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Interview: Sarbananda Sonowal on Citizenship, Corruption and Beef Politics in Assam

A conversation with the Assam chief minister, who completes one year in office

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal in New Delhi. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

New Delhi: On May 23, 2017, the Sarbananda Sonowal government in Assam – the first BJP government in the Northeast – will complete one year in power.

Although several controversies have surfaced in the state over the past year, the Sonowal government has also been seen as making attempts to provide a corruption-free administration.

In an interview with The Wire, Sonowal looks back at the challenges and achievements during the first year of his government.

Excerpts:

From Union sports minister to chief minister of Assam. How has your life changed in the last one year? What is your daily work schedule like now?

In terms of work hours and also vision, a lot has changed in the last one year. The mandate that people gave me and my party last May was overwhelming. Since our election slogan was poriborton (change), I should not forget that people gave that huge mandate because they really expect poriborton from my government. I always remind myself that I am here as the representative of the people; I am here to take everyone along with me. It is the people whom I am answerable to; I have to go back to them. I also strongly feel that if the people of Assam are with me, nobody can do any harm to me. I draw strength from their support and I strive to work towards it.

In terms of work hours too, a lot has changed in the last one year. On normal days, I begin my day at 9 in the morning; it goes on till about 11.30 in the night. However, some days, I have to work till one or two in the morning. I am not blaming anyone but the way of functioning of the entire administrative machinery in Assam needed to be overhauled, needed energising, which demanded that I too get very intently involved in everything to set a different work ethic in the state.

Looking back at the past year, what would you consider your biggest challenge?

No doubt, it has to be corruption, not just at the top level but down to the bottom. Its in the entire system. So many new cases [of alleged corruption, such as the cash-for-job scam in Assam Public Service Commission, Rs 2,250 crore scam in the state social welfare department, Rs 700 crore Assam Agricultural department scam] have been unearthed. We are taking action. It will give the people confidence in the system. Because of a corrupt system, the common people in Assam lost confidence in governance; I want to give governance back to them. That is why I have also recently set up a digital platform for the public (www.Assam.MyGov.in) to offer their views on various plans and projects that our government takes up. I need to hear those voices to be able to give them good governance. I work on the motto that our prime minister, Narendra Modi, has set – less of government, more of governance.

What about the old cases of corruption and the high profile ones like the Louis Berger case? Twice, the state CID failed to give the Gauhati high court the report it sought after holding a video conference with the US authorities. Why the delay?

We will see to it too.

Any other challenge to your government?

There are challenges because of the diversities of the state. Not many may know it but in Assam, say in districts like Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong, there are certain tribes who are too few in number to have a political representative in the assembly, but they have aspirations. I have started a programme under the state revenue ministry called ‘Discover Assam’ to look into such issues. My challenge is how to incorporate their voices too in governance.

Some other challenges are thrown by the topography of the state itself. Say there are a few villages in some hill districts where electrification has not happened all these years because it is physically difficult to take up the power lines. We are now pushing ourselves to think of newer ways of tackling such issues. Many such challenges are there.

Sonowal with skill developoment minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy in New Delhi. Credit: Twitter

So far, what would you count as the achievements of your government?

I think we have been able to tackle corruption to an extent. That the government in the 2016-17 financial year could increase the tax revenue by 20.5% to Rs 12,800 crores from the 2015-16 collection of Rs 10,106.05 crores proves my point. We succeeded in tightening some of the loopholes, used the vigilance department well. It means that this extra Rs 2,700 rupees were going to people’s pockets.

In the last one year, the non-tax revenue collected also increased from Rs 27.41 crores to Rs 3,500 crores. My government has spent Rs 1,502 crores under MNREGA in the last one year, against Rs 620.90 crores spent by the previous regime in 2015-16.

Many industrial units set up with an investment of around Rs 5,000 crores have started production before the deadline of March 31, 2017. These investments came through the North East Industrial Investment Promotion Policy, set up in 2007. This policy was meant to get over in 2017. However, in my recent meeting with Niti Aayog CEO Amod Kant, I sought to continue using that policy as it got us good investment, till a new policy is put in place.

Also, under the Swachh Bharat Mission, my government had a target of constructing 8.5 lakh household toilets but we ended up building 10.47 lakh. Post demonetisation, we succeeded in opening bank accounts of eight lakh tea garden workers. Today, as many as 46 government services have been made online.

In the first year, we could pass only an interim budget, which meant we couldn’t get a full one year but only nine months to show results. I feel particularly good about it.

Quite a few cadres of militant outfits under suspension of operation (SOO) with the government of India, such as the pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and two factions of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), have been staying in camps across the state for years. There is a sense of anger and frustration among them for lack of a solution by the government. Have you thought of bringing them to the mainstream? They have been demanding a hike in their monthly stipend too, some don’t even get it regularly.

Yes, I spoke to Union home minister Rajnath Singh in March to raise their monthly stipend [As per the SOO agreement, each cadre is supposed to receive a monthly stipend of Rs 3,000]. However, we are now thinking of a permanent solution. We will involve them in the central government’s skill development programme. This can be a model for the rest of the northeastern states [There are many such designated camps in states like Manipur and Nagaland].

On April 24, I had a discussion with the Union minister of state for skill development and entrepreneurship, Rajiv Patap Rudy, in New Delhi on how to train our youth, including the cadres in the camps, to make them employable. We are setting up a skill development department in Assam through which we plan to skill about 1.5 lakh youth every year.

Everyone wants to lead a life of dignity; the cadres too want it. That is why we are now working towards equipping them for a dignified means of livelihood. In fact, we have already begun to work with the first batch (of cadres) on skill development since last month. This will now be formalised under the new skill development department of the state.

Assamese youth protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2016. Credit: PTI/Files

The Assam government’s latest deadline to ready an updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) is December 2017. Right now, those who have been declared foreigners by the Assam Foreigners’ Tribunals (set up on a Supreme Court order) have been kept in detention camps in different parts of the state. What solution has the government thought for such people, particularly after the NRC update? Some are even talking of issuing work permits to such people. The Modi government has one of the friendliest relations with the present regime in Bangladesh. Is work permit a viable solution? What do you think?

See, there are already solutions in our laws for those who are declared foreigners. I look at the exercise of NRC update as an example that Assam will set for others. No other state has got this opportunity. But it is as much an opportunity for us to respect the aspirations of the indigenous people of the state as it is a test for us to go only by the law. We have to be very careful because this opportunity may not come again. We also have to remember that it is a human issue, after all.

Work permit is being talked about as a possible solution by some. There are other possibilities too; we have a very friendly country in Bangladesh now. As the Assam chief minister, I certainly want friendly relations with the neighbouring country.

There has been a lot of opposition against the central government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 in Assam. What is the solution?

Organisations like the All Assam Students Union (AASU) have expressed their reservations on the issue but it is also not an issue about Assam alone. It is a national issue too. If they have entered India because of religious persecution, we have to welcome them. Being Hindus, where else will they come if not to India? But we have also said that it is a burden the entire country will have to share.

[A delegation of AASU demanding a time-bound solution to the Assam Accord is likely to meet the union home minister on April 26.]

What progress has been done on the Assam-Bangladesh border fencing exercise?

The work is going on in war footing. The prime minister is committed to complete the fencing work. This was one of the first things his government began in the Northeast. About 44 kms of the border with Assam is riverine, which has pushed the central government to think of innovative ways of fencing it since you can’t have fencing over a river. The government is also thinking of, perhaps, building a concrete platform over that portion and place security posts on them.

The BJP promised scheduled tribe status to six communities in Assam before the assembly elections. When will the party deliver that promise?

We are absolutely committed to it. On April 24, the representatives of these communities met Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju in New Delhi. Assam parliamentary affairs minister Chandramohan Patowary represented the state government. I met the delegation on April 25 and reasserted my party’s promise to them. A committee has been formed by the central government to look into the matter, which will submit its report in June this year. Since some communities in other states have also been demanding ST status, it is a sensitive issue, needs careful handling, may take some time, but we are committed to it.

Assam is considered the gateway to the Northeast. Many in the seven sister states look at Assam as the eldest sister. As chief minister of Assam, what is your vision for the Northeast?

Many have typically looked at the Northeast only as a disturbed area. Time is now to change that perception. I feel a lot depends on the perception itself. As a chief minister of a northeastern state, I have to try and change that perception. So in our first budget, we set aside funds to construct a global business centre in the heart of Guwahati. It will be a twin building where we will provide space to both national and global business leaders to come and engage with the region. Many big corporate houses don’t even know the potential of the region. In January next year, we are hosting a global business summit in Guwahati. My vision is to make the city the country’s new growth engine. Automatically, that will have ripple effect in other states too.

With the central government keen on the Act East Policy, the required infrastructure – air, railway and road – will be put in place to connect with the rest of South East Asia. Some such work is already in progress. I, therefore, see a prosperous future for the region. However, we need to have enough skilled manpower to fruitfully engage with it, about which we are making a beginning by looking at it through the centre’s skill development mission.

Sonowal with represenatives of six communities demanding ST status in New Delhi. Credit: Twitter

The Assam and the central governments recently entered into an agreement with the Dredging Corporation of India to dredge the Brahmaputra to control the annual floods. The silt dug up from the river is reportedly going to be used to construct an expressway. You also recently sought Chinese help to control the river. Will there be Chinese involvement in it too?

We have already started the process of sending a team to China to interact with the experts who worked on turning River Hwang Ho from China’s sorrow to its asset. We want to use that expertise to control the Brahmaputra.

The recent agreement with the Dredging Corporation of India will help us increase the depth of the river so that in the monsoons it can hold more water and make navigation on it possible. Once it is done, it will link Sadiya in Assam to the Chittagong port in Bangladesh and the Haldia port in West Bengal. Once you reach Bay of Bengal, the world is open to you through the waters. It will boost trade with the South Asian countries.

The silt from dredging will be used to construct an express highway from Saidya in east Assam to Dhubri in west Assam. Besides connectivity, it will also help control river erosion.

Your government recently held the Namami Brahmaputra festival to celebrate the river, which attracted some controversy too.

The idea behind the festival was to change the common perspective on the river. Brahmaputra is being looked only as a river that causes annual floods and massive devastation to people. But it is also a river connected to our culture; a river which provides us sand and silt, and water, a precious commodity, besides being a means of communication. With the dredging project and with the recent festival, we are trying to only highlight those aspects of the river.

Recently, three people, including a minor, were taken into custody by the police in Jorhat town on a complaint that they hurt their religious sentiments by cooking beef. The Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 1950, doesn’t criminalise possession or consumption of beef. What do you have to say about the incident?

My government will go only by the law. The prime minister has time and again spoken about Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas. He said diversity is our strength. I believe in it. Gurujana Srimanta Sankardeva, the great Vaishnava leader of Assam, also spoke of it in the 16th century. He said multiple strings are difficult to tear than just one string.

We have a concept of Bor Axom (greater Assam) of people from many tribes, non tribes, religious identities living together as Assamese. People from different areas came and made Assam their home. Bhupen Hazarika and Hemanga Biswas also spoke about the concept. Those who call Assam home, his or her karmabhumi, is an Assamese.

Through my governance, I want to give equal opportunity and justice to people coming from different castes, colour or religious beliefs. I want to take everyone along, both from the Brahmaputra and Barak valley of the state. Prime Minister Modi always talk about taking 125 crore people of the country along. I will have to think about everyone, and law is what I will go by.