By Bikash Sarmah
Guwahati is an incredible spectacle these days. Anyone visiting the city today will definitely be impressed by the saga of ‘development’ scripted by the successive governments of the State. He will rubbish all allegations levelled by people in the rest of the country as to the tardy pace of development in the Northeast whose prime city is Guwahati. He will rather say all such allegations are either an outcome of ignorance or of the mere proclivity to brand this region underdeveloped as is the wont in the ‘mainland’. Reason? Well, look at Guwahati today – its roads, its street lighting system, its smooth traffic, its total city magement! Are these not signs of development, of a political class dedicated to the hallowed principles of development stemming from the science of city magement, of a people so very contented with their netas as these jatas are not an unruly lot? And, then, is Guwahati not symbolic of the entire Northeast? So, is it not that the region itself must be an amazing development spectacle?
As I looked at the Six Mile flyover of the city from the terrace of my office on Friday night around 10 pm, what struck me was the sheer magnificence of what can happen overnight when mega events are announced and about to start and how all of a sudden the whole administration would wake up to make this city an unrecognizable urban entity. When I returned to my office yesterday around 11 am, I found the otherwise hurly-burly at the Six Mile junction turned almost taciturn, with the otherwise chaotic traffic giving way to one and all an unimagibly smooth sail. It was absolute disbelief. But I liked it for the simple reason that I liked a fantasy too: how it would have been if things were in such order throughout, mega events or not, and how then life would be such sheer urban pleasure to live in a city where I have spent the best of my college, university and jourlism days since 1994! But that was a fantasy, and fantasy means nothing more than a transient titillation of consciousness. Nonetheless, I hope the puerile fantasy comes true. And it should, I believe, given the zeal of the Sarbanda Sonowal government of Assam to showcase the best that the State has and can offer to investors.
So what is happening in the town? Global Investors’ Summit. It is a big thing, given the smallness we have lived all along. Who would imagine even last February that such an event would adorn Guwahati after a year, with a galaxy of political and business delegates from across the world crowding the city to have a glimpse of its universe of ideas and actions? Yesterday was the first day of the summit. Today is its second and fil day. Prime Minister rendra Modi was here yesterday to iugurate the event, actually christened “Advantage Assam: Global Investors’ Summit”. So we are talking of Advantage Assam then. And investors from across the world would do well to take advantage of that Advantage. Two major areas that investors, including of the likes of Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata, can be wooed to take advantage of the big Advantage are definitely education and healthcare, the state of whose is abysmally poor in the State. [Let us not be cynical to say Assam has no Advantage to provide in the two areas, which, nevertheless, is a fact of life]. So let us start with education.
Real education is a far cry here. Visit any school in rural areas where the vast bulk of our population resides. You have government schools in these areas, because private parties would not set up their education shops in areas where there are no returns for heavy investment. About government schools in such areas, the less said the better. They are not schools; they are merely huts or semi-concrete, dilapidated structures where teachers do not teach and students, as a consequence, do not learn. Neither of them is faulty, however. These teachers, who are hardly qualified to be teachers in the real sense, nor are who trained, are teachers not out of choice but because they are misfits elsewhere. And the students – the poor learning lot – are, as a consequence, left at the mercy of their masters who have never ever tried to master anything in life. So no one is faulty or guilty of any wrongdoing.
Here lies the imperative of private parties – education entrepreneurs – jumping in and salvaging a highly deteriorating situation. But how can you afford to set up a school in a rural area, or even in a semi-urban area, where parents are reluctant to pay even Rs 1,000 monthly fee for their wards in, say, Class V? Will it not be like suicide for those upbeat education entrepreneurs? The result is that there are no private schools in such areas as there are in urban areas providing far better quality of education. Even they cannot be faulted perhaps! For, why on earth an entrepreneur not of the Mukesh Ambani ilk risk his life-long savings by showing the temerity of setting up a quality school in a rural area where education will be a sort of freebie?
Hence the call to the likes of Mukesh Ambani who are in the city to ponder as to the corporate social responsibility factor. Ambani has a famed intertiol school in Mumbai where the most affluent ones send their children for intertiol education, but the fees are staggering as well – which is not a factor at all because parents can pay. But has Ambani, or for that matter his ilk, ever thought of setting up a few quality tiol schools, if not intertiol, in the rural areas of Assam and the rest of the Northeast whose greatest identity is chronic backwardness with no tangible solution in sight? Investors who are in Guwahati for the much-vaunted global summit can think of a wonderful idea: setting up of schools in the rural areas of the Northeast but with minimum possible fees or no fees at all, fees that can even be lower than that in government schools, because they are extremely rich – Ambani being the richest Indian – and can easily afford to go in for such marvellous education plunge for the betterment of the country as a whole. They can. They should.
Ditto in the health sector. Health centres in the rural areas of Assam, as also of the rest of the Northeast, are crying for that mirage called health. Where is health here? Whose health? Who will provide health? Doctors are reluctant to serve in rural areas because it does not suit their hunger for wealth, which is the order of the day in urban areas where private practices of varied sorts abound and where rich people can easily afford exorbitant fees. Nor are there facilities worth the me that will attract medical graduates and postgraduates, most of whom are not into the holy doctrine of social service – which anyway is ‘outdated’ everywhere in a world where money is the ultimate goal of human existence. But the hallmark of the ‘medical’ centres in rural areas is infrastructure, which is rather conspicuous by its absence. Dilapidated buildings go as public health centres, while doctors would rather be interested in spreading their wings privately in nearby urban centres while they would extract from the government exchequer because they are ‘government’ doctors after all. Here again comes the role of tycoons like Ambani or Tata or Birla or even the legendary Dr resh Trehan (he too was invited to the Guwahati summit) who founded the famed Medanta Medicity in Delhi for world-class healthcare. They are rich people again, very rich. How about them, then, pondering on the lines of setting up excellent healthcare centres in the rural areas of the Northeast – where healthcare in the real sense is a utopia – at very affordable rates? What stops them from making such classic social investment? They can. They should. They should rather pay heed to what Robert Arnott has to say about a cardil principle of investment: “In investing, what is comfortable is rarely profitable”.
So here we are. The likes of Ambani would be desirous of setting up their business shops in the urban areas of the Northeast; say, for instance, in Assam they would eye hubs like Guwahati (the obvious choice), Tezpur, Jorhat and Dibrugarh. After all, money matters – and there cannot be anything wrong in this too. But these are big, big shots. They can easily take a plunge into the rural landscape. They have nothing to lose. They will rather gain. But gain what? Respect. And this is a very, very rare moral commodity.
(The writer is a strategic affairs jourlist with focus on Chi, Northeast India and Southeast Asia. He is currently associated with The Sentinel. He may be reached at email@example.com)