Myth of development and dependency syndrome in Assam

Uddipta Ranjan Boruah

It is strange that ‘development’, perhaps the most glamorous and aspired term of this century, lacks a universal definition. The dictionary says development is “the process of developing or being developed”. If one goes by this vague definition, does development equate foundation stones, good roads, flyovers, dams, multiplexes, industries? If development means all or any of these, how does one – in view of Shiv Vishwanathan’s belief that development is genocidal – address related displacements, loss of livelihood and environmental degradation?

Less than four years after deciding to drop the N-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, former US President Harry S Truman made ‘development’ a popular catchword after his landmark speech on 20 January 1949:

“…we must embark upon a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas… the United States is pre-eminent among nations in the development of industrial and scientific techniques… in cooperation with other nations, we should foster capital investment in areas needing developmentgreater production is the key to prosperity and peace. And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge…”

Immediately after Truman’s speech, Wolfgang Sachs wrote in his seminal The Development Dictionary: “…like a towering lighthouse guiding sailors towards the coast, ‘development’ stood as the idea which oriented emerging nations in their journey through post-war history”. Development, thus, was about meeting certain standards that Truman set and the world accepted as what separates the developed from the underdeveloped.

The case of Assam, to a great extent, falls in line with Truman’s definition. The British colonisers kept the Northeast frontier out of their plan while expanding their administrative foothold across the subcontinent in the early 19th century. The Inner Line Regulations of 1873 marked the extent of the revenue administration beyond which the “tribal people” were left to manage their own affairs. Bodhisatva Kar wrote: “The Inner Line was not only a territorial exterior of the theatre of capital – it was also a temporal outside of the historical pace of ‘development’ and ‘progress’… the Inner Line was expected to enact a sharp split between what was understood as the contending worlds of capital and pre-capital, of the ‘modern’ and the ‘primitive’.”

The failure of the people of the region to meet the colonial prescription of “modernity” made them the savages upon whom the project of development was to be tested without paying any attention to the peculiarities of the region. If the players across the board could be hypothetically reversed and the subalterns were powerful enough to create discourse, the British prescription might in turn have been called “primitive”.

The optimism of democracy and inclusive growth comes to a standstill in the periphery of the modern nation-states. India is no exception; the idea of development has been a myth for peripheral Assam. It in short has been a grand capitalist conspiracy. Development for the state has been nothing more than an instrument for New Delhi to sustain the dependency syndrome and to justify the need to stay linked with mainland India. Assam falls in the “constructed”, “special category states” and as such qualifies for funds, 90 % of which are grants and 10% loans. Every time scholars from Assam complain about step-motherly attitude and economic exploitation by New Delhi, the latter has been using this very excuse to claim that the state has adequate amount of funds. But, as Nandana Dutta argued, “the region’s underdevelopment is not the result of uneven fund allocations but of political indifference”.

Such dole-out without accountability leaves the funds at the disposal of political leaders whose patronage has bred a new class of elites in the state. These local elites, claiming to be the new entrepreneurs, are actually the agents of cosmopolitan elites settled at the urban centres of mainland India. Members of this class are a menace as they fast forget their roots and in their ambition to move up the ladder end up exploiting their own people. This has given rise to inequality in the state, mirrored by Guwahati’s GS Road. As dozens of people packed in rickety city busses travel back from work in the evening, another section adds glamour to the roadside malls with their high-end SUVs and sedans blocking the unplanned road that lacks adequate parking facilities.

Inequality and development are bedfellows and move hand in hand, thus necessitating the evaluation of ‘development’. In this context, Thomas Piketty asked: “…what was the good of industrial development, what was the good of all the technological innovations, toil, and population movements if, after half a century of industrial growth, the condition of the masses was still just as miserable as before?”

In the absence of adequate industrial infrastructure and local markets in the region, the highways – often seen as a prerequisite for development – have become convenient corridors for draining out existing natural resources. Development for Assam thus has been broad highways that drive out raw materials and bring back finished goods from the industrialised centres in the mainland. Development for Assam has been pipelines that supply crude to faraway refineries in the country without giving much subsidy to the masses beneath whose ground lie the oil reserves. This is justified because the region is “disturbed” and another refinery in the state would be a risk to capital. Development for Assam has been railway lines connecting Ledo, the easternmost coal town, while a thermal power plant near Bongaigaon has sustainability issues.

It serves New Delhi’s national security interest to sustain the dependency syndrome in a peripheral state like Assam that is susceptible to feelings of secessionism. The political elite in Dispur that sporadically keeps travelling to New Delhi to beg for even more funds should rather press for capacity building that would ensure an escape from the “special category” towards being an independent economy like Punjab or West Bengal. An immediate need has arisen to take up progressive taxation schemes to redistribute wealth and ensure equity. The promise of a better tomorrow rests not merely in expressways, flyovers and dams but also on the well being of the masses which calls for a non-exploitative model in which every individual multiplies his wellbeing.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the South Asian University.

( The author is a Post Graduate Student of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi. He can be reached at | This article appeared on webportal NEZINE. The original article can be accessed by clicking HERE.)