The first hundred days of any Chief Minister, more so a first time Chief Minister almost become a verdict on his competence as an administrator and his direction moving forward.
Chest thumping, bravado and populism more often than not are then used to convert this into a PR exercise, ground reality notwithstanding.
Being in the business of studying governance through the prism of evidence and firsthand experience, I visited Assam ahead of Himanta Biswa Sarma completing his 100 days.
I asked him his priorities and his answer was unambiguous, Assam ko banana hai (I have to build Assam). He has his task more than cut out.
I have been a frequent visitor to the Lahe Lahe land over the years and my Assam is not restricted to the airport, Taj Vivanta or Janata Bhawan.
For decades, the North Eastern Region (NER) has been a subsistence economy further reinforced by doles complicated by endemic corruption and exploitation. Jobs were always scarce but so were the people who wanted to work for a living.
The difference is palpable the moment you arrive at the Guwahati airport and take your first breath in the air of Assam.
Every traveller has to go through a COVID screening – that is a lot of people. There are hangars put up, lounges to sit and a very large number of counters to ensure that you get your Rapid Antigen Test efficiently, smoothly and quickly, that too without any need for name dropping.
This is when you realise that something has changed. As always, you see very little of Brahmaputra on your drive from the airport. Starting from colonial days, the bureaucracy appropriated the beautiful views in Guwahati.
The Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) has been empowered to develop the riverfront and remove dilapidated structures and preserve the heritage buildings . Devasish Sharma , Commissioner, GMC tells me that all that is set to change. A beautiful riverfront is going to be developed and buildings are being moved to where they can better serve the people. “This has been pending forever for want of clarity. Our roadmap is clear. We are also ensuring to process all solid waste and free the city from any kind of littering.”
The first-hand feel of the change is that 70% of street lights in Guwahati are now working in a city where a working street light was more of an exception than the norm.
The attitude difference in top IAS officers is palpable – they are not on a punishment posting anymore. They are there to make a difference. The Assam Civil service is looking competitive and roaring to go. This energy is somewhat similar to the one in Gujarat when Modi ji was the Chief Minister.
Samir Sinha who is the Principal Secretary to the CM and looks after Finance runs the CM office in a mission mode. From morning till late at night he is there. “Well so is the Hon’ble Chief Minister,” he tells me.
He has some personal commitments. Old friends visiting and waiting at home for dinner. It is 10 pm and his phone is ringing incessantly. No time to go home. Guests leave, a tad piqued perhaps. The price you pay to work in Janata Bhawan.
Under Sinha’s charge as Principal Secretary, Finance, the department has signed MoU with 38 Microfinance Institutions and banks for the implementation of a loan waiver scheme. Under the Assam Microfinance Incentive and Relief Scheme, the relief will be extended to all borrowers to extent of loans from up to three lenders and for a loan amount of up to Rs 1.25 lakh.
Himanta’s style of functioning is uniquely visible. Soon after assuming the office, he decided to have weekly cabinet meetings every Wednesday – unprecedented in the history of Assam. Government decision-making has become fast and more efficient. Accountability has been fixed.
The best example is the turnaround story of the perpetual loss-making power PSU. Niraj Verma, Principal Secretary, IT & Energy explained how the state PSU, Assam Power Distribution Corporation Ltd (APDCL) has been turned around from being a loss-making to a profit-making body by vigorously chasing collections and plugging leakages. Under the Saubhagya scheme, the electrification of villages in Assam is nearly complete.
Adding to this Rakesh Kumar, MD, APDCL says, “We are replacing the entire overhead high tension cables with coated cables to avoid any mishap due to inclement weather or storms. This is to ensure the safety of all the citizens.” He further adds, “We have reduced our T&D losses and improved recovery.”
You can see Himanta’s pride in this through his several tweets on the subject down to the use of technology to the hilt to make this happen.
As a part of his promise of providing government jobs to one lakh youth, he has started the process of filling the thousands of vacant posts in different departments. The process has started for 15,000 personnel in Assam Police. Five new battalions have been created in Assam Police. This will create job opportunities for 6,270 youth immediately.
Guwahati Police Commissioner, Harmeet Singh tells me how the vision of the Chief Minister is being implemented to wire up through fiber-optic all the local police stations with the CMO. It will be the first in the country.
Steps have been undertaken not only to increase the size of police but also to bring the required reforms. Assam is among a few states to appoint a Police Commission to recommend measures for improvement of the policing system. Everyone understands the importance of law and order and a safe environment to attract investments and create jobs. They are zealously going about it.
Sarma has also set a target to create 10 lakh additional entrepreneurial employment opportunities and jobs in the next five years. Assam Skill Development Mission (ASDM) has been given the mandate to re-skill SHGs, tea garden workers, focus on promoting North Eastern food, and develop culinary skills of Assamese youth. Explains Varnali Deka who heads Skill Development while serving me a cup of Bhut Jholakia tea, a locally developed delight.
The foodie in me takes over and suggests that we add a pinch of salt to the tea to enhance the flavour. Both of us sip the now salt added tea with appreciation.
Mukesh Sahu, Principal Secretary of Welfare of Plain Tribes & Backward Classes is focused on the creation of entrepreneurship and marketing the tribal products outside the state. A brand called Trissam has been created that is packaging and marketing the local food products like Bhut Jholakia, Joha rice, Black Rice, Curcumin Turmeric, etc.
There is a talk of setting up a food processing park and he thinks like a businessman saying the nutrition needs of the children for food provided through the social welfare department can perhaps be met using the products being sourced and processed through Van Dhan Yojana being run by tribal affairs. A brilliant idea if there ever was.
He works closely with the Institute of Entrepreneurship for the promotion of entrepreneurship in the state.
To address the issue of climate change, the Sarma-led government has taken several measures. He has decided to replace all diesel-run government buses in Guwahati with electric and CNG buses within a year.
Rahul Chandra Das, MD, Assam State Transport Corporation (ASTC) is excited when he talks about the government initiative in purchasing 200 electric and 100 CNG buses.
He too is inspired by the turnaround stories of transport departments in other states and is busy studying, planning, making notes and moving towards a transformation.
Assam has been among the leading states in the implementation of key central schemes such as Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), PM Awas Yojana, and PM Kisan. Assam has received a Rs 5,601 crore allocation from the central government under JJM for the year 2021-22. The target is to provide tap water connections to all rural households by 2024.
Around 8 lakh households have already been provided tap water connection, explains S Abbasi, Additional Chief Secretary in-charge of Water Resources spearheading the JJM.
He has put together a detailed plan to provide tap water supply to the remaining 55.35 lakh households in the next three years. Sarma’s government has planned to provide tap water connections to 22.63 lakh households in 2021-22, 20.84 lakh households in 2022-23, and 13.20 lakh tap water connections in 2023-24.
Sarma’s achievements have been acknowledged even by his critics. While the first 100-days have seen a beginning well made, he has his challenges cut out. Jobs, social welfare and finances are highest priorities.
To attract investments and industry he will need to think out of the box and look at areas that are not so crowded.
MSME-led growth could be one and so could be the birth of a very vibrant food processing industry.
It could also emerge as the biggest trading hub for organic produce in the region. Most of all he would need to have marketing savvy and constantly give the messaging of a “Happening Assam.”
He has to stay in the news cycle, interact with the industry and come up with thought leadership ideas backed by the implementation that puts Assam as the bulwark for the development of the NER.
He intends to make a start with ‘Digital Assam’. And I believe, this will usher in a new era for new age industries like gaming, artificial intelligence and blockchain based revenues for the state.
Not easy to do but he has the commitment, competence, central leadership and age on his side.