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How Neo-Imperialism Sugarcoats Road Projects As Developmental Activities

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Early imperialism was characterised by ecological colonialism; that is to say, the ecology of a region was shaped by colonial interventions. While the interventions themselves were acts committed in furtherance of the needs of the imperialist, the social necessities of capital to constantly valorise surplus-value led imperialist powers to extract valuable minerals and biological resources. This affected a change in the land use of forestland — some forests were converted into arable land through which the imperialist power collected revenues. Forest resources also proved to be commodities whose value could be realised in the market.

To satisfy this very need for capital, the British in India enforced the nationalisation of forests in the 1800s. This was legalised under the Indian Forest Act of 1865. The Act gave a monopoly over forest resources to British colonisers, who were basically acting on behalf of the imperialist bourgeoisie in England. Forests were categorised according to their commercial needs and given to the highest bidder in Britain. Accordingly, capital sought control over forests and through it, water resources too.

But this opening up of the hitherto unconquered landscape of water and mountains was commissioned through the construction of roads and railways. The development of infrastructure needed to import capital in forests, and the subsequent flow of labour and raw material from these spaces was done under the leadership of the World Bank. One of the presidents of the Bank said:

A great deal of the work of the Bank is carrying on the work of the empire such as irrigation work, ports, railways, dams, roads, mines and even project for small farmers.’

Transportation and communication extension programmes by the World Bank in oppressed countries are blood vessels for the global imperialist economy. For it is these routes that carry capital to the oppressed region and in return bring labour and raw material. This spatial expansion of imperialist economic-ecology is a necessary stage in the free-market capitalism designed by the classic ‘babas’ of political economy in the likes of A Smith and David Richardo.

cars traffic road

But before this expansion can be achieved, the road for capital has to be laid down. Roads, therefore, is a medium of control and authority over other resources. Since most of the roads are made by the ruling class, it is but clear that they would control the movement of resources. Transportation is a medium through which the ruling class uses resources. Transport networks are so designed that they create a dependency on the political-economic space of the ruling class. The World Bank, while launching its initiatives on an alien land, has to create objects of faith, roads being one of them. Roads are often seen as an object per se. But it is an object to meet the end of a particular class.

The word ‘integration’ often comes up in the rhetoric of the ruling class as a justification for road construction and to mask the interest of the ruling class behind road construction. It is, in fact, an act of colonisation. For every small need of the village, people will have to move towards cities; the cities, being an absolute space of imperial capital, will exploit their labour-power in order to maximise their gain.

As this dependency increases, all the productive power of the countryside will get sucked in by the urban centres of the finance capital and in return, people of the countryside will find themselves in the dirt of the urban space, having been displaced by the so-called development projects. They would get purged of their resources and will be left to starve in urban slums. A huge army of labour will ensure for the capitalist that the wages remain low. They would be, as Marx said, a reserve pool of labour-power, for being in a destitute state, they would work at any terms.

Besides, roads are also a means to gain relative surplus-value. Without roads and other transportation networks, the cost of the transportation of raw material to the manufacturers will be huge, but with a well-built transportation network, this cost will come down drastically. Hence, it is always in the coloniser’s interest to construct a permanent pavement in form of roads, on which wheeled vehicles can move.

This way, there would be no limit to the amount of resources and capital that can be moved from the villages to cities. But simultaneously, this will also increase friction between the ruling and oppressed class, whose resources are being expropriated by these structural and institutional arrangements.

It is equally wrong to say that only the imperialist bourgeoisie and their compradors in the cities stand to gain by roads and other networks of transportation. The World Bank has always acted in close collaboration with local landlords of the countryside. The Bank, in its capitalist, imperialist mission, stands to gain by the dominance of local landlords over resources and labour-power of the people. For it is the local landlord and fellow beings of the ruling class in the countryside who, along with the World Bank, decide the site for road construction, for the value of land increases when a road is laid down near that land.

Big landlords and merchants benefit in terms of relative surplus on the food grains transported to the market. Peasants having large landholdings are able to produce large quantities of food grains. Hence, for them, the reduction of transportation costs will produce a relative surplus.

In Himachal, it is common for small- and mid-size apple growers to not use the road for transporting their apples to the mandis. On the other hand, big landlords and rich peasants take their apples to different mandis via roads. This clearly establishes the fact that roads are a channel for capital export for the rich.

Michael K McCall wrote about Van der Tak and de Weille’s follow-up study for a World Bank-financed road project in Iran. Their results, in summary, showed that the transport cost for agricultural produce declined by 20% after the construction, whereas the price for the growers remained unchanged. In analysing the reasons for this, they found that there were many middlemen between the farmer and his market in Tehran and these middlemen were “in a strong position both politically and economically” with respect to the provision of credit, transport and marketing services.

The middlemens’ monopoly allowed a difference of 25-55% between the farm gate and the Tehran market, whereas the transport cost accounted for only 5-10% of the margin. The rest was absorbed by transporters’ and other profit-makers. The authors concluded that the road created no development effects for the people in that area; no increase in agricultural production was noticed due to the construction of the road; and an overhaul of the marketing structure might have had far greater development effects than any road improvement.”

This excerpt from McCall contradicts his analysis in the later section of the article, where he says that imperial capital destroys the traditional rural economy and builds a capitalist one. But from the excerpt above, it can be said that imperialism does not allow any space for the indigenous growth of capital. Through this report, one can see that the World Bank as an institution fuels class relations in pre-capitalist societies. Roads are instrumental in reproducing class relations of a society, but they do not change them qualitatively.

Politically, roads are a site for state production. Roads bring in schools, police stations, health centres, and in the social space of Himachal Pradesh, they also bring temples. All these institutions are ideological apparatuses of the state. These apparatuses ensure complete compliance with the colonising dictates of the colonial powers. The disciplinarian mechanism in its physical form is the state institution of police and other domestic policing agency.

On the contrary, in its metaphysical form, the disciplinarian mechanism of a temple and school normalises a particular form of development model, in which resource extraction is presented as a model of self-reliance and progress, and in which an individual’s status is judged by their capacity to adapt to the social and cultural space of cities.

In case of a clash of space between rural and urban sociolect-cultural spaces, urban spaces are the abode for the imperial capital. This capital produces a particular type of social and cultural space, but this clash is never complete, for the imperialist capital integrates the mentality of feudal cultural values in land relations at rural spaces.

Therefore, the process of urbanisation in a non-industrial society is a process to create neo-liberal markets for mass consumption by the middle-class, and a vast pool of labour for the comprador and imperialist bourgeoisie. Rich peasants and big landlords start using cars manufactured by Maruti, Honda, Ford and others.

In Himachal, cars have become a common commodity. The drive for money that is an inherent character of such a developmental model has cast its shadow on the consciousness of people — hence, the traditional society that rested on community life is being individualised. Money, the great corrupter, has manufactured conditions for the commercialisation of every social aspect of the society.

Thus, at a material level, the ideologies that get normalised are a mixture of imperialism and pre-capitalist social relations. In tribal societies, roads engulf the distinct identity of the people; in oppressed nations, roads are a method for imposing Brahmanism in primitive societies and suppressing dissent against what is ‘normal’ and dominant. Roads de-link people at the margins from their culture, economy, social life and daily reproduction of their distinct human identities.

The history of road construction in Himachal is not new. Despite its rugged terrain and geological sensitivity, the ruling class has been building towards an imperial vision of mountains. Roads for the movement of wheeled vehicles started during British imperialism. The first highway to be constructed on this highly rugged tough terrain was the ‘Hindustan Tibet Road’ that Lord Dalhousie ordered the construction of in June 1850. It connects the interiors of the Himalayas at the border of China with the Grand Trunk Road of India in Ambala Cantt city.

British colonial policies in the Himalayan region were three-folds: one was the trading connectivity with the outer Himalayan tribes that gave the pretext to colonise the whole of outer Himalayas; secondly, the British were heavily invested in great games, they had to ensure that in case the Russian Tsarist regime reaches the northern boundaries of the Indian subcontinent, then the region’s connectivity with the mainland of British empire has to be so designed that soldiers can easily be mobilised at the borders; thirdly, the most important thing from which the British colonial power profited in the Indian subcontinent was the export of raw materials to the industries in England, from this perspective, the Himalayas, being the abode of forests, were of great significance.

Deforestation for timber became a highly profitable investment for the British, construction of roads further increased the profit from the timber business. During the early years of the nineteenth century, the oak forest of England started disappearing. This created a shortage of timber for the Royal Navy of the British empire. This shortage was met by the export of timber from India.

This history shows the strong link between sea power and forests. Imperialism needed wood for its dominance over water, and to dominate over woods it needed roads. Such was the history of the first road constructed in Himachal, it served as an extractive toll for the purpose of imperial assault on the mountains, forests and water of Himachal.

But if one sees the rationale that was put forward before the general public for the construction of Hindustan-Tibet highway, then we find a lot of rhetoric regarding the ‘desire for the state to revolutionise the social conditions of people.’ Lord Dalhousie said that the construction of roads will eliminate the servitude of the peasants to the landlords in the form of ‘Begar’. On the rhetoric of anti-feudalism, colonialism solidified its hold on people of the Indian subcontinent.

This was when, in construction projects themselves, the Begar labour of Dalits was practiced. The British used the local ruling class structures to deploy labour and create a consensus among the locals regarding such projects. Imperialist exploitation and oppression were tied up with the feudal class structure of the society. Such was the general exploitation of Himachal’s resources during the direct colonial rule of the British imperialist masters.

In response to the rising class struggles, working-class power against the ruling capitalist regime got crystallised as a powerful socialist state of the USSR. Due to this, imperialism changed its tactics and introduced neo-colonial tactics of exploitation and political dominance. To address the administrative needs of such a shift, imperialist powers of the world gathered at the Bretton Woods of USA in 1944. All nations that had emerged powerful after World War II were present at this conference. Imperialist powers designed neo-liberal policies for the world and accepted the hegemony of the dollar over trade and commerce at the global level.

Financial aid in terms of loans was given to oppressed countries with utmost importance. This led to the formation of the Bretton Woods institutions, of which Word Bank and IMF are units. The name given to these institutions was International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). Its chief purpose was lending finance for development. In the age of a growing class struggle at the global level, this was a modest response to Soviet power.

The imperialist effort to colonise the globe is now available in the sugar-coated capsule of ‘aid’ and ‘development’. Financial aid was a substitute for old-fashioned colonialism. And in this age of monopoly capital, the World Bank emerged as the new instrument of national oppression and exploitation. The export of capital and, in turn, its valorisation was found in the language of the World Bank.

The Bank was in charge to rescue capital from its crisis. To facilitate this, the control behind the export of capital was given to state institutions of the oppressed countries. This control is particularly detrimental to the general interest of the working class. The Bank needed investment opportunities favourable to the export of capital in oppressed countries. For this, the labour-power as a commodity in the oppressed countries wasn’t just regulated, but their bargaining power had to be curtailed. This was done by all sorts of draconian measures to oppress and exploit the labour.

Prestige Park Drive Bellary Road Bangalore

Neo-colonial tactics of imperialist exploitation in Himachal Pradesh is evident in its financial dependency, which the State has on the World Bank. This dependency has created an obliging effort for the Indian State to open up all the land for dominance by finance capital. A highly developed network of roads has become all the more important. Himachal Pradesh, hence, is criss-cross by road networks. Almost all trading centres, where there is a possibility of surplus generation, are connected with the cities.

This is despite the fact that geophysicists such as Roger Biham warned the Bank of severe earthquakes in the Himalayas in the coming decades. He said that construction activities in the geologically sensitive belt of the Himalayas have created pressure on the tectonic plate movements. This may lead to a bursting of pressure in near future.

The Himalayas has already been affected by climate change — the melting of snow and drying up of natural water sources in the mountains are some indicators of this. But the torrential rainfall of roads in the mountains to colonise resources and the people has made its people vulnerable to the geological catastrophe of earthquakes, rock slides, landslides and cloud bursting. While linking the people to city centres, the ruling class is disconnecting people from their environment.

Roads, besides directly adding to the ecological imbalance of the Himalayan ecology, is also paving the way for tourism in the mountains. These tourists from the plains are basically alienated human forms who bring in a culture of mass consumerism, generate waste and get them burnt, which adds to the ecological imbalance of the Himalayan ecosystem. Additionally, the roads have also brought in stone quarries industry, which blast the whole of the mountains to carry stones away. The stones are then transported to the cement industry.

This has created havoc throughout the mountainous ecosystem. Blasting of mountains is also done in the construction of dams. “Roads,” said eminent ecologist Thomas Lovejoy, “are the seeds of tropical forest destruction.” Road building produces fumes, which warms up the ecosystem and further contributes to global warming. Lovejoy further wrote:

“Tropical deforestation is a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions. International carbon-trading funds should be used to better plan and mitigate road projects, to establish new protected areas in advancing road construction, and to halt the most ill-advised road projects altogether.” 

The construction of roads furthers the exploitation of mountains for petroleum and other minerals. Further, once roads get constructed, railways and airports come in to further exploit the mountainous ecosystem. The construction of tunnels for road and rail networks are other such examples of the destructive role of roads in the Himalayan ecosystem. Blasting for tunnel construction has converted the mountainous landscape into a gas burner. All around the construction zone, sand dust from the blasting floats in the air and water.

People develop chronic respiratory problems, and the quality of their apples gets damaged due to dust. There are economic and ecological costs of the tunnel that the people of the mountains have to bear in order to get their resources channelised to the city centres. Many natural springs and streams have dried up due to this. River water gets unfit for drinking, the aquatic life of the river gets killed due to poisonous air. By creating a black cloud of dust and fumes, development projects take water, forest and mountains from the people and give in return destitution and hopelessness, for the damage that has been done to the ecology can never be retrieved.

Road Projects Over The Last 20 Years

Eight national highways pass through Himachal, covering a total area of 1,235 km. The country`s longest road tunnel above 10,000 ft is located on NH21, the national highway that connects Manali to Leh valley. In 2008, the World Bank approved six road tunnels in Himachal, of which four were to be built in Shimla, one on NH21 that connects Chandigarh with Manali, and another on the Ranital-Kangra road.

Besides, the Bank also sanctioned loans for the widening of roads in different districts of Himachal. Transportation is in the concurrent list of the Indian Constitution and the government of Himachal in collaboration with Central governments uses the financial loans from World Bank to construct road networks in the State. Again in 2010, the World Bank approved $1.5 billion for rural roads in Himachal and other neighbouring states.

The director of the World Bank for India had said: “A good road network can generate many commercial and social benefits for rural economies.” This is very similar to the language that Dalhousie used to justify the construction of the Hindustan-Tibet highways and extracted water, forest and mountain resources from the area under this pretext. The similar language uttered by two different, but nevertheless same, power symbolises the shift from old colonial tactics to neo-colonial tactics of imperialist exploitation.

The State institutions acting on the command of the World Bank and other such powers are busy sanctioning and implementing highway construction programmes in Himachal. In a document released by the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) in the year 2019, titled ‘Pragati Ki Nayi Gati’, the government announced several highway-related projects that includes the widening of NH21 to a four-lane road. This is being done in a region that is highly sensitive ecologically, the area is prone to landslides due to heavy rainfall and can cause total destruction to the ecological balance of the region.

The Locked Down Roads

The document mentions that the government wants these highways to get “built by tunnelling through the mighty Himalayas.” The hyper-masculine imperialist coloniser’s language that the document has used clearly indicates the driving force behind this road construction — what the World Bank wants is a space for the valorisation of capital. And the highways, while reducing the cost of transportation, will increase the relative surplus-value in the process of capital valorisation.

Apart from this, projects for widening the Parwanoo-Solan section of NH22 to a four-lane highway has also been proposed. In principle, approvals to 71 National Highways have been given in Himachal.

Billions of dollars will be pulled up on these projects by the World Bank and flow into the bureaucratic pipeline of the Indian administrative and political system. The funds will then go to monopoly companies in road construction, including Larson and Turbo, IRB and others. It is not surprising to learn that even though the country was under a severe lockdown over the past 1.5 years, the shares of these companies were on a rise. What is the reason behind their profits?

The Human Cost Of These Construction Projects

Marx explained that the rate of exploitation is the ratio between surplus value, i.e. the profit of the capitalist, and labour-power. That means that to increase the profit of the capitalist, more exploitation of labour-power is necessary. Hence, the rise in the profit of these companies indicates the rise in the exploitation rate of the working class in general.

We know that during the Covid-induced lockdown, workers were worst affected. The Indian working class is spread across various informal sectors. They are hired by contractors, but only a few of them are directly employed with the company or corporation for which they work. This gives the capitalist a great advantage, they don’t have to provide social infrastructure for the reproduction of labour. They do not have to spend on their health, education etc.

In a condition where the labour is not formalised, the exploitation of workers becomes two-fold: one is in their relationship with the capitalist, and the other in their relationship with the contractor who brought them from far-off places such as Jharkhand, Nepal, Orissa and Bihar to work on a construction site in Himachal. The contractor pays them before the completion of their work at the construction site. The initial payment binds the worker to the contractor, who basically acts as the muscle man of the company. Thereby, the workers are bound to the work. Caught in such a web, many of the workers in the construction sector were made to work even during the lockdown. This explains the rise in the profit of construction companies even during the lockdown.

The working condition of the migrant labour in the construction of roads and highways is pathetic. They are made to work from 5 am till 10 pm and paid only Rs 180 per day. Most of the contractors do not even pay the wages on time. In such a condition, when the workers do not have enough money, they have to loan a certain amount from the contractor. This again binds them to the contractor and the project they were hired for.

Besides, they aren’t given a proper living arrangement and made to sleep under discarded military tents and rock sheds, which too is packed by fellow workers. In one tent,  there are about 40 people. They have to brave the severe cold winds of the Himalayas. For many of them, such severe cold is unusual. Sadhav Ekka from Bihar, who is employed in the highway construction at Rekong Peo, said,

“We work like slaves, bearing the heat and freezing cold, but we have no facilities. There is no drinking water at the worksite, no shed for resting, and not even a first-aid kit. Exposed to dust and smoke, most of the migrants develop respiratory problems such as tuberculosis and other diseases like malaria. They are not provided with any health service. The constant supply of labour to the construction site is ensured by the web of contractors who have their links at the village level of Bihar, Nepal and Jharkhand.”

An oppressed country such as India can provide capital with a huge pool of reserve labour-power and the negotiating power of the labour for wages are low. Additionally, the feudal bounding at the village level that pulls the worker to these construction sites also weakens the negotiating power of the workers. Behind these exploitative conditions of the workers lies the great imperialist giant, World Bank. But it is masked under the contractor and company that employs these workers.

The neo-colonial tactics of exploitation by imperialism have produced their own fetishism. Loot is mystified as development. This resonated with the title of the document mentioned earlier ‘Pragati ki Nayi Gati’, the only truth in the rhetoric being ‘gati’. Capital is also defined as gati as capital is value in motion. Roads decrease the friction in this gati, but they can not decrease this friction without increasing the exploitation of the working class. This is the human cost of highway construction — labour-power exploitation is the key to the road that leads to resource extraction.

Then there are people who stand to lose their jal, jungle and zameen (water, forest and land) to these so-called development projects. The exact number of people displaced due to development projects is never revealed by the government, but it is estimated that about 50 million people have been displaced by development projects. The displaced population then adds on to the pool of surplus labour-power, which in itself is a source of profit for capital.

Recently, in the month of February 2021, hundreds of people whose land has been acquired for the widening of the Pathankot-Mandi four-lane road protested against this takeover. These are the people who had earlier been displaced by the Pong power project and now, they face the threat of being displaced by the road-widening project. Over 3,781 people have been affected by this.

india migrant worker
NEW DELHI, INDIA – MAY 10: A migrant worker wears a face mask as he walks towards his home state during nationwide lockdown, at Raisina Road, on May 10, 2020 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The government, on paper, has made policies for the rehabilitation and compensation for the land so acquired. That itself never gets implemented. Such policies are covered by the bureaucratic fog, making them invisible to the masses. The maze of bureaucracy is such that the amount spent on greasing the palm of bureaucrats almost equals the compensation assigned by the government. And sometimes, the affected people do not get their amount even decades after the acquisition.

Breg Thakur, president of Four-Lane Sangarsh Samiti, reported that inadequate and delayed compensation has made people reluctant to give up their land. Landowners are in a better position to bargain with the State, but landless workers and migrant workers who used to work in the farms of the landowners are not accounted for, and neither do they have their own organisation to put forward their demands.

Psychologically, roads have created a mental clave. The fear of being confined to a space is haunting people. Though formally, the idea of road appears to be antithetical to the ides of space confinement, yet the social, political and economic space that the road has created have alienated the people from their local environment space. This alienation has produced psychological results of different kinds on different classes of people in society.

While for the ruling class, roads can be a source of motion, for the oppressed and exploited classes, roads are a source of claustrophobia. Roads are dramatic instruments for the capital, they have changed the whole political, economic and social space of society. Apart from this, they have produced an individual mental space where people feel robbed of their space. Unable to claim their original space, they are haunted by claustrophobia. Displaced people are trapped in the political space of the State, they move on from one office to another, find themselves on protest sites and sometimes, at the minister’s place, but they are never able to move beyond the dimensional limitations of the space that has caged them. They live in anxiety, in the fear that they will have to remain within this oppressive confined space.

The ideological apparatus of the State has strongly associated the vision of motion, freedom and development with roads. This fetishism has created a real ideological impulse in the minds of people. But when this fetishism gets blown away by the materiality of the world around them, they find themselves being haunted by claustrophobia. People have finally discovered that roads are not a means to improve social conditions, but a device to subordinate their labour-power to capital.

Similarly, the women of Himachal have this fear that roads lure them to the world of freedom. But what they get in return is eve-teasing in buses — a new space for being oppressed by patriarchy. New norms of patriarchal oppression are imported into society via roads. The mass consumerist culture of urban life gets absorbed in rural life, too. People start objectifying the woman’s body, while beauty products imported from city centres to the villages via roads set a new normal of beauty, thus limiting a woman’s identity to her body.

This is another kind of claustrophobia. Migrant labourers are strangulated in a political-economic space, but with no social institutional setup that would psychological condole them into finding a way to escape from the space, they are most vulnerable to the anxiety of being confined to a space. They have sacrificed their mental capacity for the cause of imperialism.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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