The Telegraph
Thursday , February 21 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
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Assam sneezes, neighbour catches cold

Tura, Feb. 20: Sitting in his modest eight foot-by-nine foot shop close to Tura Super Market in West Garo Hills district, Ashok Gupta goes into a tizzy every time there is any kind of traffic disruption in Goalpara district in neighbouring Assam. Similar is the plight of Plus Two student Sayan Das or an ailing James Marak.

For Gupta cannot get his daily supplies from Assam and Das misses out on his “very important” coaching classes for an engineering entrance exam. Marak has to forego his weekly dialysis in a Guwahati hospital for his failed kidneys if there is any disruption affecting NH 37, which passes through Goalpara; it is the only smooth link to Garo hills through NH 51. These highways are its lifelines.

The January 12 killings in the Rabha Hasong council area that left over 20 dead in Goalpara district, 100km from Tura, are situations most in Garo hills dread as neither goods nor people could move in or out from either Guwahati or capital Shillong during the unrest as the link got snapped. Goalpara, in short, has been dominating discussions and not the ensuing high-stake February 23 polls in the five Garo hills districts, two of which were created last year to take the government “closer” to the people.

Life in the agriculture and government scheme-dependent region with very high unemployment, poor connectivity either through road or the Internet (which shuts down by 7pm in towns) goes haywire if there is any upheaval in Goalpara. Unfulfilled promises by politicians and internal law and order situations make it even worse.

A report by the West Garo Hills district administration, which was declared the second best district in the country for best electoral practices, sums up the connectivity woes: “Though the district headquarters is connected with NH 51, other important places are yet to be linked with proper roads. Economic as well as social standard of people still require uptrend movement. It has a meagre infrastructural base.” Assam and its ever-growing ethnic troubles are, therefore, a recurring theme during any conversation a local has with someone from the neighbouring state, certainly not a good commentary on the Tarun Gogoi government, raising questions about stability. The Congress has been in power since 2001 in Assam. “There has been at least 10 to 20 per cent rise in prices. The longer the disruption, the more is the increase, impacting both buyers and sellers. The fast completion of the much-delayed Tura-Nongstoin-Shillong Road as an alternative route is a must if we were to be spared untoward developments in Assam. Where is the time to think about elections?” asks Gupta.

Das, too, hoped the new government would seriously look into the infrastructure bit, something chief minister Mukul Sangma admitted was an issue which the government was redressing.

Even sitting MLA John M. Marak from Bajingdoba in the newly created North Garo Hills, bordering Goalpara, says his is a vulnerable constituency because of the tension between the communities living along the border, such as Garos, Rabhas, Bengalis and Assamese. There is also a sizeable population of Muslims. “There is always fear of ethnic flare-up and militant movement. I have moved the Meghalaya government to build an all-weather road connecting all border villages for effective police patrolling and to expedite the direct link to Shillong,” Marak, 65, who is contesting on an NPP ticket, said.

Those from Tura, Mahendraganj, Ampati and Selsella constituencies say not much is being seen or heard of the polls because the campaign is of a personalised nature in these parts. The community bond is very strong. “Voters expect candidates to visit them at least once or hold meetings in their area. It is a small state with a voter count of around 20,000-25,000 per LAC,” said Bibhas Dey of the NPP.

On the yet-to-be completed NH 51 from Paikan to Tura (100km) and then another 85km further to the border town Mahendraganj, there is very little to suggest that a high-stake election is just days away.

There is, in fact, more display of posters and banners on roadside walls and government offices in Garo hills, motivating the public to exercise their franchise. Strict implementation of the model code of conduct by the district administration has also resulted in a “very, very subdued” campaign this time, say locals.

However, expectations from the next government are very high. Achit Kanti Sarkar, 65, and Hiralal Chowhan, 56, of Mahendraganj say election is nothing but a once-in-five-years ritual in which they participate in the hope of a better future which continues to elude them in absence of development and livelihood opportunities. “There is no job. I have no home of my own. My son, daughter and I survive by doing private tuition. I hope the next government will look into the problem of joblessness, “ Sarkar said.

Similarly, Chowhan, a mason, hopes his son, who is in Class IX, will be absorbed in some government job.