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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.



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