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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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CIMA Gallary

Sinking ship syndrome sets in

‘Broken patches of the newly done NH 37 has taken years to complete’

A famous economist had written that if one wears green glasses one will see things green. There is a lot of good things happening in the northeaster region. Anybody wearing a positive glass would be able to see this — be it in agriculture in Tripura and Nagaland, the women enterpreneurs in Manipur, the people involved in reviving the xatras in Assam or the revival of the dance and music forms in all ethnic groups.

But there are others who would not hesitate to paint a picture of hopelessness about the region. Actually one finds most of the states other than Assam speak quite positively about their states and the region – or at least not as negatively as the people of Assam.

One reason why the people of Assam, especially the so-called Assamese caste Hindus and the Assamese Muslims say this is that they need to make some sort of rationalisation as to why they have taken the steps to buy property outside and/or send their wards outside. The members of the so-called Assamese elite feel that in the near future, given the growth rate of population and the structure that is emerging, the migration of youth outside the state and entry of legal and illegal outsiders, the state will soon become similar in structure to Bangladesh and consequently, the opportunities for their wards would be few and far between. Besides, there will be only those old retired people among these two groups to look after the properties till they are around with not much enthusiasm in keeping the situation from such a scenario. For them, the countdown has already begun.

Having said this, let us see how such forecasts become self-fulfilling. The region being what it is, the role of social contracts which are mostly verbal in nature takes an important place. One is still in the habit of telling the milkman to give pure milk, the plumber to do his job well or the fish seller to give ‘local fish’. When one gets cheated one becomes careful the next time and such incidences lead to an increase in transaction cost/s in turn. In Assam we have innumerable cases of breaches of such trust. Any contractual agreement cannot take care of all the small aspects of the business, leaving quite a few things ‘silent’ and when the experience turns sour, there is delay, corruption and uncertainty. In such an environment, adverse selection sets in — that is, only those who are undeserving join the fray. The honest and good ones stay away or leave the state. They even encourage others to do the same. Once the undeserving candidates get the contract, there is this problem of moral hazard, which is to say that there is no compunction for them to adhere to the terms and conditions and implement the projects honestly. The result is there for all of us to observe. Some of the parties have become experts in securing contracts, flouting norms, fighting legal cases or making more money from arbitration instead of performance of the contract. Another case in point is the broken patches of the newly done NH 37 which has taken years to complete, especially the part of NH 37 around Jagiroad. The future appears to be bleak, given such a scenario.

Initially, society is shocked at such events and demands corrective actions. But when there is no conviction and punishment — in fact the perpetrators are mostly rewarded for their unconscionable actions — the spirit of the people to fight such situations wanes. As the number of such cases increase, only the very large cases of anomaly get reported by the media. People lose interest other than finding out which officers, friends and relatives have made it to the list and nothing beyond that. During this phase of transition the sinking ship syndrome (SSS ) sets in.

The SSS is what we in Assam might be facing. When the ship is sinking, everyone tries to save himself/herself and his/her near and dear ones; the ship is no longer a vessel to save. If the captain is like the proverbial Nero, then the ship will sink faster. In such a scenario people try to loot everything that is of value and take them to safer places. This is what can be observed here, especially when one reads the vernacular dailies. Although all the stories may not be absolutely true, there cannot be smoke without fire. On the other hand, some other newspapers react to such negativity by going to the other extreme. They desist completely from reporting such events, depriving the readers of valuable information and giving the perpetrators a handle to say that these news items are only some figment of imagination of some yellow rags.

In a sinking ship there are some good people who will risk their lives to save others just like the other group who will plunder and loot. This is true of any society. But what distinguishes one progressive society from the others is the group in between — the so called the fence-sitters who are swayed one way or another depending on the situation and the pulls and pushes. If they feel that the ship may be saved they will join the do-gooders. If they feel that there is no hope then some of them will join the group of plunderers. In Assam it is of utmost importance that the do-gooders stand up and keep the fence sitters from falling to the other side. And it is not very difficult.

In our democratic set-up, the most unscrupulous of the state do get elected and will not stop from the anti-social activities. But in public forums they are constrained to take a position which goes against their own grain. The decisions taken may affect one group more than the other, but no representative can take a position which reeks of selfishness. They speak as if they have been chosen by the Almighty to do good, such is the power of public forum. And therefore the ‘few good men’ must seize the opportunity to pass laws and ordinances so that the wicked of the world can be prevented from raping the state. Perhaps this is why it is important for the youths to enter politics and the ‘few good men’ to guide them.

Assam is still one of the best states to live in — in spite of the pollution, power situation and those in the corridors of power. To make it a better place, the youth and the ‘few good men’ have to work together. The other states in the region have to be involved in all such decisions that may have any implication for the region as a whole. The positive feeling about the region can be reinforced by interaction among the leaders. The students have already shown the way. They need to get their state leaders to come to the discussion table.

Since the younger leaders are more sincere, one would get to see a more congenial relationship. Although there are ample examples to show that once the youth leaders become mature politicians they too fall in line, there is still a case for them to join active politics. It will be difficult to take back the power from the existing ones, but given the power of public forums, they can be handled.

Prof. A.K. Sen had cautioned to beware of the power of the silent masses and as the legendary Assamese singer Bhupen Hazarika had sung “Muktikami lakhyajanar mauna prakax xunisane nai (Heard the freedom-seeking peoples’ silent protest)?” There has to be a sincere effort to educate the masses about the cost and benefits of short-term populist policies versus the long term benefits of all-round development. If the rule of law, mutual trust and social contracts of yore can be brought into vogue once again, it may be possible to dispel that sinking feeling and re-ignite hope for a better future.