‘ALL ‘INDIANS’ WILL BE SAFEGUARDED’
The Assam chief minister on the NRC and challenges ahead as he enters the second half of his term
This November, SARBANANDA SONOWAL, chief minister of the first-ever BJP government in Assam, completes two-and-a-half years in office. Hailed in his home state as a ‘jatiya mahanayak’ (people’s hero), who almost single-handedly won the battle to have the Illegal Migrants Act, 1983, repealed by the Supreme Court, Sonowal heads the state at a time when the citizenship question in Assam has become a polarising national issue. The state’s two valleys—Brahmaputra and Barak—are sharply divided over the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016. In an exclusive interview with india today Group Editorial Director RAJ CHENGAPPA and Senior Associate Editor KAUSHIK DEKA, the 57-year-old debutant chief minister talks candidly about his accomplishments, challenges and future plans
Q. What do you consider your big achievements as the government reaches its mid-term?
A. We are blessed with natural and human resources. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who says NE means new engines of growth, discovered the true potential of this region. Such a narrative gives us a lot of energy to work for the development of the people. The difference is visible. Earlier, the people of Assam had to struggle and resort to agitation for one single bridge on the Brahmaputra. Now, the PM has sanctioned five new bridges with a total cost of close to Rs 50,000 crore. Under the Prime Minister Gram Sadak Yojna, 7,000 km of road has been sanctioned in one year alone. The length of national highways has gone up from 1,200 km to 3,000 km. We are developing waterways on the Brahmaputra to connect Assam with Chittagong in Bangladesh. The Rs 7,000 crore gas pipeline from Barauni in Bihar to multiple destinations here is going to help us develop industries such as fertilizer and tea. We have also launched a universal pension scheme for individuals above the age of 60.
Q. What has been the main thrust of your administration? A. We have set up an agenda to make the state free from corruption, terrorism, illegal immigrants and pollution. Our first big drive against corruption was cleaning up the Assam Public Service Commission (APSC), which was infamous for the cash-for-job scam. Our actions resulted in sending the chairman, two APSC members and 64 officials, who were illegally appointed, behind bars.
Q. How has pollution affected Assam and how is your government dealing with it?
A. Pollution has affected two main resources of Assam—forests and rivers. Massive felling of trees have resulted in the loss of forest cover, landslides, siltation of the Brahmaputra, erosion of riverbanks and floods. We have started a programme with a goal of planting 100 million trees every year.
Q. In September this year, Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists were arrested from the state.
A. To combat terrorism, in every police station, we have a citizen committee that meets at least once in a month to discuss the law and order situation in the area. This community participation has helped the police keep a strict vigil on terror activities and curb them. There is some information about the movement of jihadis in the state. Assam is a border state, so apart from building infrastructure to protect our borders, we are also sensitising and motivating the people living in border areas to remain alert. This creates a sense of responsibility among them, and helps us in our fight against terror elements.
Q. The process of identifying illegal immigrants through the National Register of Citizenship has been mired in controversy. What is your stand on the issue?
A. When it comes to making Assam free from illegal immigrants, our goal is to provide assistance in the process of creating an error-free National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is being prepared under the supervision of the Supreme Court. We will ensure that not a single bona fide Indian citizen gets excluded from the NRC and not a single illegal immigrant finds his or her name in the NRC.
Q. What will happen to the people left out of the NRC? A. That is to be decided by the central government.
Q. Massive protests are happening, particularly in the Brahmaputra Valley against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016. People are demanding that you take a stand against the central leadership of the BJP, which is pushing the bill aimed at giving citizenship to illegal Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh.
A. A joint parliamentary committee (JPC) has been examining the bill; let it submit its report.
Q. What’s your stand on this bill?
A. It’s not a question of an individual stand. Let the JPC submit its report.
Q. BJP leader Ram Madhav has highlighted Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which talks of providing constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people. What’s your stand on this?
A. Our main task is to protect the interest of bona fide Indian citizens living in Assam for centuries. We will have to ensure that their culture, tradition, literature, language and identity are safeguarded.
Q. Many see the NRC exercise as a communal drive against Muslims. A. India is a secular country and the same guides the NRC process. There has been no communal violence in the state in the past two and half years. It’s because people have faith in this government, which is working for everyone, irrespective of community or religion. We have only 70,000 personnel in our police force. They alone cannot maintain law and order. It’s the active participation of people that strengthens democracy and this is what is happening in Assam.
Q. Like the rest of the country, unemployment is a big issue in Assam. What are you doing to generate jobs? A. We have appointed 55,000 people in government services through a transparent recruitment system that is based only on merit.
Q. What about jobs in the private sector? A. During the Advantage Assam summit earlier this year, more than 200 MoUs were signed, promising investment of Rs 79,000 crore in the state. Within five months, there was an investment of Rs 8,000 crore in the fields of medicine and telecom. Today, medicines manufactured in Assam are being sold in the US. Sun Pharma has invested Rs 750 crore in the state recently to set up one of the biggest pharma plants in Asia. It has generated direct employment for 1,000 people and indirect employment for another 3,000. In the past two and half years, more than one lakh youth have been absorbed in private sector firms.
Q. What about agriculture? What are you doing to double farmers’ income, as promised by the prime minister? A. We have started providing one tractor to each of the 26,000 villages. (It would be a community property.) Depending on the potential and resources of the village, we will induct every village under different schemes of the Mukhya Mantrir Samagra Gram Unnayan Yojna. Our goal is to double the farm income by enhancing production, procurement and marketing. We have recently exported vegetables, banana and pineapple to other countries. We have been importing fish from other states. Under the Ghare Ghare Pukhuri, Ghare Ghare Maach (a pond in every house, fish in every house) scheme, we plan to not only be self sufficient in fish production but also to capture the market in the neighbouring northeastern states.
Q. How are you ensuring that your vision gets executed on the ground? For instance, how do you ensure that the tractors you have promised reach the actual beneficiary?
A. It’s a question of accountability. I have to motivate the beneficiary to make maximum utilisation of the tractor. I have instructed agriculture officials to train people to use the tractor towards enhancing farm production. If someone doesn’t make proper use of the tractor, others in the village must hold that person accountable. However, it’s easier said than done. We have requested all village headmen to keep a vigil on the use of these tractors.
Q. What’s the big lesson that you have learnt in the past two and half years?
A. There are challenges every day, but these can be overcome if we work hard with honesty and transparency.
“INDIA IS A SECULAR COUNTRY AND THE SAME GUIDES THE NRC PROCESS... PEOPLE HAVE FAITH IN THIS GOVERNMENT, WHICH IS WORKING FOR EVERYONE, IRRESPECTIVE OF RELIGION”