Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma (Photo | EPS)
Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma (Photo | EPS)

'Will ensure Muslims take initiative on population control': Assam CM Himanta outlines 10-year vision

Protecting forest cover, boosting infra, solving the perennial problem of the flood, inter-state boundary disputes, controlling population are among Sarma’s scheme of things. Excerpts from an intervie

Q. What is your 10-year vision for Assam?

A: There are many issues. In the social sector, Assam is not in the top bracket of states. My whole effort will be on how we can improve Assam’s rank in areas of infrastructure, SDG index, or indexes like maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate, etc. These are among the primary objectives of the government.

Assam has the typical problem of flood and erosion and we have to work towards achieving a permanent solution. We talk about infrastructure development and the development of the human resources index but unless we solve the problem of flood and erosion, we will not be able to do much.

Assam is the gateway to the Northeast. So, the development of Assam is interlinked with the development of the Northeast. The states in the region have failed to take unified policies on various fronts due to inter-state border disputes and some kind of rivalry in the case of maintaining the borders. It has acted as a stumbling block towards developing a unified policy and putting in a unified effort for the development of the region. So, solving border disputes and bringing uniformity in various policy approaches like tourism infrastructure development, connectivity, etc will be another objective.

Assam has another unique problem. We have been able to manage our annual population growth somewhere around 1.6% but if you go beyond statistics, you will realise that the Muslim population is growing almost at 29%. The last two censuses showed that the growth is 29% whereas the Hindus are growing just at 10%. This means poverty, illiteracy will increase among Muslims. So, we need to bring certain measures whereby the growth of the population can be slowed down. For that, I think we need to expand health and educational initiatives. So, these will be roughly my primary objectives.

Q. Tribal and tea garden communities will be exempted from the two-child population policy. Won’t this defeat the whole purpose?

A:  You must see our policy parameters. First, we said there will be some incentives including free education for girls in universities, financial inclusion for minority women, the establishment of college and university for women in minority areas, reservation in panchayats, government jobs, etc. So, these are policy parameters that will speak about incentives. But if you focus only on incentives, I think every policy is bound to fail. In simple words, if you are punishing a criminal in a particular case, then you have to reward the people who have done good things. In a society, you have to have an approach where both work together.

Q. Do you think the government also has to work on the ground to control the Muslim population?

I am in constant touch with various leaders of Muslim society. In order to eradicate poverty and illiteracy, you need an approach that comes from within the community. If we go from outside and take some steps, they will always be interpreted on political lines. But this is not a political issue. This is simply about the well-being of our mothers, sisters, and the community. I will meet the leaders of various Muslim organisations next month in order to create some kind of initiative or leadership within the community.

Q. Tribals have a small population and exempting them from population policy is understandable. But why exempt the tea garden community?

A: People belonging to the tea garden community are also tribals. If you look at their history, they are not constitutionally declared a tribal community within Assam but they are Adivasis. They are Munda, Ghatowar, Kurmi, Tanti, etc. They are ST or SC in their original homeland but we have not been able to grant ST status to them in Assam due to some constitutional reasons. But when they are referred in the context of India, they are the Adivasis. So, our policy is consistent. We have seen the tribal population is declining in Assam.

Q. What is your vaccination roadmap?

A:  Initially, there was a lot of vaccine hesitancy in Assam. It was primarily because we did not have Covid cases till April 10. There was a mindset among people that they are living in a post-Covid scenario. However, from May onwards, the demand for vaccines has gone up. We tried to match the demand but there was a constraint on the supply side. A few days ago, a member of Niti Aayog and the Union health secretary indicated Assam should be ready to vaccinate 2.6 lakh people every day. They wanted to basically see our performance. So on June 21, 22, and 23, we vaccinated altogether 10.5 lakh people. That shows our strength.

We have created model vaccination counters; our ANMs are working overtime; we have deployed technical people right at the vaccination centres so that digital illiteracy does not come in the way of vaccination. Over and above, we are incentivising our healthcare persons and motivators. I am fortunate that various social organisations and some political parties are taking steps to create awareness on vaccination.

Q. Are you taking up the issue of drug menace at the CM level or inter-state level with states such as Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram since the contraband comes from these states?

A: Whenever we, the leaders of Northeast, meet, we discuss this issue. We say we need to control it. However, I have not initiated any discussions officially primarily because the (Union) Home Minister is coming to Shillong in July. An agenda of the discussions will be coordinated among the states in the Northeast towards reining in the drug menace. Issues like the trafficking of women will also be discussed.

Q. Solving flood and erosion was your poll commitment. Are you making any efforts towards this end?

A:  To solve the problem, you need a lot of money and technology. You also need an institutional structure. We are working towards that. Of course, we will be dependent on the central government largely. I am sure the support will be available.

Q. Your drive against encroachment is being seen targeted at a particular community. Is it so?

A: It looks like that from outside. Who in the country will allow the encroachment of forests? There is an order passed every day by Supreme Court or the High Courts to ensure that the country’s forest cover does not go down. It is a national concern. I am just acting according to the national policy. It is merely accidental that some of the evicted people belonged to the religious minority community. We evicted Hindus as well two days ago in Guwahati. So, we are not targeting any community but unfortunately, encroachment is higher on that (Muslim) side. For me, the encroachers are a class. As the CM, my duty is to protect forests. I don’t have to see which religion they are from. There is unanimity in the political spectrum across the board against the encroachment of the land of sacred places.

Q. What is the status of the National Register of Citizens?

A: The NRC coordinator has filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a relook at the document. It is now entirely up to the court.

Q. Do you think statehood to Kashmir will happen soon?

A: I am not following the Kashmir-related issues closely but I am happy that the Prime Minister has initiated a political process. At the same time, I am also very happy that the Kashmiri leadership is talking to Delhi without putting the restoration of Article 370 as a pre-condition. We must give credit to the Prime Minister and the Home Minister.

Q. Is there any headway in the move to grant ST status to six communities in Assam?

A: This is a difficult issue. It is difficult to address certain things. The moment we will give ST status to the tea garden community, our local tribals will start opposing. I don’t want a clash between communities. We have to address the issue tactfully.

Q. The ULFA declared a three-month ceasefire following your appeal. Is a peace process with the insurgent group possible?

A: (ULFA military chief) Paresh Baruah wants discussions on Assam’s sovereignty and I have taken an oath to protect the sovereignty of the country. Nonetheless, there are people I know who have been in touch with the group for discussing substantial issues without insisting on sovereignty.

The New Indian Express