English medium government schools in Assam: In support


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            Lord Macaulay

 

When Macaulay pushed for English education in India his dream was to create in his own words, “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”. Since then till now English education in India had changed by 180 degrees. Today schools no more preach a western outlook of modernity but rather concentrates on creating a sense of Indian nationalism and pride through their content. Narrations begin from ancient India and ends in the great victory of the Indian freedom fighters against the imperial British. English remains just a medium of imparting education.

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Cotton collegiate, established 1934 is the oldest school in Assam.

Of all the realities that we know today about education in Assam, one fact which is most easily visible is that the trust of parents and guardians in government schools is decreasing continuously. A few examples of good results from schools like cotton collegiate aren’t enough to reinstate people’s belief. Although the quantity of students and teachers might have been increased due to Sarba Shiksha Abhiyaan and the TET program but there still exists a huge question mark over its quality. One more important aspect that we must realize over here is the right to choice of individuals. English education for their children, given how expensive it is, is no more a free choice for millions in the state. Has the democratic government as an insurer of equality of opportunity provided free English education to those to wish to pursue English education for their children?

For the poor it does not matter if the school is English medium or Assamese medium as long as it is private. It is simply beyond the reach. So beyond that we can see that people are slowly getting more and more attracted towards English medium schools. The middle income bracket people who can somehow (withstanding a lot of hardship) manage to send their kids to private schools are going for it instead of an Assamese medium government school where education is for free. Reason? Because a circular problem has got created. Something that goes like this: A notion that quality of teaching in government schools is not up to the mark of private English medium schools, so parents generally prefer sending kids to private schools, now because more students go to private schools the quality of students coming into government school degrades, this in turn dis-incentivises the government paid teachers to give in their efforts to teach, and this continues. Now where can we break this deadlock? A lot has been spoken about changing the system. While efforts for that continues we can also look into the other possible side. The state education minister of Assam recently announced that on a trial basis 20 government schools with low attendance will be converted to English medium schools.

The AASU, AGP, AJYCP and other organizations didn’t take even a second to decry this move as unfair to the vernacular language. In this matter I will strongly oppose their stance. This is not such a binary question. Language & education: its quality and availability are two completely different matters. It is but shameful for us to even voice that turning a certain number of government schools to English medium will harm our language and culture. Are the fundamentals of this Assamese nation so weak that the moment English medium education is introduced it will shake them off? Respect towards a culture imbibes a respect towards the language and the people who speak it. Respect comes upon knowing about the culture. That can be done even in English medium schools provided the content is prepared accordingly. But on the contrary the benefits it will bring to Government education as a whole can be mammoth. English medium will incentivise a few parents at least to send their kids to these schools. The teachers brought in to these schools will be mostly from the new brigade with special training of English or English educated themselves. With the government being more cautious and careful about the output from these schools the performance of these schools are meant to be good. Now this instils back a lot of credit to government education. Some fear of a snowballing effect arising out of it. But that even the government of a democratically elected party will avoid knowing the consequences very well. Furthermore, we have to analyze few more things in long term. What if the teachers of these schools and few others Assamese medium schools conduct exchange program? Won’t it improve the quality of the Assamese schools? With faith back in government schools few parents will consider the option of Assamese medium government schools too. So in the long run will English schools not be instrumental in breaking the deadlock the Assamese medium schools are currently facing? Yes, yes and yes.

Lastly on the choice argument, just because I was born in a poor family cannot limit me from English education. For a government that promises equality of opportunity, it should also give an option of English education. Why is it that the poor are always given to fight the rich Man’s war? The affluent class sends their kids to private English medium schools. But when the question of changing a few government schools to English medium comes they simply object. In the name of culture, language and what not, do they really think that a poor person living in a rural Assamese village will forget or neglect his language and culture just because his chapters are in English language. In fact being more able to connect to the outside world he will be able to bring more light to his people and ensure a sustainable future of the culture.

But what makes me say this. I have seen, met, interacted with students of English medium private schools, Assamese medium private schools and Assamese medium government schools. I strongly feel that language of instruction is never a threat to the vernacular language. Many English educated students have been able to carry the Assamese culture much better than their Assamese educated counterpart. It is also true that many Assamese educated students have a better grip over the English language then the English education counterparts. Attaching a value judgement with the medium of instruction is farcical. A bunch of Assamese youth with good knowledge of Assam is much more desirable than a pool of students with education in Assamese medium but no real knowledge. And this knowledge can come in any medium of instruction. The present system of Macaulay’s education policy laid in the beginning was just an example to exemplify this.

Finally many argue that “it is unfair to look towards English medium government schools when the vernacular ones are facing extinction”. Two things in this regard, firstly the government isn’t drawing out funds from vernacular schools to open these English schools. Secondly why on earth should we tie these two issues? One is a policy decision and another is to some degree failure in resource allocation and management. I don’t see those crossing lines at any point. Both can be tackled in parallel ways. On a larger scale if we see, the bigger reason why vernacular schools are not doing well is not because of lack of funds but simply because there are no students willing to enrol there. I strongly hope that the education minister goes ahead with this policy and does not back out of fear of electoral loss for this in the long run will prove to be one of the most visionary steps in the history of Assam.

AGP and BJP should take Guwahati Municipality Elections seriously


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The BJP has never been in power in Assam and the AGP has been out of it for the past 12 years. Political parties cannot assume themselves to be defacto alternative to an existing party in power. Governments don’t shift just by fate. Opposition parties have to concentrate on being a formidable force within and beyond the assembly or parliament. They have to be able in molding and representing the public voice against the current government. In short they have to remain connected to the electorate.

1422524A party has got few ways in which they can stay connected to the people. One is to have a strong cadre base and work on their respective ideology for maximum of the 365 days that constitute a year. Both AGP and the BJP don’t enjoy such a position in the state of Assam. The BJP has been out of power in centre for 9 years, but by portraying the development made in Gujarat, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh etc it is trying to gain mileage and keep their chances alive at the centre for 2014. Similarly, given that our country has multiple layers of governance, one another way of staying connected is to be part of local governments and perform well in them. This will help the parties run a campaign by setting this local governance as an example. Even this is not a position that either the AGP or BJP enjoys in Assam. Almost all local bodies, autonomous councils, Zila Parishads belong to the Indian National Congress. The ruling party has made a comfortable position across all layers of governments barring a few in which the major opposition is AIUDF.

Outside the world of representatives in the public sphere as well we see that the regional party is much under-represented today since yester years. The All Assam Students Union which was the mother organization of AGP is a distinct entity working towards regionalism and having no terms with the party on paper. Due to a series of successive losses the moral of the loyal supporters are also down. They might surely go and vote for the party but the zeal and enthusiasm is not visible. The BJP on the other hand has been growing at some pace but yet it has not reached a level where its chances look good. Moreover some hardcore ideologies of the BJP might play as political gimmicks in rest of India, but in Assam swaying voters on issues of hindutva is difficult. At times the lone resort of the AGP and BJP which comes as the issue of illegal immigration has been thrown so many times in the political centre stage that it has almost lost its charm now.

Finally although the BJP doesn’t have to face this but the AGP is surely blamed for being a defunct government for whatever reasons it might be. In the political blame game whenever the party raises an issue it is cross questioned on its initiative during its 10 years in power. So from all of this we see that the regional party and the national party have to both start almost from level zero. General elections are just a few months away and the state elections are due in 2016. At this juncture the Guwahati Municipal Elections come as a great opportunity for these parties to reverse the trend back to positives for itself. AGP has declared candidature for all 31 wards and 90 area representatives and the BJP is equally likely to do the same. Both parties are going ahead without a pre-poll alliance. Many political thinkers would welcome this and many would think otherwise.

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Flash flood during recent rains in Guwahati

But why do I think that both these parties need to take this seriously? Firstly, an important thing to note here is that in recent times the city of Guwahati has faced many civic issues; water-logging, landslide, solid waste management etc. There were spurts of anger and demonstration against the local MLA’s. Anti-incumbency as a factor against the congress is certainly a visible phenomenon. Secondly it will be easier for both the parties to convince people to give them a chance to represent them in GMC because the potential risk that people might perceive from voting these parties in MLA or MP election is much less in a local municipal election. Thirdly it is an easy election to manage compared even to panchayat etc where the scale is larger. Moreover as a substantial portion of the electorate is urban the parties can expect less manipulation and more rational voting. Lastly a finally let us look at a few stats from 2011 Assam assembly election:

Name of Constituency

Congress (%) AGP (%) BJP (%) AGP + BJP

Jalukbari

72.09

11.44 12.61

24.05

Dispur

41.48

37.37 14.51

51.88

Guwahati East

37.44

34.30 23.25

57.55

Guwahati West 34.50 22.45 27.31

49.76

                                                                                   *Data from Election Commission of India

In politics one plus one is never equal to two but the stats clearly shows that there is a sizeable percentage of anti congress vote. It will still remain a test for both these parties to avoid eating into each other’s votes thereby making way for congress to slip through. But given that these elections are more localized the probability that results might be more favorable to these parties if decent strategies are applied exists.

The chances for AGP and BJP might seem better compared to its chances in other elections when seen from results perspective. But still the reason both these parties needs to put all their might behind these elections is also at a consequential level. It is a golden opportunity for them to set a good foothold in the most major urban centre for the state. Given more elections are lined up in future, a good performance in this elections will certainly enhance their future chances if they fare well in their work of running the GMC. 10-12 years is a long period in politics, for these many number of years lot of things might have changed within these parties. AGP is not anymore a party of novice politicians; BJP has a new state President and has come a little away from its hard line stances. But both parties have yet not received a platform in which they can rectify their past errors or portray a new identity. This is one such opportunity. Lastly but more importantly, a substantial portion of the loyal supporters and cadres of the regional party or BJP after being de-motivated with 2011 results are lying silently and helplessly across the state. A good show will usher in faith in their minds to work more for the parties in upcoming elections. Even if they don’t gain majority but manage to win a sizeable number of wards all the given benefits will stand and also they will get a chance to come closer to the electorate and stay connected.

The AGP has been out of power since 12 years and the BJP has never had a taste of it in Assam. Parties like Shiv Sena in Maharastra have been out of power for a greater number of years. But the BMC has been won by the Sena on most occasions. They are still a reckoning force in Maharashtra state politics. It is because of their strong cadre base and at the same time because their activity is visible in some layers of governance. A good civic body is a minimum basic need that comes as more primary than any other government body. Making a strong point there will prove a lot of things and that is why AGP & BJP must take Guwahati Municipal Elections seriously.

“University in Assam to be named after Rajiv Gandhi”, having issues ?


Rajiv-Indira-GandhiIt has been decided that Assam will be having a new university. And this time around it will be a women’s university. Certainly looks like a good initiative although many would want to raise many questions about the aims and objectives of this new varsity. But furthermore the Assam cabinet decided that it would be named Rajiv Gandhi Women’s University.  My problem doesn’t begin here. In fact just a new example gets added to the long list of such irritating political gimmicks. Assam already has one university named after Rajiv Gandhi (Assam Rajiv Gandhi University of Co-operative Management. link: http://argucom.org.in). The point of entry to the city of Guwahati, one that bears history of the legend Lachit Borphukan, the place where lakhs gathered for the cremation of the bard of the Brahmaputra Late Bhupen Hazarika gets named as Rajiv Chowk. Few flagship schemes of the government of Assam which have been marketed along the lengths and breadths of the Assam Valley runs in his name; such as the Rajiv Gandhi Computer Literacy Program. To add to this you have a few dozen central schemes named after him that works in Assam along with the rest of the nation. I am not cornering the Ex-Prime Minister of India; you are free to add Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and so on to give him some company. Why do we name things in memory of a person? Is there a problem in naming things this way? Is there a better way of naming things?

We name a certain scheme, institution or public place after a person as a mark of respect for his efforts to a particular cause or due to the stature he holds in the minds of the people because of his great deeds for the people or the land. It bears much more meaning when the person is one who has been attached to the place where this institution or public place rests or to the cause for which the scheme belongs. Beyond this let us understand that Assam and the northeast have not reached a stage of flourishing. It has been facing the identity crisis since its amalgamation with the Indian nation. So the first problem that arises out of such absurd naming of schemes, projects and institutions is that it severely affects the sentiments of the people who would want it to be named after a person whose credentials in that field or for the land are much higher. The general public is also angered when they see this disconnected naming politics. The anger may not be visible as an immediate major outburst but the resentment only grows. It adds up to the fuel on which the identity crisis burns.

Secondly it very painfully sidelines the efforts of many visionaries, leaders, social actors who had throughout their life worked for the land and its people. There are examples of such great people from each corner of this nation, people who have devoted themselves for a cause. If we would ask them they would happily reject the idea of naming anything after them. But it must be our responsibility to set such things as mark of respect for them. It is also the onus of ours to inscribe their names on the diary of time so that their legacy can pass on through generations. Acts like naming the Arunachal University as Rajiv Gandhi University instead of a local person with whom the people can much more connect to, who will serve much more as a symbol of inspiration is indeed nonsensical.

Thirdly, it skews the democratic politics of this nation. The Gandhi-Nehru family is still actively involved in the politics of this nation. Although a sizeable section can distinguish between the role of the Government and that of the party in implementing such schemes, imagine how it would affect those sections of people for whom election is all about voting for the hand symbol or the lotus or the cycle or the elephant. It is important to note that along with naming of new projects in the name of the Nehru Gandhi family many old institutions with general names have been awarded a prefix of this clan. The politics of naming plays with the psychology of the masses. Once a prefix of the Nehru Gandhi family is added and marketed it solidifies in many citizens minds as a congress endeavor. It was certainly not a part of these leaders will to have their name attached to such a huge number of projects. But is a result of politics played by its current leaders to paint a one sided picture or initiative of state leaders trying to pacify the central leadership. We would have been much happier had the state leaders chosen Bimala Prasad Chaliha, Nabin Chandra Bordoloi, Hem Barua and other contemporaries instead of relying on the Gandhi tag to suit their personal interests.

In the broader sense of things the politics of naming plays a great part in molding public opinion. After the British left India a majority of the public places, monuments, roads, institutions got new names to create a sense of Indian identity. Names of Indian freedom fighters were initially used all over to create a sense of nationalism. The politics of naming thus becomes a very sensitive issue particularly in a nation like India with a fragile fabric tying up its divided masses. The sections which are left from this politics of naming finds themselves sidelined and feel discriminated. And this issue is not only confined between centre and state. Within states as well majority communities knowingly or unknowingly forget to acknowledge the efforts of great personalities belonging outside the majority community. We have many schools, colleges, roads and buildings named after contemporary Assamese visionaries of their times. But how many from the Bodo, Mishing, Karbi community finds their names inscribed in institutions of the mainstream society. No one can agree that there aren’t any great names from these communities. Indira Miri, Kalicharan Brahma, Bodofa Upendra Nath Brahma, Mahi Chandra Miri and Sobha Brahma are just a few to name from a long list. Because Assam is facing turmoil from outside and within it infact is much more important to recognize the efforts of all communities to continue the community building initiative fruitfully. And dedicating certain public institutions, places etc to the memory of a person is a form of solid recognition. The Nehru-Gandhi family has got enough recognition right from school textbooks to most central schemes and projects. An added tag will bring no marginal recognition to them. In fact it will anger many and will waste an opportunity of honoring and including the efforts of a certain section of the society.

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He who is the bard of the Brahmaputa, he who is the true son of the Lohitya.

For the Assamese to see a site of historic resemblance being named as Rajiv Chowk instead of Lachit Borphukan or Bhupen Hazarika, for the Marathi’s to find the Bandra-Worli Sea link named after Rajiv Gandhi instead of a legend from the land is definitely heartening. The first question that comes in the mind of many is, “isn’t there anyone from this place whom they could have dedicated this to”. And the locals then see this naming as a form of forced unity and hegemony of the centre and the feeling of alienation continue. This should not be viewed as narrow regionalism as no one has ever suggested altering all Non-Marathi, or Non-Assamese names into Assamese ones. But when an institution of National repute shall be opened in Assam in the form of a women’s university and we name it after an inspiring women from Assam like Indira Miri, Kanaklata, Pratima Pandey Barua, Nalinibala Devi or Joymoti instead of Rajiv Gandhi it will be a great respect to those women who had by their life and work left enough to be an inspiration for generations. It also will be a way of promoting our figures in national mainstream, the unavailability of which we always cry about. And by no means will it be disrespect to Rajiv Gandhi and his works for the nation. Similarly within the state the politics of naming must be used in a way that instead of creating resentment and difference of opinion it is able to build mutual trust and confidence. Only then will the identity crisis resolve and unity prosper. This initiative doesn’t rest only with the government. Interest groups, concerned citizens based on common consensus will all have to push for this to become a reality.

Criticizing Akhil Gogoi


AkhilGogoi295This one man has been in the news across the length and breadth of the state of Assam. After his initial recognition as an anti-corruption RTI activist today he unperturbedly clashes head on with people in power of the Govt of Assam, central ministries and even the concerned central ministers. Since then till now his popularity and mass base has always seen a positive slope. Undeterred pro-poor, pro-farmer and pro-indigenous stand of his has taken this one name “Akhil Gogoi” from villages to villages and one home to another. Media focuses more attention on this one man than even the opposition. Honestly speaking many does reckon him as the true opposition to the congress rule of the state as a leader of the common masses unbiased in raising their concerns.

Whenever popularity grows criticism will definitely follow. This article is not a piece of criticism of Akhil Gogoi but a critic of the kind of criticism thrown on this man. Criticism and protest are two faces of the same coin in the state of Assam. We have a section protesting almost on every issue and we have a hand in pocket block criticizing sch actions each day. I will sadly have to insert this comment here that the number of dedicated workers in Assam is just a handful. Whatever Akhil Gogoi’s final motive be, be it political mileage or any other, it is outside the purview of my criticism of his critics because at the end of the day every individual works in his/her self interest. Akhil Gogoi as citizen reserves the right to have his own such wishes. Firstly no one can deny that right and secondly having political ambitions in a democracy is a good thing because participation is a primary tenet of democracy.

Recent times have seen multi layered criticism for this person. “His protests disrupts normalcy and is a headache for the normal people”. What has Akhil Gogoi done for the farmers? Isn’t Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (the organization led by Akhil Gogoi) getting too much involved in politics? Let us at the onset understand that we don’t live in a true democracy at all. Our rights are never protected unless we appeal for it and in some cases it is grossly violated by Govt. agencies or private players in close nexus with Govt. agencies. Sometime when we see open firing against protesters, curfews announced whenever there is a slight possibility of protest, when media is debarred from questioning the public representatives a flash back of pre-independence times crosses the mind. If pre-independence saw one jallianwala bagh we have seen dozens after it. So for the hands in pocket crowd to disqualify Akhil Gogoi’s protest just because it may stall their easy drive on the streets of Guwahati is a little shortsighted. In the Indian democratic setup we sadly cannot expect petitions and notices to the Govt. to bring a change. Memorandums after memorandums will go down the drain. Politicians are hardly concerned about good governance and participatory democracy. They are the main reason for the depletion of people’s belief in the democracy and democratic institutions. The only thing that seems to work is votes and vote bank. So unless the misdeeds of the governments are brought to the streets by the people themselves in a way that it seems to affect their future electoral results hardly anyone bothers to care. That these protests at times turn violent is only natural to digest. The house and property that my father built with his hard work of decades, the house that me and my family calls home, if that is suddenly snatched away from me then I for certain will go mad. I am thankful that the illiterate, impoverished masses on the call of Akhil Gogoi came to protest democratically. They came with what democracy called for, a memorandum to be submitted to the concerned authorities. But when they knocked their door instead of receiving the public opinion they were left stranded on the sun baked streets for hours without water and shade. Natural slogans were responded with lathi charge and bullets were fired. How do we want them to react? The ones who had lost everything and yet with some belief in democracy came forward to protest, for them was it any less than the tyranny of imperial rule. Things went on as it happens in India. Relocation and rehabilitation is easily promised. And exactly a year later when agricultural land was handed over unlawfully to business hubs in rural kamrup the same landless people had to protest all over again. Can’t we notice how circular this issue of land has been made by the government in Assam? The poor have been drawn to the centre of this issue and rendered landless and unemployed.

5bbc2aed7eb4a97970667ca758d3d935_XLThis was just one cause. At the end of this debate instead of being sympathetic to such causes affecting the poor such as violation of land rights, scam in distribution of fertilizers and seeds, setting industries in a manner that it impacts rural livelihood and traditional occupation etc if we try to be judgmental about the means and mode adopted by these oppressed people then I think we are being highly presumptuous. Our belief in democratic institutions is almost over; our belief in our representatives is also over. The day our belief in protest and participation is over we will hit the final nail in the coffin on which democracy can rest for ever. Protest by its very nature is meant to bear externalities. Protest is not a show run by an event management company after few weeks of rehearsal. Protest is meant to lodge genuine grievances that affect us. I cannot be unhappy about the fact that some protest disrupted my journey for a few hours. In fact I will be and I must be happy that a few miles walk by me might bring back what was snatched from many. Democracy will function only if we the citizens stand together as a unit. I cannot defect because my short term benefits over shadows the long term benefits of many or criticize others who are trying to do it.

Secondly when people ask as to what this man has done for the farmers and being a farmer organization is it diving too deeply into politics. I don’t know if we would have heard of this name called Akhil Gogoi had we had a government that functioned efficiently enough to meet all the requirements of the farmers. The reason we know of him is because we have had successive governments that have not done their responsibility properly. In Assam we have been asking all these wrong questions for the longest possible time. What has ULFA done? What has AASU done? And now what has Akhil Gogoi done? The functioning authority is the government. It is their responsibility to engage the people for meeting the best end for all. That NRC has not been updated, indigenous right have not been protected, border has not been sealed is a failure of the govt. AGP which was in power for 10 years can be blamed for this but not the AASU which has kept this issue alive in the national stage for so long. Similarly we cannot question Akhil Gogoi on what he has done positively for farmers. Some wants him to launch an information scheme for farmers; quality seed distribution scheme; few wants him to incentivize Assamese youth to take up agriculture. The people have not given the mandate to him but to the government to act positively in the interest of people. Being a human being with 24 hours a day in hand Akhil Gogoi has at least pointed the negatives and thereby brought the farmers issues to mainstream. Akhil-Gogoi1In his absence would we have known of a seed distribution scam, irregularities in tractor and water pump distribution? When he started the sale of vegetables at half the normal market price the common man realized the huge amount of hoarding and black marketing which happens in between. Will you as a citizen with common sense want Akhil Gogoi to continue such sale of vegetables for ever in every corner of Assam or will you want the govt to check black marketing, hoarding and syndicate raj to ensure fair price in market. Responsible citizens will form more NGO’s or join hands with Akhil to support farmers pro-actively. Putting a burden on him is a mere out of the cult idea which we Assamese have indoctrinated best (we cannot see another person rise above us and will do our best to bring him down). Lastly to comment on KMSS and its engagements on political issues, the idea of farmer issues being the core of the political drama has historical pretext. Agricultural taxes, oppression of farmer class have often been the reason for most revolts. Also it is important to understand that being the most primary part of the economy the farmers have to face all the problems of that economy as it ultimately trickles down to them. Every Government issue does impact the farmers. In the recent chit fund case most of the people who were cheated were the poor peasant population who in the absence of formal banking options have to resort to such saving schemes. Inflation hits them the hardest. Lack of good education, drinking water facility, sanitation bothers them the most. At the same time I must agree that in the political game Akhil Gogoi is over burdening himself, in few cases unnecessarily drawing opposition and personal enmity. In the long run of politics people are remembered more for the results they produced instead of the efforts they put in. With concentrated efforts he will have to produce results sooner than later. Criticism will continue, and even I don’t have to say that people should not criticize him because we are in a democracy. I can only use my democratic right to criticize their criticism. On the end note I would like to say that even if people cannot appreciate his efforts it is wrong to view his initiatives from our closed rooms in a way that suits us and judge him on those parameters. If we live in a failed democracy we cannot throw our knowledge of civics on the masses whose civic rights have been grossly violated.

Microfinance: The misunderstood tool of poverty alleviation


Small businesses, poor farmers, seasonal makeshift occupants often face a credit crunch. Lack of provisions within the larger framework of the banking industry makes them shift towards traditional money lenders, liquidating immovable assets. The concept of micro-credit or micro-financing as we know of it today was introduced to meet the needs of these people. Financial services of micro-savings and small loans are made available to individuals or groups for any entrepreneurial activity. Micro-credit is a global concept today with roots in a majority of nations across each continent.

Women from a rural self help group in Golaghat district of Assam taking part in an SHG exhibition

Micro-finance but, has been misunderstood by many as a financial/economic tool that has the intrinsic potential to alleviate poverty.  Provisions for making microcredit available is to make people a little more independent economically so that they can choose better options for themselves and for their children. Poverty brings with it a whole lot of issues ranging from health, education, nutrition etc. It’s a trap where one gets engulfed into if ever they enter it. Micro-financing is one effort that can break open the trap of poverty so that people may find a way out of it. The judging of micro-finance as an innovation of ending poverty cannot be singularly based on its innate ability to end poverty. Other than the evident economic impact it has of helping small businesses grow, providing income generation etc, social and political developments are certainly aspects of the parallel benefits coming out of microfinance. Micro-finance incentivises people to come together and form interest groups (“Self Help Groups (SHG’s)”) to avail common banking facilities such as common savings account, group loans etc. In our recent survey of such SHG’s in Raigad and Thane districts of Maharastra, India we found a uniform agreement on benefits of microfinance. The women who were interviewed reported higher savings and lesser debt crisis than before. On educating their children, providing nutritional food and better healthcare facilities they had a better grip and awareness than before. Much of it has to be attributed to the microfinance NGO’s which organises training and awareness camps for the SHG members. Overall, the women could feel more independent than before and their participation in “gram-sabhas” (village level governing bodies) also increased. Through such ground level governance platform the unified women could speak to improve facilities of water, electricity etc. and remove social evils that affect the fairer sex. Moreover economic benefits can occur in more ways than just entrepreneurship. The sudden needs of the poverty stricken people often lead them to sell of their land and other immovable. Microcredit helps them address these needs in a much more planned manner. The lack of such facilities would have meant that their condition would have been worse off

Critics of microfinance often cite two arguments against it: First that microfinance has not been able to develop entrepreneurship as deemed and secondly that it has often led to severe debts to individuals. To turn poor below poverty line people into efficient entrepreneurs is not an easy task. It may not have had converted 100% of the businesses started by availing loans under microfinance into profitable and efficient businesses. But certainly the entrepreneurial spirit is visible among a few who would have otherwise shuffled from one government office to another. In many cases it has also proved itself by setting successful avenues of income. Micro-finance is the first impetus given for economic growth towards poverty alleviation. It certainly should not be held accountable for not leading to overnight growth of businesses more so when its added benefits of social equity and political independency are definite add-ons. Debt crises, further entanglement in the debt loop are externalities of every credit system. Traditional lenders with their high interest rate and flexibly return structure throw people into debt as their onus is to maximize profit for themselves. Microfinance institutions on the other hand aims at economic independence and sustainability and hence focus more on monitoring of the loans. Yet cases might exist in which the microfinance loan put a person into debt. Better monitoring and counselling on loan reimbursement will help improve this scenario. Microfinance as an institution is moving ahead with its goal of poverty alleviation through economic growth and social equity amidst misunderstandings and misnomers. Its flaws in the system are not inherent but situational and temporal. Efforts to fight those flaws are the need of the hour.

Can ULFA suggest us on Bihu?


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It is painful to pick up the pen to write on the beloved Bihu and its current trends when the festive moods have not yet settled. As an Assamese it is always a proud affair to introduce Bihu among others as one of the few festivals that cut across religious and community lines to bring together the people of the blue hills and red rivers. It is a lifeline of the culture and traditions of the people of Assam. Late Radha Gobinda Baruah brought this institution from the fields and courtyards of the villages to the stages of Guwahati at Latasil. Since then till today Bihu programs have only been growing and today almost every locality celebrates or in other words organizes a Bihu function. While that seems like a good thing, recently such events and the artists performing in them have had to face criticism from various sections of the society. The principal allegation being that such events were diverging from the central idea and purpose of Bihu. Since the past few years stages have invited various artists from outside Assam as well to perform for the crowd. Mostly singers who were winners of reality shows came and performed popular Hindi numbers. Resentment from various sections of the society was visible. While some chose to voice against it overtly, covertly it was there in the minds of many and discussed in smaller circles. Various experts of the Bihu dance have also voiced against the growing commercialization and lack of interest towards the traditional and local art forms. A recent statement by the ULFA that notified Bihu committees to refrain from allowing performance of Hindi songs has caught the attention of many. Naturally words of agreement or of disproval have also started pouring in. This article has been written to view this proposition made by the banned outfit in singularity from all angles. Justifying anything about this particular move is not tantamount to giving a clean chit to them.

“A diktat is a statute, harsh penalty or settlement imposed upon a defeated party by the victor, or a dogmatic decree.” Before any discussion begins it can be very well realized that ULFA’s statement was far from this. It was one in its series of the perennial statements made to the people of Assam. Also important is to note that similar feelings have been spoken of by sections of the society previously to ULFA as well. Then why did this particular statement create such uproar? Was it a new way in which ULFA delivered its statement? Certainly not. It has always warned of consequences if their statements are not followed. Many a time their verdict has been overthrown by the people unless it is a call of Assam Bandh when it is overwhelmingly accepted. Indian citizens believe in the Indian democracy, it is ULFA who defies the Indian setup. As responsible citizen we must allow opinion to flow in even if it is by a banned outfit because at the end of the day their action does impact our consequences. Furthermore it is necessary that we keep rhetoric out of the picture and verify the basic premise and content of such a statement. Because rhetoric must have caused more harm to the state of Assam than any other in India. If we get provoked just because of the fact that ULFA made that statement and because of the fashion in which they did so, then we will hardly be able to distinguish ourselves from an irrational individual with preconceived notions.

So while narrating and analysing the incident two things are very important. Firstly these issues are always spiced up by agencies that can derive profit from it. Secondly it is important that we treat this statement as one in general instead of linking it time and again to ULFA as that makes the context lot more emotional. So after having said that there are few questions to which we must try and answer. Has Bihu been rooted deep into mainstream Assamese society that it faces no trouble in future? Are traditional rituals like Bihu dols performing Bihu at each courtyard still predominant in society? Lastly but very importantly are all folk performers economically sound and secured? If answer to any of the above is no then we must realize that although Bihu as a festival might still be having the same or greater love in our hearts, but on the ground times are changing. Unlike traditional celebrations Bihu stages are not an arena where everyone can be a spectator and a performer at the same time. The stage is set there for a bunch of performers to enthral a huge group of audience. So logically the stage cleared the space for more star performers or crowd pullers. So much so that today the first question that is raised by people regarding any Bihu function is, “who is the main artist?” Hence forth the focus and energy of most organizing committees have diverted towards collecting more funds to be able to afford such performers. Demand and supply takes its natural curve and hence forth the star performers cannot be blamed for it. It is the people and their judgements that are responsible for this. So given that these performers are heartthrob of the people who almost idolize them, they have a greater responsibility back to society, both in terms of their conduct and in order to maintain the legacy of our culture. Hindi might be one of the most popular languages of India and with the entry of bollywood into Assam few songs have gained mass popularity. The likes of Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar are still respected across the length and breadth of the nation including Assam. Music has no language, that’s true. But every musical concert or performance sticks to a genre or a set agenda unless it is a bollywood award ceremony. A rock concert can accommodate rock music in English, Spanish, and Hindi etc but certainly it won’t accommodate folk or metal.  Similarly is Bihu any other musical extravaganza or does it have significance? If we think it does have significance then is it not important to portray it in the correct light? Henceforth, out of the 52 weeks of the year leaving 1 week for our beloved Bihu should not be a difficult task. The reason we make this claim is because although some believe that Hindi songs are not an aggression to our culture, this capacity to visualize our culture comes only after a great deal of exposure. Most of the ears which are an audience to these Hindi numbers are but sadly unable to judge this perfectly.  Solely banning Hindi songs would not solve most issues faced by Bihu, may be it won’t solve any. But it is important that we look back at our age old tradition and try to rectify the steps that will help sustain it. ULFA raised an issue in this regard which must be logically dealt with rather than bringing it down in a jingoistic fashion by calling them murderers and extortionists. As free citizens we must be confident that our freedom to express has more power than their gun.  ULFA must be given the option to comment or suggest and we must consider that in our discourse rather than confirming it as a diktat.

558521_455785574496676_398625767_nIt can be agreed that when ULFA made this statement it was not one of the affirmatives. And people support affirmative thoughts rather than value judgements. Singularly taking a dig on Hindi songs and that too in a generalized negative form is what caused this trouble. But at the same time let us not refrain from looking at ourselves and realizing the double standards that we have set in our society. Many sections have repeatedly spoken against indecent behaviour of artists and on the issue of threat to Bihu due to entry of the Hindi songs. Just because ULFA made the statement made it much more lucrative for some to defy it for their benefit and for other to jump into that cult. Where do the same guts to defy their statement die out when a call for bandh is given? When dozens of people died in Rabha Hasong, when hundreds were drowned in Dhubri the front pages of the national media had other issues to be more interested in. But Zubeen Garg made the national news. Is this propaganda, or is this neutral journalism? I leave this to be answered by you. But the act of reacting so vigorously to the ULFA statement rather than simply allowing it to pass by is highly immature both for the artist and his fan followers.

On a finishing note I am running out of any Bihu naam in my mind to replicate this situation, so instead I pick the famous lines of Late Bhupen Hazarika whom we so dearly miss every Bihu, “Raij aji bhaworiya, dekhei naat ghor, kune ki bhau loba, aha xomoy je takor”

Sarbananda Sonowal & BJP: Expectations & Possibilities


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On 15th of November when Ex MP Sarbananda Sonowal took charge of State BJP in Assam it sent a wave of hope, confusion, dilemma and expectation in the minds of every thinking citizen of Assam. Queries that have erupted might range from “will this be the beginning of a solution to the problem of infiltration?” to “is this the end of Asom Gana Parishad?”, most certainly the appointment of Mr Sonowal to the coveted post would mean that the choice of BJP as a political option would open for many who believe in the dynamic, young and motivated leader that is Sarbananda Sonowal. Concern still remain as to how will the BJP that has forever been seen as nationalist right winged Hindutva party amalgamate the regionalist expectations of the people of Assam. Furthermore it would be important to see if friction occurs between the traditional vote banks of BJP i.e the Bengali and Hindi Speaking Hindu populace because of the addition of a staunch indigenous flavor to the state unit of the party. Following his appointment these would be the questions to which Mr Sonowal have to find answers in order to push forward the agenda of BJP and in future hope for gaining mileage for the national party in the state of Assam.

Sarbananda Sonowal during Assam assembly election campaigning in 2006 as an AGP MP; Brindaban Goswami, then AGP President seen with Mulayam Singh Yadav, Chandrababu Naidu (TDP) and Jaya Prada during campaigning for the regional party .

Given the circumstances BJP has a plethora of issues to pick choose from and add to its national recognition of being a “party that performs” and carve out a unique space for itself in the political map of the region. But if we traverse the geography of Assam from one end to the other then we will find clashing interests and divided opinions, basically challenges for a party to build up a comprehensive strategy. What are these expectations and where does the BJP stand amidst such issues and how can it possibly gain is what we wish to analyze.

The tea tribes and the hill tribes both have been a traditional vote bank of the Congress party. With BJP making inroads into Assam it was visible that a fraction of the tea tribe votes had shifted in favor of BJP majorly because of the upsurge of leaders like Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, Rameshwar Teli in the BJP from within the tea tribe community. But the election of 2011 halted the trend and it will be a test for the BJP to make its presence stronger in times to come. It is worth noting that BJP has a strong presence among this very community spread across the states of Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.  All the three states where BJP enjoys the current term as government has seen a lot of development projects being undertaken in the field of education, health, alternate livelihood generation by organizations close to the BJP such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Ekal Vidyalaya etc since many years and is now continuing under the  respective current governments. This has helped the BJP in gaining popularity among the various tribes of the region. Considering the lack of development among the tea tribes as well as the hill tribes of Assam the Bharatiya Janata Party must necessarily follow the trend it set in the states of MP, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh by spreading education and social development to the areas inhabited by these people in order to alter the traditional voting pattern and try to gain some advantage. To bring this in effect Sarbananda Sonowal must fast pace the philanthropic work and then convincingly motivate a huge pool of cadres from among these communities who can convince their people to come out of prejudiced and blind notions of political parties and to vote based on possibilities and growth opportunities.

In 2008 and in 2012 the BJP has been very vocal and crystal clear with regard to their stand on the ethnic violence that had erupted in BTC. Although the pro-indigenous stand taken by the BJP has not directly made an impact on the Bodo people but one cannot deny the possibility of the BJP gaining from the recent friction visible between the Congress and the Bodo People’s Front. Given that BJP was the party in power at centre that initiated the formation of Bodoland Territorial Council in 2003 and got mass Bodo support in certain Bodo majority constituencies like Mangaldoi during 2004 LS elections there is a possibility of an understanding that remains. The challenge for the new BJP state president would be to get close to the Bodo leadership and build its greater political policy in sync with the Bodo people’s aspirations of protecting their land and identity and at the same time try to reduce the Bodo-Assamese divide which will provide big mileage to Mr Sonowal in the form of enhancing his image as a leader of caliber and secondly to repulse the Congress from gaining due to such divides. By virtue of being a tribal leader belonging to the Sonowal-Kachari clan many see him as an ultimate choice for the tribal population of the valley. Bringing his speaking skills and legal battling capacity Mr Sonowal must rightly address the prime issues faced by the plains tribal’s i.e. of big dams, flood & erosion and protection of indigenous cultural identity. By doing this he will stand out as one unique leader who will be able to walk ahead with the support of both the mainstream Assamese and the tribal population thereby bridging the gap that exists between the communities and therefore gaining strongly in these otherwise Congress strongholds.

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The mainstream Assamese has for long been deprived of an alternative to the Congress. Massive anti incumbency has not been able to uproot the Congress primarily because of the lack of faith the people of Assam has in the AGP and its leaders. With the rise of BJP in state politics of Assam the popular press will paint it with the Hindutva image and will try its best to highlight its clash with the regional ambitions of the middle class Assamese. The might of Sarbananda Sonowal as a leader shall get tested here where he will have to appease both the Assamese speakers and the non-Assamese population with clear distinction of the what regionalism stands for and how it doesn’t affect the concept of an Indian Nation. To achieve this he will have to very carefully tailor a model of sustainable development in consultations with BJP leaders from across the state belonging to various communities which ensures that the indigenous rights are protected and at the same time able to satisfy the aspirations of growth and development of the mainland Hindi and Bengali speakers. Leaders like Prodyut Bora, Siddhartha Bhattacharya who are seen as white collar progressive leaders should be the principle ones aiding Mr Sonowal in this process of conceptualization and execution. Given that the Congress government in the state has been able to bring certain visible symptoms of development, it will be a daunting task for the BJP led by Sonowal to convince people of the uniqueness an effectiveness of its model in comparison to the Congress model of development. Mr Sonowal can also take inspiration from his counterparts of other states like Goa, Chhattisgarh, Bihar etc where vibrant growth stories have been able to bind all imaginations together under one fold.

In short to stand as an alternative to the Congress and ahead of the AGP will be the principle mantra for Sarbananda Sonowal and his party. He will have the distinct advantage of having a clean image, credibility of being a performing politician, strength to be vocal about the interests of Assam. To add to this no party in Assam have come out directly against the AIUDF or Badruddin Ajmal in the past elections. It is worthwhile to note that a sizeable percentage of the population of Assam has major grievances with the way AIUDF is running the show in Assam. BJP might gain from Sarbananda Sonowal openly criticizing the AIUDF thereby appeasing that section of the population that wants to see it and was unhappy with the growing closeness between the AGP and the AIUDF. Coming from the All Assam Students Union Mr Sonowal definitely holds a respectful position among the cadres of regionalism and is still seen as a youth leader of dynamic quality. Whether he will be able to motivate a sizeable number of these youths to stand by him will determine most of his future as a political leader.

Whether victory or defeat, improvement or degradation, growth or reduction happens to BJP is a little uncertain for challenges are tall and opposition is steep but that the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam will not remain the same with Mr Sonowal coming to become the face of the party in Assam is certain. His organization skills, oratory, fearlessness and foresightedness will all add up to what we now only know as the destiny of BJP in Assam. As he had repeatedly confirmed many times that Atal Bihari Vajpayee remains his political idol he will have to closely follow one statement from the Ex PM of India which he delivered in his famous speech defending his 13 day Govt. in the Lok Sabha: “Satta ke lobh mein ake maine aajtak kuch nahi kiya” (I haven’t done anything till date for the greed of forming a government). For everyone who hopes of a bright future for Assam will only pray that Sarbananda Sonowal brings together all the issues of Assam under one umbrella and balances them in equal proportion and adds to it glimpses of possible solution to receive support from all section of society and then let his actions speak bigger than his words.