For Assam’s new chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the top five challenges

Sarma assumes the responsibility at a crucial time, with the state witnessing the highest ever number of daily positive Covid19 cases and deaths due to the disease, with no immediate sign of the numbers decreasing
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. (File photo) PREMIUM
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. (File photo)
Updated on May 14, 2021 05:56 PM IST
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Putting an end to intense and prolonged speculation over who would take over as Assam’s chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma took charge as the state’s 15th chief minister on Monday, with outgoing chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal proposing Sarma’s name at the party’s legislative party meeting.

He assumes the responsibility at a crucial time, with the state witnessing the highest ever number of daily positive Covid19 cases and deaths due to the disease, with no immediate sign of the numbers decreasing.

HT lists the top five challenges for the 52-year-old CM and his new cabinet.

Covid crisis

As Sarma was the health minister in the previous Sonowal cabinet, and was hands-on in attempts at controlling spread of the disease, setting up Covid care centres, visiting patients at hospitals, procuring life-saving medicines and all required goods, it was expected he would keep the portfolio even after donning the CM’s chair.

But he chose to give the responsibility to Keshab Mahanta, working president of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance partner, Asom Gana Parishad. The move surprised many as despite being a senior minister in the earlier cabinet, Mahanta doesn’t have much experience in handling such a crisis and his role as water resources minister in the previous cabinet wasn’t felt to be up to the mark.

Assam is recording around 5,500-6000 new Covid-19 cases and an average of 70 deaths a day due to the disease. With positivity rate hovering between 8% and 10%, the state has nearly 40,000 active cases — putting immense pressure on the state’s health infrastructure and all those involved in the medical sector.

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Sarma is aware of the situation. He has already instructed ministers to visit all districts and file a ground report on status of the pandemic within three days. Stricter restrictions have been put in place, including closing down all office in urban areas and increasing the curfew duration to 15 hours daily. On Wednesday, he directed officials to conduct around 100,000 tests daily to detect positive cases early.

Fixing finances

As finance minister in the Sonowal government, Sarma is well aware of the financial realities of the state. As per government figures the state has liabilities of nearly 23,000 cr and total cumulative debt of around 85,000 cr. Like other states, Assam too faced difficulties in achieving its projected growth estimates at least in the first two quarters of last financial year, but the state continued to pay full salaries and pensions to its serving and retired employees.

Significantly, the CM didn’t keep this portfolio too with himself and gave the responsibility to Ajanta Neog, a former Congress minister and Sarma’s one-time cabinet colleague who switched sides to the BJP just ahead of the assembly polls and won from the Golaghat seat. Incidentally, Neog is the state’s first woman finance minister.

Addressing his first press conference on Monday after assuming charge, Sarma said that the state has 7,000 cr in its treasury and assured that the new government will be able to pursue its welfare and development schemes without facing any hurdles. “We have one of the best fiscal situations in the country in the entire country. There’s absolutely no cause of concern on Assam’s finances,” the CM claimed.

Besides spending on Covid-19 control, the state government will also have to implement its ambitious promises of providing 100,000 jobs in the first year and waiving of nearly 12,000 cr of the microfinance loans taken by women self-help groups. It will remain to be seen how Sarma and Neog are able to fulfill them and boost the state economy.

NRC re-verification

Among its ten commitments to voters of Assam ahead of the assembly polls, the BJP promised delivering a corrected National Register of Citizens (NRC) as per the Supreme Court (SC) mandate, in order to protect genuine citizens and detect illegal infiltrators so that Assam’s civilization “remains protected”.

In Assam, as per the Assam Accord of 1985, anyone who has been staying in the state prior to March 24, 1971 or can establish lineage to people residing on or before that date is considered as Indian citizen — a requirement also accepted for inclusion in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) updated in 2019. The names of around 1.9 million people who failed to prove their or their ancestor’s residency in Assam on that date and those who were declared foreigners by foreigners’ tribunals (as well their relatives) were excluded from the NRC.

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The BJP has maintained that the updated document is faulty as it has included dubious persons and excluded genuine citizens and needs to be re-verified. The process has remained stuck as the NRC office is yet to issue rejection slips to those left out, allowing them to file fresh appeals for inclusion.

“Our view on NRC is very clear. We want 20% re-verification of the list in districts bordering Bangladesh and 10% re-verification in other districts. If after that, the NRC is found to be correct, the state government would accept it and take the process forward. But if the NRC is found faulty after re-verification, we would want the Supreme Court to view this issue critically,” Sarma said at his first press conference as CM.

NRC coordinator Hitesh Dev Sarma has filed an application in SC, seeking a complete, comprehensive and time-bound re-verification of the draft NRC as well as the supplementary list of NRC as some “glaring anomalies of serious nature” were detected in the process. The application sought re-verification to be done under supervision of a monitoring committee preferably represented by district judge, district magistrate and superintendent of police.

ST status to six communities

The BJP has also committed to granting scheduled tribe (ST) status to six communities of the state — Koch-Rajbongshi, Tai Ahom, Moran, Motok, Sutiya and tea-tribes, currently falling under other backward castes (OBC) category. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised it ahead of 2014 Lok Sabha polls and it was also part of BJP poll promise in 2016 ahead of the Assam assembly polls.

The promise hasn’t been fulfilled yet. Though the Centre introduced a Bill in Rajya Sabha in January 2019 on granting ST status to these 6 communities, voting didn’t take place on it and the Bill lapsed. The state’s first BJP-led government of Sarbananda Sonowal also didn’t take much initiative on the issue apart from creating autonomous councils form Morans, Motoks and Koch-Rajbongshis in September last year — ahead of this year’s assembly election.

The six communities are estimated to have a total population of nearly 15 million. While the BJP has been able to keep them pacified with the promise of ST status, by attracting some leaders of these communities to the party-fold and by creating the three new autonomous councils, it will have act fast if it doesn’t want this issue to lead to mass agitations.

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“Our government will try and ensure granting of ST status to these communities through talks with all stakeholders without hurting the interests of other communities who are already in the same category. Our previous government had worked on some ways in which this issued could be resolved and we are confident on doing that in coming days,” Sarma said in his press conference.

Flood-free Assam

Floods are an annual scourge that affects millions in Assam every year. The state witnesses several rounds of floods during the monsoon season, which leads to loss of lives, large scale erosion, thousands getting uprooted from their home and loss of property. The biggest contributor to this flooding is the Brahmaputra that flows thorough Assam as well as its tributaries.

In 2016, the BJP had promised to dredge the Brahmaputra river of excess silt and reduce the problem of flooding. For this election, it listed Mission Brahmaputra with the aim of making the state flood-free on top of its 10 commitments made to voters.

The BJP has promised new and scientific measures to control floods. They include dredging, management of Brahmaputra’s tributaries, creating big reservoirs to accumulate extra water from the river, using satellite imagery to identify places where major flooding takes place, and drives to evict squatters from the banks of Brahmaputra and its tributaries.

From public health to citizenship, from natural disasters to economy, Himanta Biswa Sarma will have to hit the ground running in Assam.

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    Utpal is an assistant editor based in Guwahati. He covers all eight states of North-East and was previously based in Kathmandu, Dehradun and Delhi with Hindustan Times .

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