By Bikash Sarmah
There is a difference between a thinker and a thought leader. In fact everyone is a thinker. One who does not think is mad, so they say. Truly, as they say, even as one thinks or has a thought process when he is in his washroom, thus becomes him the thinker. But, then, what about the persolity of thought? The word persolity does not entail just a definition of what a human has in terms of his character, predispositions, his belief systems et al. It is more than that. And when it comes to the persolity of human thought processes, some deep alysis must be the order of the day.
This little preamble was necessary because we are talking of Northeast (NE) India and it is here that we find a grave deficit of thought leaders – leaders who may not lay claim of their being so at all, but who are in the possession of all the ingredients that go into the making of minds that not only think hard on matters crucial and paramount, but also act so that their thoughts have the enormity of energy to be metamorphosed into solid action benefiting one and all.
So, first, let us come to what a thought leader is really all about. A person who thinks over issues affecting others more than him, over the rainbow configuration of malaises afflicting his environs, over the ideas whose time has come but which are resisted by stereotypes afraid of changes that will involve a dramatic shift in their attitude, over a roadmap none has dared so far because even this too involves a fear factor as to who will think of this what, over parameters that have until now been reckoned taboo, is a thought leader. He is a thought leader who thinks hard and true, and who proactively becomes a participant in the process of conversion of his thoughts into action. He is not a solitary game-changer; he has supporters to his aid; he is a backed-up packaged energy in action. NE is woefully lacking in this.
Take this simple case in Assam. When we talk of Assam, what caresses our imagition is the matrix of greeneries across our tea gardens in ‘upper Assam’ (the words upper Assam are in fact a misnomer because there is nothing like upper Assam and lower Assam, it is only, geographically and scientifically speaking, eastern Assam and western Assam) that have become a source of employment for many an unemployed youth of the State. Arguably, and perhaps quite importantly, many have resorted to converting their paddy croplands into tea gardens! They are small tea growers. They have become rich. Until the other day, just matriculates or so as they were, they were virtually with begging bowls. But now things have changed. They have taken loans from banks (one wonders whether loans are available without guarantees!) and are now proud owners of ‘carrier vans’ to drop their tea leaves produces to the many esteemed tea factories owned by well-established entities. They flaunt their wealth, and rightly so as they deserve too, no doubt. But what about the poor woman, an Adivasi, who braves the scorch of the summer sun with her child in her warm hug, with a torn umbrella to cover her wrinkled but un-aged skin, plucking tea leaves for a paltry Rs 150 per eight hours a day, just because she has to sustain her livelihood while her husband works the whole day under the same sun felling someone’s tree so that this proud owner of the tree may have a sumptuous feast the ensuing Magh Bihu over bonfire? Think for a while, and you graduate into a thinker; spread the word, mobilize public opinion, and you become a thought leader. That is the difference. We are here talking of egalitarianism, one of the greatest hallmarks of democracy. We are talking of taking everyone on board, regardless of what community, caste and religion they belong to. We are talking of opportunities that must flow in to one and all, powerful or powerless – in a democracy.
That was just one simple example. Take the issue of mega dams, especially the one envisioned at Gerukamukh over Lower Subansiri. A huge project, with hopes equally huge of how this will resolve the power issues of the day, with the dimension of hope so ‘pan-Indian’ that we hear the mega dam votaries talk of power being exported from NE to the country’s ‘heartland’ too. Nothing wrong in this. But what about the environmental hazards and forced human displacement issues? These are serious concerns. Take this scerio with the background music of high seismic activity: the Gerukamukh dam gets a pompous iuguration and gets operatiol to generate enormous hydel power, and one horrendous day it develops a crack and leads to a catastrophe no less than millions downstream losing their hearths and homes, the toll of human, animal and agriculture calamity making it all an intertiol breaking story of reckless thinking converted into cataclysmic action. Where are the thought leaders then, who, except for some IIT experts, including some sane suggestions from IIT-Roorkee, would deliberate at public meetings, conferences, semirs, and of course TV news channels on primetime shows? Where are they?
This issue is not about geology or environmental science. It has a lot more to do with issues sociological. This brings us to what the magnificent dam over the Siang in eco-diverse Aruchal Pradesh could do in the times to come if it were to materialize. The tribal people of this State, given to activities heavily dependent on river systems and traditiolly driven by riverine engagements, have worries that are genuine; fortutely, of late, some sane and sagacious civil society activism is audible towards the all-important task of generating awareness among the masses whose indigenous and culture-triggered interests must be primary when faced with situations that need meticulous alysis, especially in highly ambitious projects such as mega dams that have an inherent element of high peril. Nonetheless, not many thought leaders have come to the fore to articulate the issue as is warranted. One just does not understand why! It is all the more strange when one knows there is no deficit of environmentalists who can help shape a ratiol and solid rrative based broadly on the edifice of developmentalism (to coin a word borrowed from the modernist discourses of some eminent socio-political theorists) contrasted with the tural life-and-death issues of an innocent indigenous populace.
To dwell on another major issue of the day as we conclude this opinion piece, education – be it primary, secondary, higher secondary or university – is a highly neglected domain of thought-leader activism. We have no deficit of intellectuals, but when it comes to intellectualism that appropriately addresses the key dimensions of an education regime that has the potential of engendering human capital, it is time we paused for a while and pondered where we have gone wrong. In any education system characterized by examitions or tests that test the intellectual growth of children subjected to schooling under different circumstances, what is remarkably missing in NE is a class of academics – or intellectuals as they are generally referred to as – not willing to accept the glaring fact of life that our examitions generally fail the test of both reliability and validity. It is simple: when you subject a student to some exam, the test must not only be reliable but also valid; in other words, one should be able to rely the test as it seeks to measure the mental or intellectual calibre or merit or accomplishment of a student – at any level – and the yardsticks involved must be valid as well, such as whether the parameters, for instance mathematical or language or grammatical abilities, are being tested pragmatically or not, and whether these would go to add to their employability factor in this hugely competitive world. Seldom are we witness to any radical thought leader even attempting to script a rrative thus – that too, on such a paramount issue as education.
All said and done, it remains a rueful grumble that though there is no lack of intelligent people in NE who can help make a better, more progressive, more enlightened, more vibrant society on a precipice for a giant leap towards an awakened society, thought leadership vacuum remains a crippling impediment to our growth story in so many ways. Sooner this is done away with, better would it be for our democratic and aspiratiol health.
(Bikash Sarmah is a freelancer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)