minister of Health and Family Welfare goes : "As desired by you I am furnishing herewith the list of sample of Concentrated Vitamin-A Solution drawn by the different inspectors of drugs of various districts of Assam."

According to the letter, the drugs controller received 2 samples from the Sonitpur district, on November 16, 2001 and the brand names of the samples are Nestor, Niculas and Piramol. Three samples of Niculas and Piramol brands were received from Kamrup district, on November 13, 2001. Only one sample of Niculas brand was received from Goalpara district, on November 13, 2001. Two samples of Niculas brand were received from Dibrugarh district on the same date. Three samples of Nestor and Niculas brands were received from Cachar district, on November 12, 2001. Four samples of Nestor and Niculas brands were received from Kamrup district, on November 13, 2001.

Out of the total 15 samples of six district, seven samples of Nestor and Niculas brands, which were distributed in largely-affected Cachar and Nagaon districts, have been sent to the Central Drugs Laboratory, Kolkata by the Drugs Controller.

In the meantime, a few concerned officials claimed that, the State drugs analyst cold have unveil the findings of the laboratory tests on different samples of Vitamin-A in a day. They questioned the analyst why he could not announce the same even after passing eight days.

Development of civil aviation in North-east

Making the entire world into a 'global village' the civil aviation service sector plays a vital role in the fast changing transport industry of the North-east, in particular and the country as a whole. That is, the civil aviation sector can help boost the socio-economic development of Northeastern states by way of facilitating operations related to cargo, domestic and international flights.

What is the present position of this service sector in the seven-sister states? The passenger movement through Borjhar (Guwahati) airport during the year 1999-2000 is 4,03,035 and that of during 2000-2001 is 5,06,978, keeping in pace with the increasing trend of air passengers, as well as freight, the Airport Authority of India (AAI) has constructed the air terminal building at a cost of Rs. 27 crore to handle 1500 passengers at a time. This terminal building is one of the largest domestic terminal buildings of India today. It is designed to handle 1500 passengers at a time. Its architecture resembles boat in Brahmaputra.

All modern passengers' facilities like, restaurant, snack bar, tea stall, telephone booth, prepaid taxi service, postal facilities, wheel chair, ambu-lift, coffee bar, rest room facilities have been provided. Provision of two numbers of aerobridged also being examined. The entire terminal building is being air-conditioned at a cost of Rs. 2.53 crore. Strengthening of runway has already been done to facilitate the landing of wide bodied aircraft. Extension of run way upto 12,000 ft. from existing 9000 ft. has been planned for which land has already been acquired from state government. A separate international terminal building has been planned for international operations. Moreover, international cargo operations has been started, cold storage facility is also available. The apron has been expanded to accommodate 6 nos. of different types of wide bodied aircraft at a time. Airport is well equipped with night landing facility. At present Indian Airline, Alliance Air, Jet Airways, Sahara India Airlines, Pawan Hans Ltd are operating through this airport linking Guwahati with Kolkata, Delhi, Bagdogra, Imphal, Dibrugarh, North Lakhimpur and Shillong.

The revenue to be from this airport is approximately Rs. 770 lakh per annum, whereas expenditure incurred to maintain it is approximately Rs. 1,191 lakh. Despite a loss making Airport, this is being developed to match with any international airport of the country.

That is, the AAI upgraded Guwahati airport as model airport with all modern navigational, aeronautical and passenger facilities recently. The airport was declared as international airport in May 2000. Efforts were being made to start international flights from this airport. So far airline has shown interest to touch this point. The Union Civil Aviation Ministry seems busy in making deals with other countries so that they could insist on taking Guwahati as "a point of call" for their airlines. Cargo operations have also been started in a modest way. The existing runway has been strengthened at a cost of Rs. 22 crore. This airport has been provided with the state-of-the-art navigational and communication facilities including radars, covering the air space of Northeast at a cost of Rs. 30 crore.

Guwahati, situated on the banks of the mighty river Brahmaputra is the gateway to the whole of Northeast and set-down point for the wildlife reserves. The sustained economic development and tremendous potential for adventure tourism keep encouraging more people to visit and explore this land, the Brahmaputra Valley. In cognigance of this fact and constant increase in traffic potential, the LGB International Airport, named after the worthy son of Assam, Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi contributes substantially to the trade and commerce in this region. It was declared an international airport in May 2000. The airport is equipped with all modern technical and navigational aids and can accommodate six various types of wide-bodied aircraft at a time. The terminal building has all the passenger-friendly services and is spacious enough to cater for peak hour capacity of 1500 passengers. Constructional of terminal building and associated works have since been completed at a cost of Rs. 27 crore. Cargo operations have commenced from this airport effective October 1999 and airport is equipped with related facilities to handle international flights.

In the Northeast, the AAI maintains 20 airports and civil enclaves in the seven states and 2 airports in the state of West Bengal. It has undertaken major projects to develop operational airports in the seven-sister states with an outlay of Rs. 2573.93 crore in the 9th Plan. To develop LGBI airport, the Plan outlay is Rs. 128 crore, out of total domestic airports outlay in the 9th Plan of Rs. 1784.80 crore. The Plan outlay for development of airports in North-eastern States including LGBI Airport is Rs. 273.79 crore which is 15.34 % of total outlay.

It is important to note that the AAI manages 11 international and 112 domestic airports including 28 civil enclaves at Defence airfields across the country and is committed to overall development of its airport with passenger-friendly services. At AAI, the development of infrastructure at airports is a continuous process. According to a report, the AAI is well aware of terrain constraints and frequent ravages in the Northeast region and hence importance of air services. At present, the network of AAI airports and civil enclaves in this region consists of 14 airports and eight civil enclaves at Defence airfields which are located in the States of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. AAI has taken up various projects at these airports and civil enclaves.

The AAI, with the help of North Eastern Council (NEC) has taken up airport development works in all the States of North Eastern Region with an outlay of Rs. 260 crore during the Ninth Five-year Plan. New terminal buildings have been constructed and put into operation at Guwahati, Silchar, Imphal, Dimapur, Tezpur and Tura. Similarly, new terminal buildings are under construction at North Lakhimpur and Agartala at a cost of about 33 crore. The runway at Agartala airport is being extended to 7500 ft. at a cost of Rs. 22 crore. At Imphal and Dimapur airports also, the runways are being strengthened a cost of Rs. 25 crore. In Mizoram, the entire building of Oengpeu Airport will be ready in the next month which costed Rs. 98 crore. The total cost of projects which are at present going on in the Northeast if Rs. 187 crore. This shows that my Ministry and also the NEC are committed to strengthen the economy of the region. The navigational aids are being provided at Guwahati, Dibrugarh, Agartala and Imphal and other airports to facilitate all weather operations and improving safety.

According to the Annual Report of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, 2000-2001, the Government have exempted all routes within the seven States of the Northeast from the levy of Inland Air Travel Tax (IATT) which is charged at the rate of 15% of the basic fare. It has also decided to notify Aviation Turbine Fuel as 'declared goods' under Central Sales Tax Act. 1956 so as to cap sales tax at 4% . A bill in this regard is being introduced in Parliament by the Ministry of Finance.

A Task Force was constituted by the Government of India in December 1998, to examine and make recommendations for improving the air infrastructure and for better airlinks in the NE Region. The Task Force had given its recommendation in 1999. The main recommendations of the Task Force include : (i) Airlinks should be established between the capitals of the States in the NE and between major stations on both sides of the Brahmaputra. (ii) Guwahati should be made hub station and main base of 50 seater aircraft operations by the airlines. (iii) Construction of terminal buildings at Lengpui (Aizwal) and Tura (Meghalaya), being carried out by the State Governments, to be completed expeditiously. (iv) A new terminal building for Dibrugarh airport. (v) The landing, parking, route navigation facility charges and passenger service fee levied by Airports Authority of India (AAI), should be reduced to 50% of existing levels for the NE Region. Government should reimburse from the proposed Civil Aviation Development Fund (CADF) the loss of revenue to AAI arising from the above mentioned of charges. (vi) A CADF be created. 50% of the Foreign Travel Tax and Inland Air Travel Tax, charged from international and domestic passengers, should be allowed to be part of this Fund. This fund should be utilised to finance aviation infrastructure development and to subsidise the unviable, but essential air services. (vii) The Ministry of Civil Aviation should grant subsidy out of the proposed CADF to the airlines providing air services on the economically unviable, but essential routes for recovering the cash cost of operations. (viii) Helicopter services to be provided, as is presently being done, under the subsidy scheme of Ministry of Home Affairs, to places where there is no scope of building runways.

(ix) Air services to/from and within NE should be expected from Inland Air Travel Tax. (x) Instrument Landing system (ILS) and Runway Visual Range (RVR) measurement equipments to be provided at Silchar, Tezpur, Dimapur, Jorhat and Lilabari airports. (xi) Very High Frequency Omni Range (VHFOR) Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) and Precision Approach Path Indicato (PAPI) to be provided at Lilabari and Barapani airports. (xii) Approach lights and high intensity runway lights should be provided at Dibrugarh, Lilabari, Lengpui and Barapani.

Of late, the Union Minister of Civil Aviation, Mr. Sharad Yadav, constituted a high level team comprising of representatives from the Ministry, Indian Airlines, Airports Authority of India, DGCA and Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd. To make an on-the-spot assessment of immediate airport infrastructure problems of the Northeastern States in order to resolve them in a time bound manner.

Notably, the MPs from the Northeastern States formed "Northeast MPs Forum" under the chairmanship of Mr. P.R.Kyndiah, MP, Lok Sabha to voice the special problem of the region. Mr. Samar Choudhury, MP, Lok Sabha is the Vice-Chairman of the Forum. All the MPs hailed the decision of the Ministry of Civil Aviation to declare Guwahati Airport as International Airport and urged the Minister to start international flights from Guwahati.

Glad to say, the whole of Northeast is full of natural beauty and there are a number of tourist places. Sad to say, the region is yet to woo more and more tourists. The tremendous development potential of tourism industry could not be tapped due to difficult terrain and limited means of communication. Therefore, there is a need for improvement in airport infrastructure and air services in this area. It is expected to improve the economy of this region in the days to come removing the so-called 'geographical isolation' from the national mainstream. The region is likely to 'grow from strength to strength' in collaboration with the civil aviation sector soon. 

Legitimised crime : Check gates in city 

While the State Government continues to claim that it has succeeded in curbing all malpractices in four check gates and three parking places in and around the city, extortionists are still illegally collecting money from all commercial vehicles and cars carrying goods passing through the gates. Security personnel area also making extortions regularly from the forces of the gates and parking places.

Currently, tense situation grips the gates and parking places at night, specially after 10 p. m. Local people said that, frequent shoot-out incidents have become a routine in the gates at night. A few cars are generally kept ready near the gates for taking the victims in the shoot-out incidents to doctors in the city. Many boys, who work for the gates, alleged that security forces came at night and took away the collections. On the other hand, people claimed that the boys illegally charged a higher amount of tax than that of rate already fixed by the GMC.

Since 1976, the GMC has been collecting the entry tax from the commercial vehicles under the Guwahati Municipal Corporation Act, 1969. Earlier, it had been raising octroi. Octroi collection process has some certain impediments and hence it decided to collect entry tax as in other states of the country in 1971.

Official sources said that, Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) is collecting about Rs. 25 lakh per week from the check gates and parking places. Last week, the GMC collected Rs. 8.660 lakh from Khanapara check gate, Rs. 7.806 lakh from Saraighat check gate and Rs. 1.613 lakh from Khanamukh check gate, Rs. 0.693 lakh from Narengi check gate, Rs. 3.173 lakh from National Highway No. 37 parking place, Rs. 2.363 lakh from Jalukbari parking place and Rs. 0.680 lakh from Garhpandu parking place. That is, the GMC received Rs. 24.988 lakh week. Thus, Khanapara check gate is collecting the maximum 'entry tax' among the four check gates. The NH 37 parking place is collecting the maximum tax among the three parking places of the city.

Certain quarters alleged that the staff at the gates and parking places collect more amount from the owners of the commercial vehicles than the amount they deposit at the GMC cash branch at Kacharighat every week.

The saddest part of the story is that the security forces, using a particular Maruti Gypsy, visit the gates and parking places in the evening and collect bribes for allowing the boys to raise an illegal amount of tax.

It is important to note that the GMC ran two check gates and two parking places itself from July 21, 2001 to September 23 this year. In those days the security personnel could not collect 'illegal money' in the gates and parking places. So, the security forces hardly extended co-operation with the GMC officials in collecting the tax, sources alleged.

The GMC handed over the gates and parking places to the lessees as per an order of the Guwahati High Court. The lessees are to deposit the tax to the GMC every week. Otherwise explanation notices are served on the lessees.

Sources also confirmed that, though the gates and parking places are practically run by a few SULFA men yet the names of the persons, who had taken the gates or parking places on lease from the GMC, are not those of the former ULFA cadres.

Many young men serve as guards of check gates in contract basis and on meagre pay. Talking to this reporter one of such employees expressed the anger over the facility as well as the so-called salary that they are getting. All the four check gates belong to SULFA leader Sailen Dutta Konwar. His men work in all the check gates of the city. Earlier, he was the lessee of the Khanapara check gate and now he is holding the same as well.

In the Khanamukh Check gate, one of the member informed that lakh of rupees are collected through these check gates. The check gates of the Khanapara and Amingaon collect from rupees fifty thousand to one lakh per day.

"For doing the check gate business, one has to be very powerful not only from the monetary point of view but also to be strong enough as far as the muscle power is concerned," they added. Daily they have to pay each and every police patrol group of the PS that they belong. By this way they have to pay about one thousands of rupees each day. This reporter also saw a police vehicle (AS 01 C/ 9130) waiting for a couple of minutes in front of the check gate, and when, worker of that particular gate handed over a packet then the Gypsy left the place. The employee, later on, confirmed that money was in that packet.

"Every lessee has to deposit one fourth of the amount to the government initially. Only those persons get the check gates who have close relations with the SULFA men, as they play a vital role in the check gates. Even if one may not be a SULFA, he usually keeps a good relation with the SULFA men. It is a business of the big circle. Each and every one, specially Minister, Police, SULFA are closely related with it," they said.

When the reporter offered to be a person in the lucrative business, they advised that he should do the business of the car parking in the city which is a very profitable business as well. Earlier, N Deka, was the lessee of that check gate and now he is holding the same as well.

In the Saraighat Check Gate, lessee Nabin Chandra Talukdar, is the official owner of the check gate. But SULFA leader, Sailen Dutta Konwar, is the man behind the screen. Though they usually take Rs. 100 sometimes they demand Rs. 1,000. Because of their high revenue sometimes dacoity also takes place. Army also comes there to grab money forcibly. Because of this exchange of fire that occurs after 9.30 p. m. bullet injuries also take place. The cars that are ready for it often carries the victims of the Medical College Hospital for treatment. But it is not known where they are carried. The police Gypsy (AS-01 9130) also seen in the area arouses suspicion. The nearest vendors are also the sympathiser of the check gate businessmen. The vendors also alleged that the lessee, Talukdar is a resident of Usha Court. The vendors also alleged that a lots of Usha Court leaders also involved in it. It seems that the lessee is just a rubber stamp. All the important work is carried out by the SULFA leaders, they added. 

 
 
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