Atul Sarma, Shyam Sunder

All this have happened despite the State being rich in nature’s bounties in terms of water, forest, mines and minerals, and huge biodiversity. Instead of sustainably harnessing these resources for prosperity, these are becoming a source of human miseries as in the case of recurring floods, fast disappearing water-bodies or land degradation.

Come election, every political party offers freebies and makes fancy promises irrespective of the affordability of a State’s fiscal capacity or their feasibility in the context of the State’s realities. The ruling party lays the ceremonial foundation stone of numerous schemes adding to the bulge of incomplete projects. While this is a general behaviour, this is an attempt to highlight the perniciousness of such political behaviour in Assam’s context.

Just to illustrate, way back in 2014, the Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi promised in one of his electoral rallies that when he comes to power in May 2014, all infiltrators must pack their bags and be ready to leave Assam, ignoring the absurdity of such an action. It was also promised that the bane of annual floods over the years would be a thing of the past. The general election came again and went in 2019.

Now the State Assembly election is in full swing, credulous voters who lapped up such absurd promises never cared to know how many of such promises were indeed delivered. It is now time for new promises and new rainbows. The Prime Minister came and ceremoniously laid the foundation stone of several new projects, leaving them to their fate. The ruling party of the State has promised to establish Goshalas in every district of Assam ignoring the fact of a dwindling cattle population and offered several other lures. Competing parties are not sitting tight. Each of them has made promises keeping in view the power of luring voters.

These typical cases are cited merely to highlight their serious consequences in the context of the State’s economic realities. Such populist promises ignore the economic realities and evade the much-needed priorities in resource allocation.

Despite the Centre’s special attention, the State’s per capita income at constant price (Rs 60,695) accounts for only 66% of all-States average per capita income even in 2018-19. Significantly, the State’s GSDP at current price declined from the peak at 16.5% in 2015-16 to almost at a constant pace of a little above 11% in the following three years. More important, per capita NSDP of Assam recorded a marginally higher growth as compared to all-India average in 2014-15 over 2013-14 (Assam’s 4.2% against all-India’s 6.2%) and in 2019-20 over 2018-19 (3.5% and 3.1% respectively). This is still worse, if it is compared with the eight NE States’ average growth of 9.2% and 7.0% in the respective years.

The population below the poverty line stands at 31.98% in 2017-18. More than half (52%) of Assam’s population are below the age of 25. But Assam is one among the four most malnourished States in India, according to a recent study by Lancet Child and Health (for children below the age of 5). This means that the State should adequately invest on human development to reap the demographic dividend, the opportunity for which will not exist beyond a decade or two. But the fact is that life expectancy is 66.2 as against all-India average of 69.0 while infant mortality is 41.0 as compared to the national average of 32.0 per 1000 live births while 27.8 % of 31.2 million of Assam’s population are still illiterate. This requires high priority on investment on human development as a State policy.

Given the low rate of urbanization in Assam (14.1% against 31.1% for all-India), poverty reduction greatly depends on improvement in agriculture which supports 45.7% of workers as cultivators and agricultural labour in 2011. Agriculture in the State is characterized by low cropping intensity, low diversity and low productivity as measured by yield rates. Primary sector contributes 30% of GSDP. Even in 2019-20 it contributes 28% as compared to 17% for all-India. All this suggests the importance of investment in agriculture in the State’s policy matrix.

The Economic Survey 2020-21 of India has constructed a composite index to measure the progress of delivery of bare necessities between 2012 and 2018 using 26 comparable indictors of five dimensions: water (6), sanitation (5), housing (3), micro environment (4), and other facilities (8) such as ventilation of dwelling type and kitchen type. The value of the index ranges between 0 and 1. Higher value of the index indicates better access of the household to the basic necessities. Assam scored between 0.50-0.70 in 2012 indicating the lowest access and, remained in the same range even in 2018.

Twenty-seven per cent of the youth (15-29 years old) in Assam as against 17.8% for all-India are unemployed in 2018-19. What is more, for lack of opportunities in the State, a growing number of educated and uneducated people (8.7% of the labour force in 2011) are migrating out for eking out their livelihood.

All this have happened despite the State being rich in nature’s bounties in terms of water, forest, mines and minerals, and huge biodiversity. Instead of sustainably harnessing these resources for prosperity, these are becoming a source of human miseries as in the case of recurring floods, fast disappearing water-bodies or land degradation.

These realities suggest themselves what the priorities in limited resource allocation should be for overall development and economic improvement of the people of the State. Yet the State’s per capita spending is one of the lowest at Rs 19,996 which is 85% of all-States average in 2018-19. Of the total expenditure as percentage of GSDP of the State at 21.6%, only 3.6% is allocated for capital expenditure which contributes to the State’s productive capacity. Despite such low spending, the State offers various fancy freebies to the people instead of developing the economy that would create income and jobs for the people on a sustained basis.

This takes us to the Constituent Assembly debates on the issue of conferring voting right. One section of the members argued for giving voting right only to the educated people. Dr Ambedkar prevailed upon in conferring universal suffrage on the ground of empowering people to choose their representatives every five years.

In hindsight, one can argue that the political class by explicit or implicit design kept a large section of the population eternally poor and vulnerable so to make them susceptible to lures and false promises at the time of every election. They are not economically empowered to demand accountability of those who make false promises to manipulate their choice.