‘NRC important for a foreigner-free state’: Sarbananda Sonowal
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and over 70 people have died as heavy rain has triggered floods in Assam. Assam chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, spoke to Sadiq Naqvi about the flood situation and the steps his government is taking to tackle it. Edited excerpts:
How bad is the situation and what are the challenges you are facing in dealing with it?
The flood and erosion problems have been there in Assam for almost 70 years…The biggest challenge now is to provide adequate relief, medical checkups, and fodder for livestock. Standing by each and every affected person and to provide relief is our primary duty… Earlier, during the Congress’s rule, the relief distribution was not managed properly and the affected people would not get it at the right time. Many middlemen would siphon off the relief and lots of scams would happen… Over the last three years, the relief management system has become more efficient and its quality has improved.
Could you give us an example?
Earlier, the families [of those who died in floods] would not get ex gratia from the government and they would end up struggling and going from one office to other. We ordered that within 48 hours, deputy commissioners would visit houses of flood victims and hand over the ex gratia payments. So far, 71 persons [as on Wednesday] have died. Their families have been given Rs 4 lakh ex gratia payment each within 48 hours.
What has been the estimated loss so far?
We cannot estimate it at the moment. Roads, bridges, culverts, houses, farms, crops have been damaged. Government schools and health centres have been hit. Tremendous damage has happened. But to get specific information about the damage, we will have to do spot verifications. We have ordered every department to collect the information… once the information comes, we will send it to the Centre.
Assam has suffered floods for years. Has the state government received adequate funds from the Centre apart from the yearly State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF)?
In 2017, the Centre allocated Rs 2,000 crore for the Northeast. Assam received Rs 1,200 crore out of it. This was a special fund for infrastructure. Prime Minister [Narendra Modi] visited [the region] and met five chief ministers separately. A committee was formed under the leadership of [government think tank] NITI Aayog’s vice-chairman [Rajiv Kumar] to provide a permanent solution to problems of erosion, floods and landslides in Assam and the Northeast… A Northeast Water Management Authority has been proposed. Through the [Union] jal shakti ministry, steps will be taken to implement the proposal. Nobody gave so much attention to this issue as Prime Minister Modi has. Modi released Rs 251 crore from the SDRF and sent the jal shakti minister [Gajendra Singh Shekhawat] who came and reviewed the flood situation…Both Modi and home minister, Amit Shah, have taken note of the situation here. So we are not having any difficulty in managing it…
Does the state need a special package?
We get it every year. It will be given this year as well. The prime minister has assured us that there is nothing to worry and whatever assistance Assam needs, the Centre will provide it.
Many officials are involved in updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Has it impacted the relief work?
Over the last three years, 55,000 of our employees have been involved in the NRC exercise… If 55,000 out of 5 lakh [employees] are engaged only in one work, then you can imagine the kind of challenge the government has had to face in implementing its schemes. But we have not taken a step back and have succeeded in implementing them.
Do you think NRC work could have been suspended to put more officials on flood relief duty.?
In the times of any calamity, our first duty should be to provide relief to people… This is a people’s democracy — of the people, by the people, for the people. For the sake of humanity, standing by the flood-affected people is our biggest duty. On this issue, there should be no compromise in any situation. If we do not stand by the flood-affected people, it will be a big sin, an injustice, a violation of their human rights.
The state government has been demanding verification of the NRC. Are you not satisfied with how the exercise has progressed?
A verification is important. Such a massive constitutional document is going to be brought out for the first time. The document is about the security and identity of the bona fide Indian citizens. It is a question also of the country’s unity and sovereignty. Identification and detection of illegal immigrants has to be done through the NRC… Assam’s people want the NRC to be error-free and have no place for infiltrators. Our government pledged to build a foreigner free Assam. For that a foreigner free NRC is important.