Thursday, December 9, 2010

DAY 69 – Katihar to Patna

The minute I hit NH31 from Katihar I knew I had made the wrong choice – the road was in bad condition for almost the first 100 kms and, being a two lane, was heavily congested and wove its way through villages and mandis. A matter of satisfaction is that I travelled from one end of NH31 to the other end. The alternative was to take the four lane highway from Purnia – it meant a slightly longer diversion, but would have saved on time enormously. Travelling on NH31 and 30, I reached Patna at 3.15 pm after a 6.45 am start – the distance was about 325 kms.
Whoever I talked to had only praise, and more praise, for the present CM of Bihar, Shri Niteesh Kumar. The transformation of Bihar under his stewardship over the past 5 years is a stuff of legends. As one of my friends put it, “Half the thugs who terrorized the State have vanished into another life and the other half is languishing in jails”. The city of Patna, which used to be deserted after sunset during the previous regime si now a beehive of activity late into the night. He has taken up education, power supply and the elimination of corruption as his focus areas now. He recently made a statement that all the assets of public officials will be audited and houses acquired with ill gotten wealth will be taken over by the government for opening schools in them. I only have to ask the CM to get his Secretary Roads/Transport to camp in Katihar and get the NH31 repaired asap. The number of accidents due to the bad condition of the roads is a sad sight. The villagers lose on account of the recurring cost to their tractors and other transport vehicles. Bihar has the potential to become the powerhouse of another agrarian revolution, if the State provides the necessary support for logistics, warehousing and storage, modern methods of cultivation, irrigation and processing/value addition centres. Another area the State can concentrate is on Poultry and Diary. The people of Bihar have it in them and the present leadership is enabling them to move in the right direction.
To continue with my observations on the North East, I have listed a few more below.
13. The employees who belong to tribes of the North East who work in the tribal States (Assam is not one) of the NE are exempt from the payment of Income Tax as per the Act. Those who are detailed to work in the NE are paid an extra salary of 25%.
14. Every State has a host of Festivals and many reasons for festivities. Any reason to feast is welcome in most societies.
15. Over the years, communication, education and joint hosting of festivals and festivities have broken down rigid barriers of the tribes and facilitated inter-mingling among them to leverage better synergies. However, tribal societies are complex by their very nature, and to that extent inter tribal relationships retain certain rigidities.
16. City transport and inter-city transport is almost entirely dependent on private enterprise. This may have been adopted as an employment generation strategy by the powers that be.
17. The industrial house with the most visible contribution in the NE is Tata. The vehicles they produce, namely Sumos, Wingers and ACE Magic, support the local and long distance transportation. In fact, many roads in the NE seem to be maintained for the Sumo! Tata Indicom provides the most reliable communication network in the NE, according to the locals (BSNL may have a genuine grouse about this). Tata Sky brings the world closer to the people of the NE. Tata has a major stake in the Tea plantations of the NE.
18. Land ownership details are either absent or not in order. This could be on account of the tribal customs, where the entire land belonged to the Chief and the inhabitants occupied land as it pleased the Chief. In a modern society such a loose definition of ownership will lead to tensions and strains amongst the locals and settlers. Even today in many States, if you find a piece of land that is not disputed by anyone else you can put up your dwelling there. You do not have to establish your rights through a system of buying and registering the property.
19. Simple, day to day items of life support are a struggle to get – good hospitals and medical care, standard higher education, supply of gas and fuel. I met a couple of people with special children who needed different type of education and skill training. Institutions with a scientific approach to this are not available in the NE. Basic infrastructure in villages has to be upgraded so that growth and development are inclusive.
20. The North East is getting more and more polluted with heavy vehicles plying on its roads to transport the requirements of the NE. Not only are the roads getting congested they are being ‘butchered’ by the movement of these behemoths. Moreover, the vehicles pollute the air with their toxic emissions. When the heavy vehicles ply over the damaged roads it kicks up dust and entire villages remain ‘under a cloud’; the villages do not even have clean air to breathe.
21. The problem of illegal immigrants straining societal relationships and equations is not uncommon. Demographic changes in certain regions, over the years, tell a story. To shut one’s eye to this problem is another matter altogether. A recent statement by a political worthy that there are no ‘Bangladeshis’ in Assam is an unfortunate resonance of such an attitude.
22. The Armed Forces are seen almost everywhere. While giving a sense of security and comfort, it also gives the feeling that all is not in favor of safe travel within the region. This is not to say that their deployment is unnecessary, but in many ways, also point to a fractured society with deep fissures and the lack of governance. Local aspirations of disgruntled elements in society have added to the need for positioning the Armed Forces.

Now, what should be done?
1.       The primary emphasis has to be on governance and provision of infrastructure. Some States of the NE are themselves good examples of this, such as Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The absence of governance and the overwhelming stink of corruption have to be tackled with an iron hand. The involvement of the locals is a sine qua non in progressing to this stage. Civil and criminal law have to be enforced. The State has to facilitate the setting up of schools, colleges, technical institutes of excellence. Health care is another area that requires attention; private enterprise has to be leveraged. Generation and supply of power and fuel has to be specially addressed. The road infrastructure has to be strengthened.
2.       The State has to promote entrepreneurship in agriculture, tourism and travel. Most of the region is fertile and virgin. Organized and scientific methods of farming will make the NE self sufficient and even produce surpluses. Storage and trading platforms have to be organized by the State. There is terrific potential for tourism in the NE; it has not been leveraged even a fraction. With better governance, law and order and infrastructure the travel and tourism sector alone will support a large population of the NE. The entrepreneurship in these sectors and jobs generated must be reserved for the peoples of the region.
3.       The governments must explore revenue sources and generate them. Today it is totally dependent on Central Funds. Mercifully the Indian economy is buoyant and hence funding by the Centre is not too much of an issue. This is when the States have to look to supplement the Central Funds and deploy them for development of basic infrastructure in the villages. In the present situation the citizen also expects everything to be done for them by the State, without any sweat.
4.       Alternate transportation means have to be explored. More eco friendly and cost effective transportation is the need of the hour. The NE hills cry for these. Railways have a huge role to play in this with the support of the States. Opinions were voiced that development of the Railways will lead to influx of outsiders. A more fallacious argument to foster vested interests cannot be found. Migration of peoples is as old as civilization – opportunities, both economic and social, prompt resettlements. What prevents outsiders from traveling by road today? Moreover, when certain skill sets are not available locally, it is only natural that they get ‘imported’. It is common to find capable youngsters from the NE moving out to the metros for education. Therefore, people of the NE should be enabled to migrate to other parts of India with their skill sets.

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