Dr Bhupati Das
There has always been an animated debate in learned circles as to what should be the economic resurgence model for Assam. The dominant view is, the State should usher in quick industrialisation taking a leaf out of the developed States like Gujarat. The underlying logic is, like Gujarat Assam also has a reservoir of oil and natural gas and that Gujarat model has proved successful in generating large employment. But my take on Assam’s growth model is somewhat different. Surely, we need quick industrialisation to produce high-margin products to export to the ever- expanding markets in the neighbouring countries, now linked by road (turning from land-locked to land-linked). But what kind of industrialisation? My proposition on the future growth model leans heavily on its answer.
Our planet is suffering from global warming caused mainly by mindless industrialisation and limitless consumption. Our growth aspirations should avoid this temptation. Instead, we need to focus on ‘selective industrialisation’ with least possible collateral damage to the environment. Assam is known for its magical natural beauty, bewildering diversity and rich heritage. It should be allowed to remain so without suffering the pangs of mindless growth of polluting industries. We should architecture our development model around selective industrialisation supported by other revenue generating streams based on our traditional strengths with two prerequisites:
(1) Improve infrastructure on communications - physical and digital. Develop rail, road, airways, waterways and port linkages. Improve telecommunications and digital connectivity. Find environment friendly electricity. Build the ‘urban corridor’. This will create the right enabling condition.
(2) Facilitate ‘ease of doing business’ by setting up a ‘single door’ policy (as Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the CM of Madhya Pradesh once put it) to limit time for processing approvals. This will create the right ambience.
The development model proposed has three layers - (A) The Backbone, (B) The Character and (C) The Flagship Initiative. (Remember, Sand Cone model!). This is to build a hierarchy of targeted actions to maximise impact taking advantage of our traditional strengths while least affecting the bio-environment. Let’s dwell on it hereunder:
The Backbone: Assam is home to some important industries for centuries based on its rich natural resources. So, concentrate on fruitful growth in these sectors like Oil & Gas (find green initiatives like bio-refinery), Petrochemicals, Coal (no open-cast mining), Tea (one remembers the silent revolution of small tea growers), Plywood (taking safeguards for not depleting forest cover much) etc. Then build a string of downstream and ancillary industries around these core sectors without widening the new industry canvas much to maintain the essential character of Assam, being naturally beautiful replete with biodiversity. Add only least-polluting new-age industries. This will create distributed wealth generating a large job market. This ‘selective industrialisation’ should serve as the backbone of Assam’s future economy.
The Character: Develop other sectors which create jobs, distribute revenues, use available skill-sets that are in sync with our life-style and heritage. This will give character to our economic growth model. The first area to look at is IT & IT related industries as we have a large bank of young English speaking educated unemployed people. Next, develop environment-friendly small scale distributed Units in sectors like Agriculture, Horticulture, Sericulture, Floriculture, Pisciculture, Handloom & Handicrafts, Medicare. The high-margin markets in these sectors are fast expanding. For example, India exported 16,949.37 MT of floriculture products to the world at 75.89 million US dollar in 2019-20. The world market for flowers, ornamental plants and medicinal plants is growing at 10%. Can we accord the Agriculture sector the status of industry? Say, while cultivating we plant seeds on land, till the land, use fertilisers, produce a harvest. So, here seeds are input, harvest is output, land and other equipment are machinery and fertilisers are catalysts. Surely, we can call it manufacturing. Further, we need to develop vertically integrated food processing chains, market linked skill development and cross-border trade. Similarly, we can look at fisheries. Assam has been gifted with abundant fertile land and water bodies. With proper vision, an expert observed, “each water body can be transformed like an ATM booth to withdraw fish at will”. The present fish production in Assam is 2.94 lakh tonnes against annual demand of 3.36 lakh tonnes leaving huge unsatisfied demand. We can boost fish production including ornamental fish to meet demand by developing scientifically various segments – nursery, rearing, stocking, electronically-controlled temperatures at various water-levels. Similar integrated action plans can be put in place in each of the sectors identified above. Incentives available for industry should also be provided to them. Here lean start-up methodology which prizes early customer feedback, experimentation and iteration should emerge as the preferred choice (a la Eric Rice prescription).
The Flagship Initiative:The third layer is about assigning huge efforts and prioritisation to the tourism industry where we have our traditional advantages. Assamese as a race are hospitable, modest and friendly, and firm believers in ‘atithi devo bhava’, a perfect setting for the tourism industry to flourish. So, this needs to be our flagship initiative. Assam needs to take full advantage of GOI’s ‘Act East’ and ‘friendly neighbours’ policies. Marked by the rich and unique biodiversity, Assam is the treasure house of rare flora, fauna and forest. It is endowed with unique, colourful and rich customs and traditions. It has the highest density of golf courses.