A Bend in the River
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  • A phone call can save lives

    • Date: March 13, 2007; Tuesday  • Views: 11,284 views   • Comments:
    • Categories: Assam, Insurgency  

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    There is the wonderful story of Krishna Kumar, owner of the only mobile phone and STD booth in Bangree village, Vaishali district, Bihar, which has been in the media last week. Wonderful because it shows the power of connectivity and the indivisible link between connectivity and security ~ human security in terms of physical safety and security in terms of economic and emotional conditions which all of us value.

    Mr Kumar charges villagers Rs 5 for any incoming call which they receive. That may be piffling amount for most people, even in the lower middle class, but for those from this village, it is a substantial part of their income. But it is a good reality check for all of us to understand as one of the women interviewed on television said on Friday night, that spending five rupees “is half our daily income”.

    Why is Mr Kumar and his mobile phone so important: because the calls he receives and which the villagers then take or the calls they make from his booth or cell number make all the difference between life and death, between hope and despair, those inseparable companions, between ideas and reality.

    The families are of the Mahato group and not less than 100 men from 62 families are working in brick kilns in Assam. Many of these workers, earning thousands of rupees a month, are now headed back to a life of acute poverty in Bihar, which is one of the major producers of migrant labour in the country.

    It is better, obviously, to live, than to die for the sake of a few thousand rupees. But then again, where will they now go to earn their living? Bihar is incapable of feeding or providing for its huge and burgeoning population and one reason why there has been an improvement in some living conditions in the state is that millions of Biharis have moved outside the state and send money back to their villages, towns and families: the post office economy through money orders or where they have bank accounts through cheques or, where friends or relatives are travelling back to the home country, hard cash.

    It should not be difficult to answer this question: people in search of work will find it, because the networks that provide the information about life and safety in Assam can also give information about work opportunities in places which appear safer: Gujarat or Andhra Pradesh, Delhi or Dubai. Where determination combines with resourcefulness, opportunities are created. What is Assam’s loss, which is essentially in the area of our creaking infrastructure of roads, cities and so on, because these were workers, largely in the construction industry, will be the gain of the state which now attracts them.

    In a country of this size, where manufacturing and infrastructure are burgeoning, there will always be work for those with manual skills. The North-east is far behind most other regions in terms of physical infrastructure. The Ulfa attacks of last week ensure that this will remain so. And this is a group that proclaims its commitment to the development of Assam!

    What development, Ulfa?
    What development are you speaking of, Ulfa? One where there are no roads or schools, health centres or decent settlements, where drinking water and irrigation facilities remain at the bottom and sanitation is a big zero? The basic needs of many people in Assam and other northeastern states have not been met, nearly 60 years after Independence. And every time there is a terrorist strike, that process of trying to bring about growth, put infrastructure in place and move forward suffers a huge setback. It is not just Assam which suffers, but the whole region, because every state of the North-east, barring Sikkim, is linked to Assam through roads and railway networks.

    If a strike, for example, to protest events such as Ulfa killings or government apathy, closes the Brahmaputra Valley or even a part of it, the transportation of goods and people to all these states is harmed immediately. Lakhs of people dependent on such connectivity are troubled, financially, in terms of services and availability of goods and even food items, as well as emotionally. The daily wage earner is worst hit.

    When will Ulfa and its cadres spend some time, without arms, helping in the development process where they help people sustain themselves with new skills (not carrying weapons or using them) instead of disrupting or destroying it? Or is it their view that since this is an “Indian” system, it is better that people live in acute poverty and unemployment, without decent education or health services and other distress until the golden day of liberation dawns? There cannot be a more ridiculous proposition.

    All that Ulfa will provoke is instant retaliation by the Central armed forces in alliance with the state police. The impact and cost will be heavy on the people of Assam, the very constituency they proclaim to represent. This is happening now: and the government, while outraged at Ulfa’s killings, is surely more concerned about the ease of the killings and the failure of systems to come to the rescue of the poor and vulnerable, at the failure of its much vaunted Unified Command to do anything about it (the brainchild of Lt-Gen SK Sinha, former governor of Assam, it has been functioning since 1996 with increasingly diminishing effectiveness.).

    I have said this publicly and I will reassert here that the battle against Ulfa or any armed group cannot be won by the Army. They can only create a space that will enable political processes to enter a transparent dialogue which can help settle the problem. How many military operations is the Army of the Centre going to launch every few years?
    The door to conversation must be kept open and politicians must move quickly and courageously, on both sides. The shutting of this door will lead to increasing desperation on the part of Ulfa and, after a lull, perhaps more violence. It is important to bear in mind that the slayings in Assam follow a military crackdown against Ulfa in their home districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar.

    National Games decision
    There is the question of the National Games next month. Those of us who live, travel or work in Guwahati and its environs know that the infrastructure is not ready, that the organising committee is in a mess and big declarations about having the games, “come what may” by government leaders ring hollow.

    No foolproof security is possible in any event, anywhere, by any government. The Indian Olympic Association, the top sports federation of the country, must make an independent assessment of the situation and, if required, postpone the games to a more reasonable date. It is not as if Ulfa wants a ban on the games; it wants them held on its terms.
    The state government, in its usual knee-jerk fashion, thinks by standing on its high horse and being adamant that it can solve the problem. The National Games is a sports event by sports organisations and sports persons. It is not a “government” event, as such: government does put the infrastructure together and is the major funder and facilitator. But the sports ministry and its energetic and visionary minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, who holds other portfolios, including that of the northeastern ministry, must take a hard look at whether Assam is ready for the games and not be swayed by Congress positioning at the local level. It would be a disaster if violence erupted at the time. But even if it did not, should, in three weeks time, the state’s associations be unable to put the Games in place, it would be an embarrassing tragedy for Assam and the Centre.

    Face-saving formula
    As far as Ulfa is concerned, if it is indeed bothered about “the people” as its every claim aired on the media says, then it would listen to the people. And listen to what Assamese of every group are saying: end this violence, there is no support for your ideas or strategies any more, go for talks, stop this pretence of developing a dialogue on sovereignty, a political concept which has no takers. In other words, be realistic; the race has run its course and the future is dark and blighted if Ulfa continues to travel on its current road.

    Dialogue has to be frank and honest, without interlocutors. Violence by both sides must cease and senior Ulfa leaders must come directly for unconditional talks with Central leaders. Neither side should set conditions for talks. Talks are better than killings.

    And in the process, the Centre must swamp the region with new technology and mobile connectivity, leapfrogging the need for roads and bridges. A phone call can save a life, or many lives. That surely is an indicator of the Human Security Index as anything else.

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