On 19th February 2012, the United Assam Association of the United Kingdom (UAAUK) organised Assam Forum at the Mahatma Gandhi Hall, London, for the Assamese Diaspora to discuss selected economic problems of Assam. There was a congregation of more than sixty Assamese people from all over the UK. The meeting started with the Inaugural speech by Mr. Jitendra Kumar, First Secretary at the High Commission of India, London.
Five topics, namely, poverty reduction, tea industry, healthcare, capacity building and infrastructure of Guwahati were discussed, and these were led by the following five presentations: (a) “Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction in Assam” by Dr. Jitendralal Borkakoti, President UAAUK, (b) “Tea Industry & Assam” by Mr. Cren Sandys-Lumsdaine, General manager, McLeod Russel India Ltd, (c) “Factors Influencing Healthcare Development in Assam” by Dr. Mitam Barooah, Consultant at the Heart of England NHS Trust, (d) “Placement Linked Skills Development: Reflections and Experience from Work-Skill-India Centre, Mirza, Kamrup” jointly by Dr. Jayanata Biswa Sarma, Consultatnt at the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust, and Dr. Rituparna Bhattacharyya, a freelance researcher, (e) “Problems of Guwahati as a City” by Dr. Tarun Chowdhury, General Practitioner from Leicester. The following is a brief summary of the conclusions and policy suggestions that emerged from three-hour discussions.
Poverty in Assam stands out both in terms of real per capita income (PCI) relative to that of India and HDI relative to that of the rest of India. Assam’s PCI is only 55% of India’s PCI while the same figure for Arunachal, Meghalaya, and Mizoram are respectively 94%, 88% and 84% in 2010-11. The annual average rate of growth of real GDP in Assam during 2004-05 and 2010-11 is 5.8%. Growth is generated by the service sector rather than by industry or agriculture. A vibrant agricultural sector is a necessary condition for rural poverty reduction.
Unemployment is a vital cause of poverty; and the policy suggestion is that small-scale industries with backward and forward linkages to raw materials relatively abundant in Assam are likely to create employment, and hence reduce poverty. This could be achieved by encouraging SHGs that should have adequate access to microfinance.
There is an urgent need for improvement in rural connectivity and power supply to the rural areas. This will boost the growth of small-scale or cottage industries.
Poverty reduction requires a poverty line defined in more realistic terms. We must not use poverty lines that are often referred to as the starvation lines. Participants have noted that the query from the Supreme Court of India in response to a petition has led the Planning Commission to declare the following Poverty Lines in 2011: Rs.965 (Urban) and Rs.781 (Rural). People living under PL in India have gone up from 27.5% to 37.2%. Clearly, with the newly defined poverty lines, the number of BPL people must go up in Assam too. The new figure for BPL people in Assam should be estimated.
The poverty reduction programmes of the Central Government, namely, PMGSY, SGRY and IAY should be more efficiently implemented. Leakage from PDS has been condemned; and good governance with transparency and accountability has been strongly recommended for successful completion of poverty reduction projects.
The orthodox Assam tea has a unique taste and aroma. It is of vital importance for the tea industry of Assam to obtain the international GI for the unique Assam tea.
It is appreciated that the increasing number of small tea growers has contributed to the growth in production of green leaf. It has generated income and employment. But, it has been suggested that a system should be in place to supervise quality of green leaf produced by small tea growers so that the quality of Assam tea is maintained.
Infrastructure problems in the interior areas should be addressed, as it inhibits smooth operation of business. This relates both to supply of power and road connectivity, especially in the rainy season.
The geography and civil infrastructure of the state pose challenges to healthcare delivery in Assam. The background to State and National health indicators including millennium development goals were discussed. The need for healthcare outcome objectives was emphasized.
There is a shortage of skilled manpower including doctors, nurses, paramedics and technicians. More resources should be given to medical education to train as well as to maintain current good practice. Standardisation of care across both government and private healthcare should be addressed. Data collection of patients and treatment outcomes should be made mandatory to enable benchmarking of patient healthcare outcomes against national and international indicators.
Primary Health Centres in the rural areas need serious attention in terms of manpower, equipment and building infrastructure, some of which are in very poor condition.
Health initiatives by the government like the Mritunjoy ambulance service, Smile train project and other projects were discussed and commended. Guwahati and
Dibrugarh have become two centres of excellent healthcare; logistically it becomes difficult to transport serious ill people to these centres because of poor infrastructure. More centres of excellence should be thus developed.
Participants have emphasized the importance of skill development and capacity building for the youth of Assam through training; and the presenters have discussed their practical experiences in running the Work-Skill-India Centre at Mirza.
Funds should be made available for such training so that youth employability is enhanced.
There are some cultural issues as the young people are some times reluctant to get trained in professions that have to do with physical labour.
Infrastructure of Guwahati
The participants regret the negligent attitude of the government towards the woes of Guwahati ranging from flash floods and to traffic congestion and poor water supply. These problems have gone on for too long without any serious attempts to address them.
Help should be sought from the World Bank to have a thorough survey for action; and the government should take financial help from the Centre under the various urban development programmes so that Guwahti has a modern sewerage system which could cope with flash floods as well, and a good water supply system, as the water bed is being fast depleted.
Monorail system should be considered in order to ameliorate the congestion problem.
It is also suggested that a satellite town should be developed. This will also help to reduce congestion in Guwahati.
Currently the river Bharalu is a source of pollution. This river should be dug out to make a canal which can be used as river transport and which also will be a tourist attraction. The marshy land near the airport also should be dug out to create a water harvest tank which can be used for water supply, fishery and boating.
Prepared by: Dr. Jitendralal Borkakoti, Chief Convenor, Assam Forum, in conjunction with the speakers.
We discuss the economic, social, political and cultural issues of Assam and submit suggested solutions and raise awareness among the Assamese community and the wider population of the UK of the ongoing concerns in Assam. We hold an annual conference on the burning issues of Assam, and also to organise seminars on urgent issues. We invite expert opinions on specific topics of Assam and facilitate the global Assamese diaspora to have a united voice on specific issues.