A drive through Budhurail-Rengti road which is constructed under Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) recently will enthrall a traveler with sprawling green paddy field on the right and chains of blue Rengti Hill range on the left.
Earlier a visit to this nondescript village on the west of Silchar town in Cachar district – although not far from this main town of Barak Valley was nightmarish because of worst condition of road.
People used to travel by bicycle or on foot only to reach this part of the district. During monsoon the area was inaccessible even on foot. However, entire landscape and lifestyle of the people of the area has changed over night with the construction of the road under PMGSY with a cost of nearly Rs 4 crore only.
This is one of the examples how the road communication scenario in the three districts of Barak Valley areas of Assam has witnessed a sea change over past one decade and during the Congress and the UPA regime in particular in the state and at the Centre respectively.
It’s understood that Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi districts of this southern Assam valley cry for better road, rail and water connectivity, massive industrialization, a green revolution with the help of proper irrigation facilities, making local tea industry healthy and above all solution to the gigantic problem of unemployment.
To understand the social and economic character of Barak Valley and its constraints and opportunities that we should at first go through the history of that region in brief.
Geographically this Valley is surrounded by Barail Hills, Bhuban Hills, Jaintia Hills and the Lusai Hills from all the three sides except its western plain boundary with Bangladesh. Barak Valley is situated in the southern part of the Assam. The place is named after the Barak River, which originates from the hills of Nagaland.
The valley consists of three districts namely Cachar, Karimganj, and Hailakandi. While Silchar is the main hub of this valley and second largest city in Assam after Guwahati, Karimganj is the district headquarters of Karimgnaj district and is the second largest town in Barak Valley. It is considered as the cultural center of Barak Valley.
The official language of Barak Valley is Bengali. Apart from the Bengalis, this Valley is the home land of Kacharis, Hmar, Manipuris, Both Bishnupriya and Meitei, Rongmei Nagas,and tea garden community.
Religious composition of the valley population is Hindu: 50 per cent, Muslim: 46 per cent, and others four per cent.
Of the three districts, Karimganj and Hailakandi districts have a Muslim majority. Hindus are majority in Cachar district (60 per cent) while Muslims are majority in Karimganj district (53 per cent) and Hailakandi district (57 per cent).
The valley has a long history of Islam and Muslim life; half of the valley came under the rule of the Turk-Afghan dynasties of Bengal from the early 14th century and continued until the establishment of the Mughal Empire. However, the dominance of Muslim culture finally ended with the introduction of British rule in Bengal.
In 1947 when plebiscite held in Sylhet, the district got divided into two parts that are the eastern part of Sylhet which is known as Karimganj remained with India whereas the other part fell under Bangladesh.
The vegetation in the valley is mostly tropical evergreen and there are large tracts of rainforests in the northern and south-eastern parts of the valley.
The forests of Barak valley were once rich in wildlife but now it’s vanishing due to human onslaught. Rare species found are Hoolock gibbon, Phayre’s leaf monkey, Pig-tailed macaque, Stump-tailed macaque, Masked Fin foot, White-winged Wood Duck, etc, have been recorded. The Asian elephant has already vanished from most of the valley. Only a herd of eight numbers of such elephants is noticed in Karimganj district bordering Bangladesh.
The southern part was also recommended as Dhaleswari wildlife sanctuary. Barail is the only wildlife sanctuary of the Barak valley region. It was initiated by noted naturalist Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury, who originally hailed from this region in early 1980s. This sanctuary was ultimately notified in 2004.
Before the partition, the valley had been enjoying smooth communication facilities with rest of the country through rail and water routes via now-Bangladesh to Kolkata. However, over the years since Independence and creation of Bangladesh in particular, the Valley has been suffering from lack of infrastructure in terms of communication.
For the 35 lakh population of Barak Valley it takes 20 hours or more to overcome a distance of 291 km to reach Guwahati – the capital city of Assam by train. One has to travel a distance of 408 km from Silchar to Guwahati by road at a cost that takes more than 15 hours. The journey through both rail and road is tedious, time consuming and full of uncertainties because both the routes are prone to landslide during the rainy season in particular.
A journey by train to Guwahati is subject to the process of transshipment at Lumding, because the broad gauge ends here and the meter gauge route starts. The 100-years-old meter gauge Hill section between Lumding and Badarpur, which is rich with its scenic beauty, witness frequent derailments of trains causing often disruption of rail connectivity and much harassment to the passengers. Transportation of essentials meant for Barak Valley, Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur hits the most as this rail route is considered as the lifeline for this part of North-East.
Cachar Paper Mill, a unit of the public sector Hindustan Paper Corporation Ltd situated at Panchgram in Hailakandi district is the worst sufferer because of communication bottlenecks. The lone large-scale industry in Barak Valley having a 100,000 MT capacity of paper is in direstraits conditions because the unit has been incurring lose due to non-availability of sufficient quantum of raw materials and marketing facilities of finished products over past years owing to worst communication facilities.
Cachar Sugar Mill, another large-scale state-owned industry at Anipur in Karimganj district had died an untimely death a decade back in the absence of infrastructure.
Tea, a major sector in Barak Valley dotted by 104 gardens is also largely hit by lack of communication and transportation facilities.
However, over nearly one decade a number of major projects undertaken by the governments that have helped create a silver lining in Barak Valley’s horizon. These include Lumding-Silchar broad gauge project, Silchar-Saurastra, East-West Corridor, declaration of Lakhipur-Bhanga stretch of Barak River as National Water Way No 6, extension of runway of Silchar Airport at Kumbhirgram and facilitate the only airport manned by IAF in southern Assam with night-landing facilities and landing and taking off of airbuses.
Apart from this, the main aim is to improve the condition of livelihood of common people, governments have taken up different projects under DRDA, NRHM, Sarba Shiksha Abhijan Mission, and the schemes have started providing with results in the valley. Understanding that there is a close link between rural connectivity and growth to be it in the area of trade, employment, education or healthcare, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), launched on December 25, 2000 seeks to provide all-weather roads to all unconnected rural habitations with a population of more than 500 persons. Barak Valley is major beneficiary in this respect.
So far 214-km Lumding-Silchar broad gauge goes, its set to be completed in December, 2013 and commissioned by January, 2014. The completion of the National Project will help in fulfilling longstanding demand of the people of the region and help boost trade and commerce, tourism industry, smoothening of communication of this part of North-East. The broad gauge project, foundation for which was laid by then Prime Minister H D Deve Gauda in 1996 is marred by inordinate delay and law and order situation in Dima Hasao district of the state and is a victim of “logistic problems” over the years.
(But these problems have by and large been over and it will be completed within the fresh time-frame as laid down by the NFR officials). The Rs. 4073.50 crore projects was declared National Project in 2004 which means 75 per cent funding will be met by ministry of finance and remaining 25 per cent by ministry of railways.
The first phase of the work for East-West Corridor is set to be completed soon. Due to non-availability of permission from the forest and environment ministry work for a stretch of 31 km of the Corridor from Balacherra to Harangajao in Dima Hasao district under Barail wild-life sanctuary is yet to be taken up.
The proposed four-lane corridor would not only connect Silchar with Guwahati, but also with Porbandar through Muzafarpur, Kanpur and Chhatarpur points. The Corridor will help bring Barak Valley in a hand-shaking position with rest of the country leaving back the nightmarish journey through NH 6 (earlier NH 44) via Meghalaya which is dangerous, unsafe, and life-threatening and tiring for the commuters.
National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) has come as a blessing for the people of Barak Valley. Under NRHM programme, different health-related schemes including MMU, Boar Clinic, ASHA Radio, Mobile phone to Sun Centre ANM, Operation Smile, free operation for children having congenital disease, Susrusha, Sanjeevani, Sarathi-104, NCD, RHM have become operational in this southern-most part of Assam. Tea garden hospitals have been brought under NRHM. While the Mother NGO of NHRM in Cachar and Hailakandi districts is Desha Bandhu Club and in Karimganj it’s the Indian Red Cross Society.
Under Rs 100 crore projects the infrastructure of Silchar Medical Collage and Hospital (SMCH) has received a major boost over past five years. Assam minister for the department of health Himanta Biswa Sharma only recently asked the officials of the SMCH to prepare a vision plan for the next five years, so that SMCH can be available to cater this part of Assam and neighboring states in a better manner.
(“Money will not be a problem. You go on with the vision and submit before me). Our motto is to provide health service the poor people free of cost”, the health minister had said. Sharma also inaugurated 56-seated General Nursing and Midwifery (GNM) Training School at Karimganj in April.
The ministry of rural development has been entrusted with the responsibility of implementing the drinking water, housing and roads component of Pradhan Mantri Gramodaya Yojana (PMGY). Apart from this Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), Credit Cum Subsidy Scheme (CCS), Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY), Sampoorna Gramin Rozgar Yojana (SGRY) and Integrated Wastelands Development Program (IWDP) have also helped bring new hope in the lives of poor people of Barak Valley.
PHE projects, border area development including border fencing, construction of border roads along 124-km India-Bangladesh border in Barak Valley is on the path of smooth progress.
A major awakening is noticed among the pupil, teachers and the guardians across the valley due to programme implemented under Sarba Siksha Abhijan Mission. Although the fresh timetable of taking off of classes from 9 am has received mixed response.
Chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s announcement to grant Rs 1,000 crore for the development of the three districts of Barak Valley is seen as the present government’s keenness to bring this Valley in the mainstream of development process of the Nation.
Bubhuti Bhushan Goswami