Social psychologists argue that they have two basic functions — to alter the perception of being “happy” as “satisfied” and to turn the notion of “bad” into “good”. These changes, needless to say, drive individuals and collectives towards believing that the wish is fulfilled. In the case of Assam’s Barak Valley, such is the level of satisfaction at the running, at long last, of the slow-moving passenger train over the hill tracts of the Borail range, from Silchar to Lumding and then to Guwahati. After a wait of nearly two decades, the metre gauge conversion work was completed and the first goods train flagged off on 21 November. Regular passenger services started two weeks ago. Already there is a clamour for more daily services.
Located disadvantageously, the Barak Valley until 1948 was part of erstwhile Sylhet district of Assam. It faced immense difficulty in keeping itself connected. Deliberately neglected, isolated and shabbily represented by an incompetent selfseeking political class, the valley kept treading a lonely path of building up a few institutions.
The broad gauge connection now can improve not just the supply but the demand side of the economy as well. So far this has been inelastic and rigid in the absence of supply chains. Both in terms of transport of goods and services and reduced internal and external transaction, business is bound to look up now. In other words, the broad gauge, as an infrastructural investment by the government, is a right step in the direction of improving both supply and demand sides of Barak Valley’s existing Robinson Crusoe economy.
When economy suffered, a set of traders, allegedly in nexus with officials, funders, suppliers and contractors, kept changing goalposts and causing inconvenience to the aam jantawith regard to simple travel between Silchar and Guwahati. Landlocked Tripura, Mizoram and parts of Manipur were made to suffer because Barak Valley is their only outlet to the outside world. They had to pay higher prices for food and other essential items.
The cost of fuel, education, healthcare and any dream of building a home and marrying off daughters and sisters or going on a pilgrimage or a tour, all very basic to human dignity, eluded the ordinary valley-dwellers. To add insult to injury, came the rhetoric of being called a “pariah in Axom” or a “Bong from Barak”. The residents resisted unto the last this onslaught on culture and language of Barak Valley.
Those returning home from colleges and universities, some often bruised for life and even eliminated for being toppers, suffer middle- class pangs. For manual labourers, returning home without being paid, disappearing without the government being in the least concerned, harassed for being Muslim or Bengali at checkpoints on the borders of Meghalaya, Manipur and Mizoram, added more strings to this saga of pain and torture. Ironically, Mizoram opposes broad gauge as it feels it is a vehicle of access for those hapless Vais, as outsiders are known in the state.
Amidst all this, quiet flows the Barak. The bus lobby made money, charging and extorting from students, labourers and other travellers. Sending goods became officially and unofficially duty-bearing, as one was forced to pay sales tax, service tax, transport tax, gate tax, goonda tax and all other forms of extortion. Any import to Barak Valley likewise attracted extra payments. At the end of the spectrum, the poor buyer and low-income lot were pushed to slow starvation, while those who enjoyed the spoils led a five- star life. Their property, their buildings crossed permissible limits and banks started obliging them.
On the flip side, since the 1980s, coins and small change were scarce among rickshawpullers, daily wage earners and others and they are virtually left without means. With the coming of the broad gauge all this is bound to change. The traders of Crusoe’s economy have started taking joyrides in the new trains, apparently to ascertain how the new line would affect their business and income. On the inaugural run of the train these traders were said to have mixed with passengers to enjoy the ride. The joy lies in reduced transaction cost for them. This year even during the worst floods the price of onions did not rise beyond Rs 20. They need to rework their strategy of profiteering.
Certainly cement, iron rods, bricks and other building materials, clothes and many such monopoly items could still be an abundant source of black and white profit.
How can a passenger train and a few goods trains ensure great revolutionary transformation? Here comes the rope-trick of turning “bad” into “good”. Railway tunnel numbers seven to 12, falling on the diverted track between Harangajao and Maibong, deviate at 35 degrees from the erstwhile alignment on tectonically-shifting ground and the rainy season serves to relay the conditions of existence of ordinary people in the predictable event of landslides. Nevertheless, the broad-gauge is here and so far so good. Public sentiment prevents people from even speaking of such a possibility
The same company that could not make part of Mahasadak (East-West corridor) between Haflong and Jinam Valley, had been seemingly the main contractor to build tunnel numbers 10, 11 and 12. These tunnels are areas of concern. Here comes the geological reality of Barak Valley being surrounded by hills on three sides. These hills are no doubt more vulnerable, homes to extortionists, and yet they maintain a similar condition of life, the only difference being the Sixth Schedule and the Inner Line Permit that separates the people of Barak Valley from any comparable economic and social support. The valley, therefore, is pushed to the bottom when it comes to business, thanks to both inside masterminds and outside adversaries.
One of the major sources of sustenance of the valley is its 100-odd tea gardens. Starvation deaths, low wages, inadequate rations, no significant healthcare and education, poor maternal health, lack of water and sanitation and a producers’ market of depressed buyers have a multiplier effect in incidences of voodoo, witchhunts and day-night gambling. A brothel at the heart of Silchar since World War II remains a gulag of the trafficked. Recent beef politics, sporadic polarisation games, grabbing agricultural land and a massive culture of speed money, starting from death certificates to electricity connections, logging, violation of the Conservation Act in letter and spirit — all this table talk could be listened to in idle office gossip off a winter evening. Sewage remains chocked , there is no solid waste processing and blocked drains and natural water courses show that the rich are actually very poor.
Being a valley amidst hills, it is like a long forsaken brother whose sisters have forgotten it. The condition of the Shillong-Silchar National Highway (No 6), the entry point to the valley, is in a state of Harappan ruin. One is reminded of how a powerful Central minister inaugurated a tunnel to prevent landslides at Sonapur, while another state minister ensured that the National Highway is no longer maintained by the Border Road Task Force. This single act of removing the BRTF turned the eminent domain into a hunting field of poor roadwork to be dilapidated in no time for the next bonanza. The feast is on at NH 6 and the ordinary people’s route to entry and exit is in the doldrums with of course the hope of broad gauge not betraying the happiness shown by the people. The feast is on through multiple checkgates at Digarkhal and other places with impunity.
An iconic Left member of Parliament, Nurul Huda, who represented Silchar, quietly sold off his home when he could no longer bear with this leaking pipe phenomenon and now that he is no more, people of the valley are left with very little by way of a visionary roadmap. Indeed, the valley has no voice anywhere. This is the social pain that drives the ironically happy people of the valley.
The piece has been first published in the Statesman under the heading of The tragedy of a valley amidst hills.
Dr Prasenjit Biswas is professor of philosophy at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong and Vice Chairman of Barak Human Rights Protection Committee.