Weakened federal structure will weaken India - Tarun Gogoi
At 81, Assam’s longest serving chief minister Tarun Gogoi is still going strong and is looking at another term. In an exclusive video interview with nezine.com Gogoi sounds caution against weakening India’s federal structure. “The country will become weak if the federal structure is weakened,” cautions Gogoi, while sharing his experience of leading the state for three consecutive terms in nearly 45-minute long video interview with Sushanta Talukdar.
( Click the following video link to watch the full interview )
Q: For the last fifteen years the prime slogan of the ruling Congress party in the state has been “peace and progress”. Having been in power for three consecutive terms how would you review it as a goal? What were the major challenges during this period? How do you think you have succeeded in overcoming them?
Tarun Gogoi: When we came to power, the state was already steeped in innumerable problems. There was insurgency, insecurity of life and property, insolvency and recession ruled over the state’s economy so much so that we had no money to pay salaries, let alone road construction, education, health and development. We even failed to pay something as minimum salary. Such pathetic condition of the economy was never before experienced in the history of the state. It would not have been unusual to see it prevail for a month, or say fifteen or twenty days, it’s quite usual. But then months after months the same scenario existed. For people to turn frustrated and disillusioned in such a condition would be quite normal. As the matter was of lacs of families concerned, it was a massive challenge. We had to tackle insurgency problems at large, not to mention the natural disaster and infiltration.
We came to power in such a time. And as we said then we would work for development and peace once we come to power, we did not say that peace must come first. Sans development there will be no peace and for peace to come we cannot afford to lag behind. The previous government had the slogan - sans peace no development.
So we prepared our strategy. We had to face troubles which were inevitable. We needed to boost up the morale of the police force. If we do not pay them salary, who would work for us? The police must work with utmost dedication, for that they had to be reassured. That was the time we gave reassurance to the public. Initially it was a big trouble for us, which was again inevitable. We could not solve everything in a day; we could not bring peace in a day.
That is how we had to face enormous challenges. I cannot think of any Chief Minister in Assam or any Chief Minister in India, for that matter, who had to take on so many hindrances at just one time. While fighting insurgency and economic bankruptcy gripped the state it is obvious that law and order situation would deteriorate. In such a scenario quite inevitably insecurity will rise. Be it police, or those associated with law and order or the government officials- how could they still have inclination for work? Hence, to see hopelessness and a dark future prevail everywhere around was the most usual order of the day. Our earnest attempt was to bring back the lost enthusiasm of the people, for that we had to be patient. We gave our efforts to change the course of things-the sheer reason why people brought us to power.
At that time, for every scheme the Central government would give their share of 75 per cent only after the State government had paid its share of 25 per cent. Our economic condition did not allow us to give even that 25 per cent. As a result it became another challenge to get funds from the Centre. But we could not possibly even think of development unless we got our due grant. Stating that, I requested the then Prime Minister to exempt us from paying the 25 per cent. Otherwise, we could have steeped into more severe poverty by and by. The Prime Minister agreed and then the entire matter was taken to the Planning Commission for consideration. The Planning Commission viewed that if Assam were exempted other states would demand the same on the basis of the same argument. Not only would that, compared to other parts of the nation Assam lose one-fourth from its ascertained development goal every year stepping into more backwardness. On this ground the Planning Commission refused our appeal. We maintained that we would be interested to pay through deferred payment. After long delineation the Commission agreed to our proposal. Because in subsequent times if we failed to pay our dues all grants would be totally stopped. It was difficult to pay the 25 per cent the very next year. However, we started paying them at a range such as 10 per cent and 5 per cent. Meanwhile, we had several investments - in addition with the 75 per cent from the Centre. Of course- it was a huge amount of money. And then development kicked off. We started gaining money every month. This was the starting point for development.
Q: You put more emphasis on financial management….
Tarun Gogoi:Financial management is a must. You cannot think of other matters without management. Neither would we see development, nor peace. Hence, number one focus should be management. We vastly concentrated on that. Along with that, we considered about taking on more and more external projects- we decided to take loans from the Asian Development Bank. Initially they showed indifference for they were worried about the capacity of the state to return back the money which was only natural for a state so extremely underdeveloped. However, gradually they were convinced. It took them long time to trust us. At one point huge money showed up leading to better management and more promptness for the repayment of loans. After receiving the money it became possible for us to pay back- the most awful condition occurred to the Assam State Electricity Board, Assam State Transport Corporation. We were capable again to revive them by and the money that started coming gradually. Development took an accelerated pace due to the short-term as well as long-term investment. Road construction was being done under PMGSY scheme.
Then we put great stress on roads and bridges because without these economic development of people is not feasible. To help the rural people find a market for their vegetables, and all agricultural production, communication to make it easier for children to attend school, to go to hospital, thus roads were the greatly urgent necessity.
Q: Managing the money coming from different sources on priority basis so that…
Tarun Gogoi:Yes, absolutely on priority basis. That was our prominent focus. What would we prioritize- we prioritized irrigation and health- but first of all it was roads. Eventually we banked on short term and long term goals- as how we should take economic schemes. The atmosphere improved a great deal, since investment was also coming in. The first one year was nothing less than troublesome- for a total of six months we only did management, be it taking loans….or the government..pursuing for about two years, consequently after about four years the burdens like genuine deposit and all seemed to disappear.
Around 2005 the Centre had our party. I had already managed to get more grants. We focused on tax collection. We increased our resources. External aids increased too. Grants from the Centre also doubled since our own party came to power at the Centre. The economy started getting boost as expenditure increased.
Instantly we took to fighting the awful condition of law and power. We were determined to overcome it at any cost. That was the time when forces like SULFA ( surrendered ULFA) tended to dictate on anything and everything; they had to be fed money, they had to be obeyed. We turned to be rather strict from the very beginning- that nothing but law and order must be maintained. Gradually they were also dealt with firmly. This led to the improvement of the scenario of law and order thereby improving the economy itself. If insurgency continues, ULFA and SULFA would never let common people have their share in business and commerce. Why would common men not get their share? Earlier they used to demand everything from business to contract- as if it was our compulsion to obey them. There was no room for newcomers to get contracts etc. Even if they ( SULFA) did not work, we had to give them money. When such malpractices stopped, economic development took a decent pace. In the process we tried our best to shield law and order in the state. We opposed secret killings. It is true that we were determined never to let go any militant no matter what, at the same time we were careful enough so that innocent people are not targeted. People witnessed this fact and hence their self confidence also got a boost. As they saw how their government was fighting for their cause, they started trusting us even more. The atmosphere for law and order grew more and more robust. We took various schemes from sources like the World Bank.
Despite being low on fund we decided to hold the National Games during our very first term. We could not possibly even imagine changing the mentality of the youths if they were not engaged with culture, sports apart from academic studies. Following that we emphasized on every possible thing like distributing computers to students and bicycles for girls.
Q: Let me come to the next question. Of late, we have noticed a bitter turn of events between the state and the centre over allotment of funds and its usage. How do you think it has affected the entire development process of the state?
Tarun Gogoi: They are spreading lies. Unless you present “utilisation certificates” funds are not allotted. The practice has been in vogue for long. Had it been a government of our own party at the centre we would have been refused likewise no matter how much I might have desired for. They made it a false issue to deprive the state of its due. Is it really an issue? All their intention lies in making an issue out of a non issue.
Q: Many a time a political intention...
Tarun Gogoi: So political intention, it is. I do not hold any contradiction against the centre. You do not get money as long as you do not present utilisation certificates before them. My strong contradiction arises however at their decision to curtail the special category state status of not only Assam but the whole of North East. Initially they altered funding pattern. They have restored it now, although not in all cases. Apart from Assam or the North East, Himachal has also been declined the special state status. North Eastern Industrial Promotion Policy has also been temporarily suspended. We no longer get its special advantages. It’s not exclusively our case though. They do not sanction the funds; all they do is keeping on making up some issue or the other. They give statements outside; tell me, should I not be informed in writing. For other categories like flood and all, they have not sanctioned the money which also applies to other states.
Q: How would you evaluate federal structure in India on the basis of your long years in politics and your experience of leading the state for long fifteen years?
Tarun Gogoi: Now the Centre has been talking about Cooperative Federalism. They have been talking about decentralisation; all they want to do clearly is encroach upon the jurisdiction of the state. They have not held consultation with us. The consultation that needs to be held is not happening. They dismantled the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission used to allot money to the states only after separately discussing with the states. We do not have that scope now. According to the grant we have been allotted 42%. Earlier by virtue of having special state status we used to get more funds than in addition to what was allocated. Now we get only as much as Gujarat or Maharashtra whereas earlier we used to get extra.
Q: Do you think the states ought to be given more power? Or say the power that they already have...
Tarun Gogoi: More is definitely better; but at least they should give us the existing rights. Today the Supreme Court of India directed that there should be a single medical entrance test for the entire country. Then where is the federal structure of the state? We have concurrent list, list of the states- what is the use making these lists? Then they should be busy making all central lists. Can this country be ruled like this?
Q: Do you mean that weakning of the federal structure would weaken the country?
Tarun Gogoi: Most certainly. It is not even remotely possible to have centralised structure. We have to constitute Panchayats, Development Councils now. If we tend to centralize power in the state, we will obviously not succeed.
Q: What you expressed about decentralization of power in that context let me say- in order to decentralize power among various ethnic groups in the state Autonomous Councils and Development Councils were formed. But what we often see, or frequently complained about is that, this system also turns out to be inadequate so as to mitigate the agony of the communities. Most importantly, decentralization has not been able to reach the common ethnic folks. In such a case what else do you think need to be done?
Tarun Gogoi: Right. The extent to which you can work, that much is not done yet. The funds do not come separately for the council. We manage it from our own resources. We have only accepted the principle than anything else-we have adopted the mere model-we also need to give them power. All we need is to focus on their problems. Because there are numerous small communities and they have their own identity. By now every council has got some kind of power. They themselves take decisions about facilitating scholarships, distributing computers, project for development of culture etc. which definitely have tended to strengthen their sense of building among themselves. It has empowered their participation in democracy. Yet it is true that the fund that they deserve is far from what they actually get.
Q: In fact, more power can be endowed by granting more funds.
Tarun Gogoi: Absolutely.
Q: During this period the government has claimed to have succeeded a great deal in counter insurgency operation. On the contrary, what we actually observe is a sluggish pace of the peace talks. Hasn’t this sluggishness complicated the process?
Tarun Gogoi: Sooner is better. I won’t say there are complications as such. But sooner is definitely better keeping in mind the cause of the people. Then they would trust us. I think the Central Government should expedite the talks at the earliest. They have talked about co-operative federalism but the way we should have been trusted we have not been.
Q: The State government is a party to these peace initiatives…
Tarun Gogoi: I won’t disagree. But it is only at the ministerial or official level. It should also be at the political level.
Q: It is also essential in the Federal structure ….
A: Yes, I am not saying it has not happened. However, it has happened at the official level, but not at the political level.
Q: In fact, you too can help them and give opinion.
Tarun Gogoi: I agree.
Q: Of the past 30 years since the signing of the Assam Accord you have been the Chief Minister for 15 years. How much progress has been made in implmentation of the accord. What do you have to say on the allegation by political parties, organisation that the foreigners' problem has aggravated posing grave threat to demography of the state ?
Tarun Gogoi: No doubt there are problems. But it has not deteriorated. Even the Central government seemed to have been least worried in the last two years. We have not said there is no infiltration. But I would not say it has become alarming. And even if so, what stops the Central government to take measures? And the political parties which have been complaining about it, they failed to point it particularly. They have not even submitted a single application. All these parties have their own people. Surprisingly they have not even placed a list of suspected foreign nationals.
Q: Do you think Assam Accord is still relevant?
Tarun Gogoi: Assam Accord itself is relevant because it has a base year. But first of all it is the Central government which has to stop infiltration. If the border is fully shielded how can infiltration happen? They are the ones to say infiltration has lessened. Ironically at one point they were seriously concerned about the same cause.
Q: Another paragraph from the Accord, such as constitutional safeguard…
Tarun Gogoi: There is a problem regarding this because a consensus is yet to be reached on the definition of the Assamese. We are trying but it is not happening yet.
Q: For a permanent solution of the vexed foreigners’ problem your government has emphasized more on updating the NRC (National Register of Citizens)…
Tarun Gogoi: That’s right. Photo ID card was introduced while preparing the voter list in 2014. We did it almost without anyone’s knowledge. No publicity was given. Now at least everyone has Voter Id card. To make it more integrated we have started the NRC process. This process is still going on. It has advanced a long way. Sooner is better! I think this has to be very accurate because it is going to be a permanent document. Yes, while doing this we have to be very careful- so that no foreign national is included and no genuine Indian national is excluded. People have cooperated to a great extent. Cooperation as well as awareness of the public is essential for the matter. Cooperation from both the government and public is needed.
Q:A political consensus was reached to take 1971 as the base year for updating the National Register of Citizens. Both Congress and BJP went against this consensus and have taken the position of providing shelter and citizenship to Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. Will it not render the NRC ineffective?
Tarun Gogoi: Initially we said that those genuine Indian citizens during partition- if their offspring had fallen victim to any kind of harassment we would give them shelter.
Q: But the BJP government at the Centre has also talked about actually giving them citizenship.
Tarun Gogoi: The matter of citizenship comes later. First comes, providing shelter. And what’s the use refusing them citizenship after they had already stayed so many years! Say after 30 years, isn’t it pointless? The best decision would be to make them responsible by granting citizenship.
Q: Will there be any other provision then for NRC?
Tarun Gogoi: It will come automatically. NRC will be one base.
Q: In the last few years it has been seen that by virtue of the newer technology and focusing on increased production by experiments have become a success. Nevertheless, save for a few enthusiastic farmers, not all farmers have been benefitted from it. Youths belonging to farm families in Assam have migrated to other states in search of job. In your view why have the boost in production been unable to benefit all farmers?
Tarun Gogoi: It is obvious that where the income is more, flow of people will also be more. That is only natural. It happens to many since the uncertainty factor is attached to farming, they grow reluctant to it. While being into a job gives a sense of financial security. Many people are afraid to take risks. And people will flow wherever there are more opportunities. I don’t have any problem regarding this. In fact people from Assam have proved their capacity outside the state. People have established themselves through their works. It also shows their entrepreneurial skills. It definitely carries positive aspects.
Q: In order to ensure the economic and social safety of the youths going outside the state in search of job, what kind of policy need to be prepared by both the State and Central government in your view?
Tarun Gogoi: We must be careful enough so these people are not subjected to deceit, so that they get their due. Some employ the people in different works by alluring them to offer jobs. The agencies that take them must also be carefully looked at.
Q: Training them for more efficiency in work…
Tarun Gogoi: That must be done. We emphasized on that earlier also, we still do- today efficiency is the sole thing needed.
Q: Do you admit that your government failed to prevent rampant corruption at all levels as alleged by opposition parties?
Tarun Gogoi: No, I don’t agree. How would the development been possible if there was rampant corruption. I will not say that there has been no corruption. Corruption and development cannot happen simultaneously. How will the economy improve if we do not collect the taxes, implement the schemes, construct roads and bridges. How can development be possible without these? But I am not saying that there has been no corruption at all. Corruption has taken place in the entire country. It is social disease.
Q: What will be your prioritiess if the Congress party comes to power for the fourth consecutive term and if you are elected as Chief Minister for another term?
Tarun Gogoi: Education. We have been telling this for quite a while that if we do not change the education system, then our skills would not improve and we will not be able to generate employment opportunities. We require practical education.
Transcript by Ratna Bharali Talukdar.
Translation of the Assamese transcript by Daisy Barman
(Daisy Barman is a scribbler and translator. She can be reached at email@example.com )