NE Dispatch: Pests Create Havoc in Assam's Cropland; Shah Blows Poll Bugle in Manipur

A round-up of what’s happening in India’s Northeast.

Meghalaya: BJP ally moves no confidence motion against Congress government

Two days before the Congress lost Arunachal Pradesh to the People’s Party of Arunachal – an ally of its archrival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the party’s government was to face a no-confidence motion in yet another northeastern state – Meghalaya.

The motion, slated by Speaker Abu Taher Mondal for September 15, was moved on September 12 by another ally of BJP’s North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) – the National Peoples’ Party (NPP) – jointly with Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) and United Democratic Party. Yet another no confidence motion against the speaker was slated for September 16.

Not that a united opposition could have won the motion against the Mukul Sangma government, which has the support of 30 of his party MLAs besides the 11 independent and two Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) legislators in the 60-member state assembly.

On September 15, after a six-hour long heated debate in the assembly – of which two hours were taken by Sangma to address the house – the opposition withdrew the motion.

The Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim commented in an article published the same day, “Before bringing a ‘No Confidence Motion’, the combined opposition should have shared with the public who they have in mind as the alternative leader and what is the plan of action of that new dispensation. But what we see is an opposition going to battle without the ammunition required to take the battle to its logical end.” She termed both the motions as a “waste of time”. A combined opposition has only 13 legislators in the house.

Later, speaking to the media, the HSPDP chief Ardent M. Basaiawmoit said, the party’s intention was not to oust the government, but to draw its attention through the motion to debate on some “burning issues” concerning people. He said that the opposition “succeeded in its plan”. The issues raised by the opposition parties in the discussion were regarding the rising rate of crime against women and children.

Sangma has lately been facing open opposition not just from the rival parties, but also from within Congress. It became more prominent after he fielded his wife Dikkanchi D. Shira as the party candidate in the Tura parliamentary by-election in August. The election, warranted by the demise of the sitting MP Purno A. Sangma, was won by his son and NPP candidate Conrad Sangma. Former chief ministers D.D. Lapang and Salseng C. Marak allegedly teamed together to lead a reported “rebellion” against Sangma’s “dictatorial style of functioning”. Four-time chief minister Lapang, also the state Congress president, was replaced by Sangma mid-term in 2010.

On September 15, Lapang, now the chief adviser to the government, spoke against the motion, but also said, “They [the opposition] have raised valid suggestions and I appeal to the state government to take note on the matter.”

If chief minister Mukul Sangma loses his chair before the state goes to polls 15 months later, it won’t be anything new in Meghalaya, which has so far seen only one chief minister complete his full term since it gained statehood in 1972. S. C. Marak, who took over as the state CM in 1993, completed his term in 1998.

Assam: Pests damage thousands of hectares of cropland, farmers demand compensation from the state

The farmers of Assam – in as many as ten flood affected districts – are facing a protracted spell of disaster. After the flood water receded from their farmlands a few weeks ago, now they have been met with yet another challenge – swarms of harmful armyworms (spodoptera frugiperda), locally called sur puk, have descended on their croplands and are causing devastating effects.

The attack of armyworms, whose name is based on its apparent behaviour of migrating as an army to a new field after devouring available food sources in one, have come at a time when the state’s farmers have just begun readying their fields for winter paddy after last month’s floods.

Representative image of farming in Assam. Credit: PTI

Representative image of farming in Assam. Credit: PTI

According to state agriculture minister Atul Bora, the recent floods affected 2,17,414 hectares of the state’s cropland.

Local media reports said the large-scale emergence of the pests, also called swarming caterpillars, had forced the state government to send out agricultural scientists to various areas to rapidly contain the situation. Although the rampant appearance of pests is connected to the floods, the last such major attack was recorded by the state way back in 1967.

Bora told the media on September 19, “The armyworms are fast spreading. We are worried. So far they have affected 17,480 hectares of cropland across ten districts. Hopefully, they will bring the situation under control soon. The medicines are available in the market and the government will supply them to the farmers.”

According to a press note released on September 20, the state’s chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has directed all the deputy commissioners “to personally inspect the farming lands” in order to assess the damage caused by the pests and “take necessary action.”

With 6,671 hectares of cropland under attack, Golaghat district is said to be the worst hit. The other districts are Majuli, Sivasagar, Dibrugarh, Barpeta, Jorhat, North Lakhimpur, Nalbari, Kokrajhar and Dhubri.

Demanding compensation from the government for the loss of crops, hundreds of affected farmers have hit the streets in the last few days, particularly in the agriculture minister’s constituency of Bokakhat, which falls under Golaghat district.

“Farmers of around 60 revenue villages of Bokakhat assembly constituency have been affected by the pests. Not just the standing crops have been eaten, but the grasslands are gone too. Since these grasslands were being used by their cattle, many cows have died in the last few days due to lack of adequate cattle feed,” Pranab Doley of Jipal Krishak and Shramik Sangha, which is spearheading the agitation in Bokakhat, told The Wire.

Doley, who was arrested last week for two days “for demanding adequate compensation for the farmers”, said, “While the state is mulling over giving compensation to the farmers as per the archaic state disaster relief fund (SDRF) rules, we have been demanding more than that. While as per SDRF, a farmer gets a compensation of Rs 6,600 for one hectare of cropland loss [which is 7.5 bigha], we are demanding it as per the market rate which is Rs 9,600 per bigha.”

At the time of writing the report no decision had been taken on the issue by the state government.

Manipur: Amit Shah blows the poll bugle in the state

The news may have failed to make national headlines, but on September 14 and 15, the Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah was throughout Imphal – in posters, on the front pages of the local newspapers, in local TV news and then in person on stage at Hafta Kangjeibung, reportedly addressing 30,000 booth level workers of the party.

Shah, accompanied by general secretary Ram Madhav, human resource development minister Prakash Javdekar – who is also the national in-charge of Manipur – and NEDA convener Himanta Biswa Sarma, was in the state for a two-day visit to finalise the party’s strategy for the state assembly elections in early 2017. After winning Assam, the party has set its eyes on Manipur where the ruling Congress government is facing strong anti-incumbency after a 15-year rule.

Addressing those present at the party’s rally on September 14, Shah directed his ire at the Okram Ibobi Singh government “for lack of development” in the state. “The non-performing and corrupt Congress government has to go. From the huge gathering here I am confident there will be a BJP government in the state,” he said.

Amit Shah addresses rally in Imphal on September 14. Credit: PTI

Amit Shah addresses rally in Imphal on September 14. Credit: PTI

Shah said, “The CAG [Comptroller and Auditor General] has established that the Manipur government cannot produce utilisation certificate for Rs 5,000 crore. As and when people start asking questions about this looted amount, the Congress shall not be able to face even the elections.”

According to a senior state BJP functionary, the fact that two days before Shah’s arrival former minister of the Ibobi government and a senior Congress leader Yumkham Irabot joined the BJP, was being looked at by the party as “a good sign”.

In March of this year, the Ibobi Singh government faced a crisis of sorts when 25 Congress MLAs demanded a cabinet reshuffle and change of leadership. Party president Sonia Gandhi reportedly intervened and announced change of leadership in the state unit. Gaikhangam Gangmei – who is also the state’s deputy chief minister – was replaced by T. N. Haokip.

In the 60-member Manipur assembly, the Congress presently has 42 MLAs, while the BJP has only two – Thongam Biswajit Singh and Khumukcham Joykishan, both of whom won the seats during a bye-election in November 2015.

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