Marking the culmition of a year-long series of events observing 70 years of India’s independence, the Central government is set to hold grand celebrations on August 15. A massive campaign is being undertaken to drive home to the people for one more time the message ‘70 saal azaadi: Zara yaad karo kurbani’ — that with the passage of 70 years of the country’s independence, let us recall the sacrifices made. There is also justifiable pride in the progress India has made, though ysayers may say she took one step backward for every two steps forward. They tend to forget how difficult it is to govern a democracy as large, diverse and noisy as India. After freedom at midnight in 1947, the newborn tion had to first give itself a Constitution, sweep out a host of regressive socio-economic practices and integrate itself politically. There have been tangible gains: an Indian citizen on average can expect to live up to nearly 69 years; his/her annual per capita income stood at Rs 1,14,530 last year as per World Bank estimates; compared to only 18% literate Indians in 1951 (who could ‘write a letter to a friend and read the reply’), the literacy rate crossed 74% in 2011 census; reduction in the proportion of people living below poverty line to less than 22%; the country is basically self-sufficient in foodgrains (though distribution is a problem) while famines are a thing of the past; public health scourges like small pox and polio have been elimited; infant mortality rate has come down from 165 deaths per 1000 children in 1960 to 38 deaths in 2015; the Indian space programme has set benchmarks in getting more bang for every precious rupee spent. The list of achievements is pretty long, but there is also much concern and heartburn over targets missed and wrong directions taken. Much has been said of the jobless growth path the Indian economy has taken, the growing inequalities in income, the paltry public spend in health and education, the food insecurity that gws at three-fourth of the population, the miniscule taxation base, the widespread leakage of government benefits targeted to the poor, and many more worrying trends besides.
All these hits and misses will surely give Indians much scope for introspection as they go about celebrating the country’s 71st Independence Day. This will be more so in Assam, which has had more than its fair share of problems that continue to weigh it down. Racked by insurgency since the Eighties, the State’s vitals eaten away by official corruption, continuing high prices showing the power of illegal syndicates even as check-gates have at long last been dismantled — these and other factors explain why Assam still remains at odds with itself. But two problems that have dogged this part of the country much before Independence — floods and erosion on one hand and illegal influx on the other — have aggravated over past 70 years to become well nigh intractable. Firstly, floods and erosion have been laying Assam low year after year, even though the British colonialists were seized of the hydrological problems caused by Assam’s rrow basin structure. This year has been no exception with the State already being visited by the second wave of destructive floods within a month. Key embankments (but long past their life-spans) are collapsing, most recently the Hatimura dyke in Koliabor that has spped road communication with Upper Assam. In all these seven decades, the Centre has looked no farther than embankments as the only means to control Assam’s turbulent rivers, and is still nowhere near solution. Thousands of crores of rupees have been sunk to build embankments and repair them, but the only outcome has been a parallel economy with corrupt politicians, babus, engineers and contractors vacuuming away the government funds. And secondly, it was again the Britishers who raised the alarm of Mymensingh settlers swarming into Assam like an ‘army of ants’ to occupy all vacant land. That influx has been encouraged by political dispensations both at New Delhi and Dispur for votebank politics. Electoral rolls in the State have been hopelessly compromised with Bangladeshi voters, the NRC update exercise is weighed down with a mountain of suspect legacy data, and the Supreme Court is hearing arguments whether 1951 or 1971 should be the base year for detection of aliens. Successive governments at the Centre have tweaked citizenship laws so that it became either impossible to detect illegal foreigners, or many of them who came up to 2004 were legalised at one stroke. If the NDA regime at the Centre now legalises all Hindu Bangladeshi migrants in the ongoing parliamentary session, the death blow will be well and truly struck to the Assam Accord — which by the way had failed to make the government clarify what it meant by ‘Assamese’ (or indigenous) people. All these existential threats to Assam —both physical in terms of landmass loss due to erosion and demographic changes inexorably pushing sons of the soil into minority status — temper the joy of the people here even as they celebrate the country’s independence.