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Barak Valley: Assam’s appendix

Patricia Mukhim |

Assam’s Barak Valley is marked by verdant forests, lush green tea plantations and miles and miles of rice fields. Despite all these positives, there is a distinct apathy of governance, which is evident from the look of Silchar city, the second biggest in Assam after Guwahati. My desire to visit this part of the region is to better understand the pulse of the people there who are essentially Bengali-speaking and who have become victims of partition in India’s eastern theatre.

Assam is vivisected by two river valleys — the Brahmaputra and the Barak. Whereas the former appears to get its due share of development, the latter suffers from a neglect that is all too palpable. With 15 MLAs in the 126-member house, the Barak Valley should not have been a laggard, but there are perhaps more reasons than one can fathom, which prevents people from responding with galvanising anger at the development vacuum.

Silchar, the civilisational hub of the Barak Valley, appears to live in a time warp. This is 21st century India and we have roads that are far less travel-worthy than they were when we were in the 20th century. Some of us span both centuries so we can compare the good, the bad and the ugly.

Overall, Silchar wears a dishevelled look as if people could not care less what happens to the city. I got interesting narratives both from those who belong to the place and others who are compelled to make it a temporary home.

I was told that some of the affluent bhadraloks of Silchar already have a second home in Kolkata and, therefore, are not bothered about what happens to their present home. I was told by professors of a leading college there that a polo game will be held in Silchar soon. That’s interesting, I thought since polo was unique to Manipur. Then I learned that in the 1850s the British tea planters, who rediscovered the game of polo in Manipur, set up the first Polo Club of the world at Silchar where the first competitive modern form of polo was played. Memories of that game have been chronicled in a plaque put up near the District Library.

Those who have visited Sylhet will agree that Silchar is just an extension of that lesser important township of Bangladesh. In that country everything revolves around Dhaka, which too has outgrown itself. In Assam, Guwahati has received all the attention and yet I was surprised to learn that is the second largest city in Assam, after Guwahati in terms of population and municipal area.

Under the British, the Barak Valley had gone through several alignments and realignments from being partitioned into East Bengal in 1905 to being re-annexed in 1912. Certainly this creates its own set of pain and anguish. Add to that the displacements after a part of the Barak Valley was gifted to East Pakistan by Gopinath Bordoloi in 1947, simply because the region was dominated by Bengalis and not Assamese. It is difficult to judge what prompted that whimsical decision but possibly Bordoloi had to juggle between politics and statesmanship. That single act has vivisected families who suddenly find themselves in a new country while their relatives are in another. No wonder, the Barak Valley continues to bristle with the feeling of having been betrayed.

A learned professor told me that there is no sense of a shared culture in the Barak Valley because those who migrated from East Pakistan in 1947 brought in a genteel culture of their own while later migrants coming after 1971, when Bangladesh was created, perhaps because of their adversities, imported a different cultural milieu that is also influenced by their economic backgrounds.

He was trying to impress upon me the absence of a stake-holdership in the development of the Barak Valley in general and Silchar city in particular that is neither clean nor hygienic despite having a mix of affluent and middle class residents. The city is muggy and unkempt and looks uncared for if not completely abandoned by its municipal authorities. Worse is that shop-keepers dump their garbage right in front of their shops and that lies uncollected for days. There are garbage mounds in the heart of the city where cows and dogs munch on plastic bags and rotten food. Surely this is enough to put off even the best of travellers used to India where cleanliness is at a premium.

For a city housing a medical college, a central university and a National Institute of Technology to wear such a decrepit look is pathetic. But that’s not all. The journey by road from Guwahati to Silchar passes through some of the most treacherous terrains, which begin in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya and connect to the Barak Valley. This highway has claimed many lives but there is apparently no hurry on the part of the National Highways Authority of India to see the 600-km National Highway 44, connecting Guwahati to Silchar via Meghalaya (and which takes 12-14 hours to traverse), completed.

In February 2016, the NHAI had claimed that it is all set to start construction work on the two-laned project between Jowai and Malidor (on the Assam-Meghalaya border) at a cost of Rs 452 crore but work has still not started and one only has to listen to the horror stories of those who traverse the road to understand their agony.

In all of this, one wonders at the role of the municipal ward commissioners and MLAs. Don’t they have any responsibility to their constituents? My trip was to deliver an inaugural address for a national seminar on “Conflicts, Issues and Challenges in South Asia with special reference to North East India,” and it was organised by Gurucharan College. I was told that Sushmita Dev, MP would be present, but she had a last-minute appointment in Delhi that she had to attend to, so one could not get her response to the decaying nature of the constituency she represents.

One would have also liked to find out how the MPLADS of Rs five crore every year is expended if not to perk up the basic infrastructure of the constituency. Some, of course, evince hope that the present PWD Minister, Parimal Suklabaidya of the BJP, who represents Dholai under the Lok Sabha constituency, would perhaps get his act together and repair the dilapidated roads within the city that have been eroded by the monsoon rains.

What is lacking perhaps is the citizens’ voice. How do citizens accept such poor governance? Why do the educated citizenry, who should know better, remain silent at such poor delivery of basic services? Why does civil society fail to emerge in such circumstances? Or is the notion of civil society itself a premature aspiration in our democracy?

More precisely, what is the role of the Assam University, if not to kindle the spirit of citizenship in its students? Why should they tolerate poor governance? Any answers?

The writer is Editor of the Shillong Times and can be contacted at [email protected]