Ratiolization at last
It is difficult for a government to undo the profligacy of its predecessor. However justified and sensible the government’s backtracking is argued to be, questions about political motives will always cloud the issue. The Sarbanda Sonowal government has expectedly begun the exercise of doing away with some new districts and subdivisions the earlier Congress regime had announced so grandly. The new ruling dispensation at Dispur has been giving enough hints that given the State’s parlous finces, it will take a hard look at some steps the Tarun Gogoi government had taken. High among those was the creation of seven districts and 24 subdivisions in the past year itself. But after making the announcements and issuing gazette notifications, the Congress government then did precious little. No infrastructure was put in place befitting the new districts; some of their headquarters operated from circle offices, the staff needed was not recruited. Reportedly, some district commissioners did not even receive salaries. It all became a sheer mockery of a governmental decision, ostensibly taken for administrative convenience. Tarun Gogoi had once spoken about the ratiole of this decision, highlighting the difficulties of people in large districts like gaon and Sonitpur in accessing district headquarters from incommunicable, far-flung places. Even if Gogoi’s argument is correct, his government should have carefully weighed all the fincial implications. Assam, after all, has been under a relentless fund squeeze for quite some time. Instead, a blame game started between Dispur and New Delhi, with the Congress government here vociferously complaining how the Modi regime at the Centre was cutting off funds and throttling it for political reasons.
Whatever the basis of such allegations, the Tarun Gogoi government should have thought ten times instead of rushing to declare new districts and subdivisions with little money in its coffers. The fact that the government still went ahead merely reinforces the suspicion that its underlying motive was political. In an election year, carving out new districts and subdivisions would have pandered to local people’s sentiments and brought in the votes. There are grounds to suspect that various political quarters have time and again stoked ‘popular demands’ for creation of new districts and subdivisions. Ostensibly responding to demands ‘to bring administration nearer to the people’, the group of ministers constituted by the previous Congress government — on February, 2014 directed deputy commissioners to conduct surveys to ascertain the legitimacy of the demands for creation of 6 new districts and 48 sub-divisions, and submit a report. The basic criteria for a new district included minimum 10 lakh population, at least two circle and block development offices each, besides at least one police station in the proposed district area. In case of a hill district, the minimum population stipulated was two lakh, while in case of a subdivision it was four lakh. As competing popular agitations took off in various parts of the State, CM Tarun Gogoi on Independence Day last year announced creation of 5 new districts Biswath, Charaideo, Hojai, South Salmara-Mankachar and West Karbi Anglong. He then followed up by announcing two new districts South Kamrup and East Kamrup on Republic Day this year; and for good measure, he also announced creation of 24 subdivisions. The total number of districts went up from 27 to 34. It became 35 after new Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal’s constituency Majuli’s upgradation to district status in September this year.
The present BJP-led government has alleged that its predecessor hurriedly carved out new districts and subdivisions ‘without assessing ground reality and their actual viability’, neglecting to put in place the necessary infrastructure and create new posts. But what comes through loud and clear is the feeling that it was all done due to vested political interests. Otherwise, why was East Kamrup district created, constituting only Dispur LAC, when there was no public demand for its creation? The Sonowal government has now removed both East Kamrup and South Kamrup from the districts list. It remains to be seen how Chaygaon MLA Rekibuddin Ahmed and other Congress leaders react to the demotion of South Kamrup, though protests have already begun breaking out in several parts of the erstwhile district. More protests are in the offing with the State government also constituting a cabinet sub-committee to go into the creation of new subdivisions. So has a political game begun to checkmate some MLAs? Rather than allowing such political issues to vitiate the air, the State government should bring out the costs of creating and administering new districts and subdivisions, and whether this State can afford such profligacy. The heat and dust from the assembly elections have already settled — but the fact that Assam’s fincial crisis is nowhere near ending indicates that extensive ratiolization is in order.