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Skill dearth in Assam

Labour daze

The roots of conflict in Assam do not lie in the state's political, religious and ethnic divides alone. A long history of migration and a massive shortage of unskilled workers in the entire North-East are important factors too, writes Oinam Sunil.

The genesis of the present crisis in Assam's Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas has more to do with the history of labour in the state - and indeed, also with the region's current labour market scenario - than it does with religious or political divisions. This goes all the way back to the nineteenth century, to the economic ambitions of the British Raj in Assam.

Beginning in 1840, new tea plantations, coal mines, railways and a great dealof oil exploration saw workers being brought into Assam for the first time, in droves. Labourers from Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar ere brought to work on tea plantations, and Telugu miners came to work in coalfields. Bengali Hindus landed in Assam for railway construction and clerical jobs soon after, and Nepali settlers began coming in as soldiers - all around 1850. Significantly, most of these early migrants more or less assimilated themselves into 'greater Assamese society' over time.

A post-independence influx of Bihari labourers was also significant. But a vast of majority of these migrants retained their homes in what are now Bihar and Jharkhand even while working in Assam. This is still the case. Bengali-speaking Muslims, the migrant grouping at the heart of the current tensions, were first brought by the British for cultivation work in the late 19th century. But their migration did not stop even after partition in 1947. While Assamese society could absorb migration from 'mainland' India, it felt greatly threatened by the multiplying effect of these people pouring in from across this border.

Moreover, Assam's economy was largely agrarian until the British arrived. Industrialisation soon brought with it its own set of labour requirements. Local Assamese, who mostly aspired to white collar jobs, slowly allowed the bulk of low-skilled jobs to be filled in by so-called 'outsiders'. The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was a huge factor - and it completely changed the Assamese psyche too, as radicals began taking centre stage in local politics.

This was mainly because many Assamese felt neglected by New Delhi, as the war had made Assam's borders a whole lot softer and lakhs crossed overinto the state, changing its demographics comprehensively.

Tribals felt especially threatened by these migrants;they saw them quickly join the state's labour force, and witnessed them eventually being turned into big vote banks. This is why Assam's politics, including in the Bodo heartland, focuses largely on the issue of such infiltration and the fastchanging demography of the state, which is ultimately directed to the seat of state power in Dispur. The bogey of a future 'non-Assamese' chief minister is often held up. Bodo tribals, led by Hagrama Mohilary, a former rebel leader who now rules his tribal area under BTC through the 2003 Bodo Accord, feel similarly susceptible.

Divisions have also got murkier. The All Assam Students' Union (AASU), which launched a famous six-year anti-foreigner agitation in 1979, and touts a clear line on the matter (' Bangladeshis who came after March 25, 1971 are foreigners irrespective of their religious affiliations' ) now faces a challenge with the emergence of virulent saffron politics in the state. For the BJP, Hindu Bangladeshis are clearly refugees, as they were persecuted in Bangladesh, while all Muslim Bangladeshis are illegal migrants.
Even the state's current Congress chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, had to play the same card before the 2011 assembly elections when he announced "those who migrated to Assam after facing persecution will be accorded refugee status. " Bengali-Hindus discarded the BJP and voted en bloc for the Congress.

But besides all this ethno-centric politicking, Assam's political leadership has also added to the problem by failing to address the core issues of the labour market. In fact unless this issue is adequately addressed, the question of 'outsiders' will continue to haunt Assam. This is because labour shortages in the North-East are a perennial problem, especially considering big development plans. According to the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation (NEDFi), infrastructure projects worth over Rs 1, 60, 000 crore are being implemented in the region. These include roads, railways, power, airports and oil refineries. These projects in the region will require an estimated 22 lakh workers during the 11th Five Year Plan period, but only 3. 6 lakh are available. A shortage of nearly 19 lakh is a serious problem for the North-East, fraught with danger.

Yet, it's not as if there no proposals to deal with illegal migrants. N C Padhi, a former top cop and security expert, suggested that immigrants be provided refugee certificates - as is the case with Tibetans granted refuge in India, for instance - and allowed to work if they declare their real nationality. He argued that such a policy could perhaps stop illegal migrants from entering their names in the voters' list, a huge beef in Assam.
Senior BJP leader L K Advani had also once mooted the idea of issuing 'work permits' to migrant workers in a bid to stop the illegal influx. But it had no takers, even in the BJP. Yet both of these are ideas worth considering, in an objective manner, shorn of political scaremongering.

Moreover, New Delhi has announced an ambitious Look East Policy, with an eye on bettering ties with ASEAN. The North-East is the launch pad for this mission;and a number of big projects will be taken up in the next few years. The demand for cheap labour is going to rise, and will likely end up encouraging more illegal migration. Clearly, the Centre has to evolve a strategy, sooner rather than later, that aims to tackle this problem at a fundamental level, even as it must look to safeguard the 'interests' of the Northeastern states and address the legitimate 'fears' of its people.

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