The eruption of violent protests at Raha in gaon district over the AIIMS issue has pushed the BJP-led alliance government into an entirely avoidable corner. The matter had been hanging fire for nearly a fortnight ever since the State government handed over 571 acres of land at Changsari area of Kamrup district on June 28 last to a Central functiory for setting up of an All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal had then spoken glowingly of a ‘long- pending dream of the people of Assam about to come true’, after a long democratic struggle for such a top healthcare institute in the State. But the ‘people of Assam’ hardly dream the same dream or speak in one voice over many an issue. This unfortute divisive trend has been fomented by politicians of all hues, pitting people of one area in the State against another. Such competitive localized movements were seen in full pelt during the demand for new districts and subdivisions. Various political parties stoked rrow local sentiments to the hilt with an eye to electoral mileage. Now Assam is reaping the bitter harvest of the short-sighted mischief of its politicians. Not long ago, there was much heartburn in Assam as other states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Odisha got their promised AIIMS-like institutions. There were then dark mutterings that Assam, as usual, figures very low in the Centre’s scheme of things, with Hindi-speaking states stching away what it should be getting. After all, Assam was among the six states for which new AIIMS were announced in the 2015-16 budget under the Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Yoja (PMSSY) scheme.
As the Central government took its own sweet time to set up an AIIMS in Assam, the then Tarun Gogoi government ascribed political motives to the delay. Accusing the Modi government of dragging its feet because Assam happened to be Congress ruled, Gogoi publicly alleged how the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government too had earlier similarly deprived the State of an AIIMS. The Assam BJP was then at pains to deny such allegations, fearing its negative fallout in the assembly elections. When things at last started moving this year, it was reported that the Gogoi government had already suggested three locations for setting up the AIIMS, mely at Dimoria Mouza in Kamrup (metro), Kamalpur revenue circle in Kamrup district and Shahari Mouza of Raha in gaon district. A Central team had visited Raha in April last year to make detailed surveys, but some time around March-April this year, it appeared that filly Guwahati would get the AIIMS. Two prospective sites in Guwahati were spoken about during visits by Central teams, one in North Guwahati near GNRC Hospital and Sishugram, and the other at Changsari. The possibility of Raha as a prospective site seemed to have been quietly dropped at least three months back, despite its central location in the State, and easier accessibility for neighboring states galand, Manipur, Tripura and Aruchal Pradesh. Votaries for Raha have long argued that an AIIMS in Assam ought to benefit other NE states as well. The Sarbanda Sonowal government now claims that as many as seven sites were shown to Central experts, and they filly settled for Changsari to be the site of the proposed 18 specialty, 750-bedded, Rs 1,000 crore AIIMS.
But politics has so muddied the waters that agitating organisations in Raha now allege that Health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma maneuvred to draw the AIIMS to his constituency. Others are pointing fingers at Changsari to be unfit for AIIMS, given the low-lying ture of the site and proximity to the Brahmaputra raising a credible threat of flooding in future. Meanwhile, some students and social organizations in North Guwahati are alleging conspiracy and pushing for the AIIMS to be located there. The Sarbanda Sonowal government is admittedly new on the job, but it should have foreseen such competitive public sentiments over the AIIMS location. Medical experts say that for an AIIMS-like institution to come up, the site should fulfill around 30 criteria. So should not the State government have taken care to create informed public opinion on this issue? Were the recommendations of the Central expert panel so hush-hush that the site vis-à-vis criteria fulfillment data could not be put on public domain? The impression of secretiveness and backroom dealing in locating the AIIMS has emboldened protesters in Raha to go on rampage, blockading the tiol highway and clashing violently with the police. The upshot is one death and several persons left injured, including policemen. The State government is now in fire fighting mode, sending a ministerial team to Raha to calm public sentiments. Had it been more open and alert with its public outreach, it may have avoided the trouble in the first place. It does not help matters that alliance partner AGP, opposition Congress and other parties are now seeking to capitalize on this sensitive issue, dividing people in terms of region.