ON THE EDGE
LAST Sunday was a different day for Barak Valley in Assam.
Barak Upatyaka Banga Sahitya O Sanskriti Sammelan, an apolitical platform furthering the cause of Bengali language, literature, and culture in south Assam, organised an interactive session for politicians cutting across party lines.
The agenda for discussion was the grim future haunting the Bengalis of Assam in the run-up to the ongoing update of the National Register of Citizens.
It was a round-table initiative involving the civil society actors and the political class of Barak Valley where an attempt was made to explore the possibility of coming up with a united front to negotiate with both the Centre and the Assam government on the contentious issue of denial of citizenship to a large number of Bengali speaking people in Assam.
While the meeting ended inconclusive in its stated purpose, frequent references were made to the 1961 Bengali Language Movement in Assam. That was a time when the Congress politicians from the erstwhile undivided Cachar district had the might and mettle to oppose the official stand of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee vis-à-vis the controversial Assam Official Language Act, 1960.
Such an off-beat and critically important endeavour notwithstanding, many pertinent questions remained unanswered at the Sunday round-table. Yet with the political leaders across all hues being candid in revisiting and recalling the past, many unsavory truths began to crop up.
And these brought to fore, how the politicians and public representatives from Barak Valley had always failed to bargain the Bengali interests with their bosses in Delhi and Dispur.
One would feel tempted to recall eminent historian, late Sujit Choudhury, who used to maintain that the politics of Barak Valley had always been designed and dictated from outside with the local interests never getting the attention it deserved.
This perception of deprivation, even when taken off the emotive plane and put to a scientific scrutiny, we come across ample evidence to corroborate the hypothesis of deprivation. And this, probably only this, can alone explain the pathetic development deficit Barak Valley has endured since Independence.
ARAK Valley is backward going by all socio-economic parameters. In the Human Development Report 2003 of Assam, the most recent for the state, all the three districts of Barak Valley have recorded human development index scores below the state average.
Using the United Nations Development Programme methodology, the Report found Cachar placed at the eighth slot, Hailakandi getting 11th and in case of Karimganj, it was the worst possible ~ 19th in the 23 districts state. If one goes into the details of the deprivation, more startling revelations will emerge.
While in Assam as a whole, a little over 45 per cent of the households have access to safe drinking water; the average for Barak Valley is below 20. All the three districts here line up at the tail to collect a jarful of drinking water.
The employment scenario too is horrible. The percentage of marginal workers is a shade over nine in Assam and below nine for the country as a whole. But the Valley average is well above 22: Karimganj, Hailakandi and Cachar districts are placed at the bottom three rungs in Assam.
These figures speak eloquently about the messy shape of the labour market, which has failed to provide decent jobs to the people of Barak Valley. No wonder then that the workforce participation rate is lowest for these districts.
Browsing through the pages of the Statistical Handbook of Assam, 2014, also gives us similar impression about the yawning development gap between Barak Valley and the rest of Assam.
With the exception of education, the three districts here are poorly placed across all critical variables such as agriculture, industry, transport, communications and power.
We can pick some statistics just as a test case.
Road length per 100,000 of population and per 100 square kilometers of geographical area is a set of standard measures of comparison to assess connectivity.
Official documents reveal, these figures stand at 145.98 km and 58.01 km, respectively, for the state of Assam as a whole. As against this, the corresponding average figures for the three districts of Barak Valley hover around 70 km and 50 km, respectively.
Oodles of such examples can be rolled out. Nevertheless, we would arrive at the same inescapable conclusion: for the powers that be at Dispur and Delhi, deprive and rule are the key words when it comes to dealing with Barak Valley.
(Joydeep Biswas is an associate professor of economics at Cachar College, Silchar, Assam.)
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