It is a welcome initiative from the state finance ministry headed by Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma to invite public suggestions for the budget and further policy. As youths hailing from Assam but having resided/studied in various states of India, we have some pressing issues/suggestive measures of note which could be raised in the budget or future policy announcements with financial/administrative allocations made during the upcoming assembly session.
The massive mandate given in the elections signals paving way for much desired “reform”. What we have found in us and most other Assamese youth when they associate this word with the state is a total disconnect. Hence, basic moves to inform the masses of the intent of not shying away from change is paramount.
Firstly, for Assam to catch up with other states in terms of industrialisation, it is necessary to move beyond outstation roadshows to lure investors. Instead, we must begin hosting a proper industrial summit with budgetary sanction along the lines of Vibrant Gujarat, Resurgent Rajasthan, Credible Chhattisgarh, etc. Besides announcing one to be launched from 2018 onwards (for reasons stated ahead), there needs to be segmented targeting in the same to ensure inclusiveness. The recently organised Make in North East Meet at the Taj Mumbai attended by the honourable Industry Minister of Assam, Shri Chandra Mohan Patowary, was a welcome move in this regard. The state could have separate summit sessions/MOU signings for capital and consumer goods, and a ‘Make in Assam’ segment for both massively increasing indigenous goods’ production as well as self-sufficiency starting from poultry and suburban transport.
The need for both arises, especially the latter, wherein the state must professionalise the Assam State Transport Corporation along the lines of MSRTC (Maharashtra’s). This can be done by transparent, online selling of tickets, diversifying the fleet to accommodate all sections and needs, and by increasing frequency to compete with intercity trains. Suburban railway services, in turn, must be institutionalised or, if unfeasible, a substantial concession must be given on national trains (Rajdhanis) for intra-state travel when both boarding and destination points are within the state. A majority of these trains, as we have seen, are empty within the state and such a move would increase demand. At the same time, triple-lining of Guwahati rail tracks (double in city limits and a new one for North Guwahati) is mandatory to keep future traffic flow in check. Efforts have to be made to modernise/double-line Dibrugarh’s two stations to augment upper Assam travel. Assam can also show a job-friendly outlook towards the city’s transport means by not imposing harsh regulations on new-age technology companies like Ola, Uber and Meru and creating Wi-Fi zones in the airports/ISBTs etc. to eliminate the current monopoly of old taxi services with unsafe fleets.
The need to start the aforementioned only from 2018 onwards is necessitated by the certain pre-requisites needed, which are:
i) A sustainable, accountable yet vast land bank with all approvals, litigations and compensation dealt with.
ii) Multiple state-of-the-art convention centres (to both host events and specific ones, along the lines of Pragati Maidan in Delhi), which can be equitably distributed across the state land, notably in outer Dibrugarh-Nagaon city limits.
iii) A detailed dossier/report on scientific management lines and international standards on the investment climate in the state vide a comprehensive SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threat), which will assist all stakeholders to make uniform decisions for progress. This can also be drafted autonomously by the World Bank in tandem with registered industrial bodies and civil society (for environmentally sensitive project potential). Work on all this information, meanwhile, must consistently be in the public domain with regular updating, in consonance with Digital India.
Assam’s literary and cultural prowess is diverse yet unexplored in the larger scheme of things across other parts of the country. With many cities/states already initiating it, the state led by the new dynamic leadership must set up its own literature cum culture festival (along lines of Jaipur Lit Fest), which would be a proud recognition of state Sahitya Sabhas as well as Assam’s wide English readership. Recently, renowned writer and the Chairman of the National Book Trust, Dr. Rita Choudhury has also expressed a similar desire of organising such a literature festival in Assam. Infrastructure and logistics for this must be put in place in upcoming budget or later when feasible, as this will make Assam a scholastic hub for students and academics alike, whilst showcasing the state’s literature. The festival can be state-backed/sponsored for the first few years before being autonomously handed to independent sabhas and societies for handling, given venue assistance. This will be a very popular step across age, demographic, political, socio-economic and cultural lines especially if done yearly with diverse cities in the mix per language/cultural item.
As far as politically sensitive budgetary proposals are concerned, large sums of money are set to be granted to Guwahati city for making it smart. However, given the dynamics of the city and its needs, we would request you to consult senior party members to augment the same funds in three specific utilities rather than an area based model. These are:
i) Disposal of garbage in which this city, as well as others, is lagging behind miserably. Smart segregation of waste (dry, wet, electrical, recyclable), timely collection to avoid foul odours, and removing dumping points from being near drains will help the city be cleaner and better prepared to deal with flash floods.
ii) The next thing is to reject proposals for a Metro as the city, and others too, doesn’t have a place apart from a city to IIT link, and invest very heavily in modern city bus services. Frequent AC buses on smart bus stops with all due indicators of timings etc. will help in reducing the carbon footprint as well, especially if facilitated by last-mile connectivity through e-rickshaws.
iii) The third would be to, starting with Guwahati onto all cities/towns, installing speedy Wi-Fi. Centring funds to this end whilst relegating remaining municipal issues to a technocrat governed GMC and GMDA will lead to more professionalism in the executive cadre.
While we are aware of the state’s pitiable financial conditions due to several factors as stated in the White Paper presented by Dr. Sarma on the very first session of the state assembly, we would request the state to take advantage of some in-place measures by both the central government and civil society groups. Even if finance secretaries feel that the debt can be dealt with, steps must still be taken through central schemes like UDAY (which, as stated by Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal, Assam is keen to join soon) to reach a revenue neutral rate of 3.5/unit through proper distribution, transmission and generation units, each autonomous. The current rates bite the pocket of even the upper middle-class.
The state has also for a while been requesting to revive the 90:10 funding pattern. If, however, the same is rejected, the state must be prepared with a negotiating roadmap of increasing central funding. This can be through making all state highways national and increasing/adding stake of the Union government in ASEB and other state utility PSUs.
Assam has a worryingly high penetration of tobacco consumption. Hence, a massive increase in VAT on cigarettes is needed fiscally as also to impose a 20% tax on beedis (this would be met with initial furore but unprecedented acclaim from all well-wishers). We would also like for the state to legalise betting in cricket matches and bringing it under the tax bracket as a moderate service levy collection source. This would judiciously shift police resources to more crucial areas and serious atrocities. There needs to be an acceptance of Nitin Gadkari’s ambitious waterways bill, and coordination with the central ministry for waterways/shipping to adopt a model bill like that of the Union government, to finally do justice to our vast inland water resources which have tremendous potential for domestic travel. To facilitate this, a modern, fully functional and high capacity port is also needed in Guwahati and Tinsukia to make Assam a destination and medium for various cargos. The finance ministry also needs to consult/fast-track with the Centre on model state GST, land acquisition bills for immediate, speedy presidential assent to drive medium-term economic growth.
Dibrugarh, Tezpur and Tinsukia are also developing parking hazards and issues like Guwahati and, to curb this, either state maintained multi-storey/underground parking or must be constructed or high parking fees have to be issued. ASTC bus depots must be on clear grounds free from busy parts of the town/city.
The state would also be of great value to its traders if its markets were maintained in a more citizen-centric manner. Crowded lanes of Fancy Bazar, Pan Bazaar in Guwahati and likewise in other places of the state can be made pedestrian only (we would like to request the honorable Finance Minister of Assam to consult Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and become familiar with their bustling ‘New Market’ and ‘Dus Number Market’ in Bhopal for this). Large, high definition digital boards can be set up in large congregational places within bazaars providing safety-related information as well as advertisements for revenue (like Times Square, New York).
Lastly, as students of the state, we owe a lot to our teachers. It would be greatly welcomed by the educational and civil society community if Assam musters the administrative courage to set up a separate pay scale/commission for government teachers and doctors rather than comparing the same to a grade one/A level officers. There is a fundamental logic driving this, that being the minimum qualification levels and entry years of the two compared to civil servants differ greatly. Doctors need post-graduate degrees while teachers need M.Phil., B.Ed. after M.A./M.Sc., Ph.D. and other educational eligibilities. Substantially higher basic salaries and perks for them will do great service for the welfare scenario. Ideally, permanent teachers and doctors with eight years of competent government service should be paid equal to cabinet secretaries/junior ministers at least. Politically speaking, this would also be an apt move to simultaneously hike legislators’ salaries.
Sarbananda Sonowal in featured image. Source: @sarbanandsonwal/Twitter.