The twin curses of all-too-frequent bandhs and rampant extortion have made Assam an inhospitable place for enterprises to flourish. When many other states in the country are racing to nurture the spirit of entrepreneurship on their soil by creating the proper conditions, Assam continues to wallow in the rut that had been dug in the Eighties. Bandhs were then devised as an instrument of mass mobilization as the movement against illegal influx entered a critical phase. Nearly four decades down the line, the State seems to have no answers to the pernicious bandh culture deeply entrenched in its social fabric. With socio-political fragmentation in the State speeding up, sundry political parties, social organizations and rebel outfits are using bandhs to press their group-centric demands and pressurize the general populace. The negative fallout is such that just one PSU in the State, the Oil India Limited (OIL), suffered nearly Rs 50 crore losses in last two years due to bandhs and blockades. Pointing out that such losses translate to less royalty for the Assam government, OIL CMD Utpal Bora has appealed to Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal and Industry & Commerce Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary to intervene so that OIL’s production is not affected by bandhs. The OIL chief has also mentioned that the PSU spent Rs 130 crore last year and Rs 75 crore this year under corporate social responsibility (CSR) heading. In passing, Bora has also spoken about dotions often made to various cultural organizations, but ‘how far these dotions have proved effective’ being a matter of debate. No doubt, Bora was being diplomatic when he spoke to scribes in Guwahati in such cautious note, but it merely points to the other evil trend that has taken firm root along with bandh culture. Seeking dotions from corporates under various guises is but one form of the culture of extortion and blackmail that is really giving Assam a bad me.
Both bandh and extortion cultures spring from the same negative mindset — to create nuisance and use that as a threat to make easy money. The spirit of taking risks and starting ventures would have been difficult enough in a State like Assam, whose society for long has put a premium on government jobs. But it is proving to be almost impossible with never-ending bandhs hurting the movement of men and materials. It was estimated that in 2014, Assam suffered losses of over Rs 2,940 crore due to bandhs. Earlier in January 2010, the Gauhati High Court had declared all bandhs as illegal, terming it a violation of the fundamental rights of citizens. Last year, at the fag end of 15 years at the helm, the then chief minister Tarun Gogoi in a moment of candour told scribes that one of his ‘failures’ was to curb bandh culture. In reality, bandhs have become a more virulent mece this year, with shutdowns enforced to protest auction of margil oilfields in the State, the bypassing of Raha in central Assam as a site for setting up the proposed AIIMS, the ‘delay’ over granting ST status to six ethnic communities, as well as a host of local issues. An outcome of increasing frequency of bandhs have been the mixed responses in many areas, with small traders and artisans and daily wagers venturing out for their livelihood. In turn, bandh organizers have become more violent to enforce their writ, with the police on many occasions remaining mute spectators. If the BJP-led government in Assam is really serious about bringing about change in the lines of the Prime Minister’s campaign to foster entrepreneurship, it must go after bandh organizers and tackle extortion on war footing. The media too needs to do its bit in helping build up an environment in the State that has no place for such regressive practices.