“Treat Northeast as a special zone, even if you lose money”
In terms of formal experience, Agatha Sangma, 28, is probably the youngest member of the Lok Sabha. But she’s had a head start as the daughter of PA Sangma, the presiding deity of Meghalaya politics. A leading news portal called Agatha the “hottest thing in Indian politics”, and she says she’s still figuring things out.
Already, Agatha is a lawyer, environmentalist, and amateur photographer as well. She is contesting from Tura and expects to return to the Lok Sabha. Her education background lists a law degree from Pune and an environment management masters from the UK.
In an interview with Vijay Simha for the series Young MPs and Their Idea of India, Agatha unplugs the Northeast and lists the steps that will need to be taken to solve the area’s complex problems. Excerpts from the interview:
Somehow, the Indian government doesn’t seem to have got a handle on the Northeast. Why is this a big deal? What do we do?
Well, to be honest, the Northeast is segregated from the rest of the country. This is so even physically. Plus, the people that inhabit the Northeast of India are different. There are various complexities within the Northeast and there is no uniformity. I don’t really like the thought that the Northeast is always a problem. Because, you know, India has several parts that have this problem. Basically, the issue in the Northeast is the insurgency.
I think that the insurgency is mainly to do with the Northeast being treated separately from the rest of the country. People were never really treated as part of the mainstream, be it by the government or by the basic attitude of the citizens of the rest of the country. People are also unaware about the Northeast.
We all know geography in school, but you will find people shocked to know that we are part of India. This basic attitude starts from scratch. For the Northeast, we need to be able to connect with the rest of the country. It’s not a problem that you can solve in one day. There is no single, simple solution. It really is a very complex problem and we need to bridge that gap. If you ask me how to bridge this gap, you know, for years we’ve been trying to do this.
|“You have to ensure compensation for the uranium that you will eventually take from Shillong”
To some extent, we can solve the insurgency problem by mainstreaming the Northeast and making the area equip itself economically. Most of the insurgency problem is because of unemployment. You find a lot of young people who are well educated, and have a lot of qualifications, but they never find job opportunities back home. They stay on in the rest of India and do something, but when they come back home they rarely find appropriate employment.
Most of the insurgent groups target these young people who need a sense of purpose, who need some sense of belonging, who probably need money.
You are young. Has an insurgent group ever approached you?
I haven’t been approached for recruitment. To some extent, I suppose I am not accessible to them. But these things do happen. It’s not a fairytale or something, you know. There are real life stories of people I know, I will not name them, who are so well qualified and use inappropriate means to go on with their lives.
When we talk of employment, we need to nail the details. Who, for instance, will employ them?
The rest of India is supposed to help the Northeast create these opportunities. It is a vicious circle. You think that the Northeast is so violent and so unsafe. People ask you, is it safe. Will you get shot if you go to the Northeast? People have these preconceived notions. Therefore, you don’t have industries in the Northeast. You don’t find tourism catching up with its potential. If that were to happen, if these kinds of apprehensions and preconceived notions were removed, we would probably have industries and tourism. Therefore, the economy would rise. We are not able to find a lot of opportunities because of this barrier.
You fear something because you don’t know enough. So there is this barrier. How do you think we can break this barrier? Would you want to make the Northeast tax-free? Would you want more security? How can industry make cost-effective products in the Northeast?
The government will have to give some incentives to break this barrier. The government will have to treat the Northeast as a special zone, even at the cost of incurring losses. We have to create an incentive for industry. Even the security is really hopeless in the Northeast. There’s so much of violence, so many bomb blasts, but till date you have never traced the culprit. We never know who does it. It’s such a haphazard networking of security there.
We also have to improve the infrastructure and connectivity of the Northeast. We are not very accessible to the rest of the country because of the terrain. It’s not the distance, but it is difficult to get through.
At the end of the day, the Northeast is so rich in the minerals that India would need in future. For instance, Shillong is rich in uranium Eventually the government is going to take that. But there are no roads to and from the uranium mines. There are no roads to Guwahati or Kolkata.
When you are taking, or intend to take, some resources from a particular place, you need to find a way of compensating the people who are living there. You need to give them opportunities to do something for them. You can’t take away their resources and leave them behind to carry on with their lives.
|“State governments in the Northeast have to be more proactive. They must come midway”
The government is helping to an extent. This time, for instance, the donor ministries have done a lot for the Northeast. The state governments in the Northeast, I would say, have to be more proactive. The Centre is sending a lot of assistance but the state governments are not able to implement these things.
You have the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and the PMGSY (Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana). In Garo Hills (in Meghalaya), we have the PMGSY. But there are not enough people to work on the PMGSY roads. So, all the money is wasted. It is sent back to the Centre because it is impossible to find people to work on the roads.
The quality of work suffers. The Centre is helping the states, but the states also have to bridge that gap by being proactive. The Centre would come midway. The states also have to come half the way. We really lack that proactive touch in the Northeast.
On one hand, we are talking of unemployment. On the other, you say people don’t want to work.
The PMGSY, for instance, needs contractors and engineers. Many a time, we don’t find these engineers. This is a complex and sad thing. You have engineers and doctors who go on government quota to study in a central university in India. They are supposed to return when they finish and serve the state for five years at the minimum. But many times, they don’t. They stay on in the metropolitan cities they have studied in. So we always have this lack of manpower.
It’s because people from the Northeast suddenly come to the big cities and are fascinated by the infrastructure and the glitter. They don’t want to go back home and contribute. Even though they have come on a quota, you won’t be able to trace them. They should come back and do at least the work they are supposed to. When they don’t come back, you don’t find well-qualified people to implement central schemes.
The youth who are recruited into insurgency are not technically qualified people. They are just young blood. You won’t find bunches of ULFA people who have studied engineering or medicine. These are youngsters who don’t have a direction in life. Insurgent groups give them that direction.
You say glitter attracts people from the Northeast. The Northeast has a strong music culture. Is there a music industry there? Can it be a channel?
Music and sport would really encourage the youth to be far more focussed. In the Northeast, they are born talented in music and sport. Football, for instance. It would really help if the government creates some music schools or music universities, and gives scholarships for music and sport. We have a culture of music. We have people who organise music concerts and things like that. But it is on a very small scale.
India’s most famous rock show is in Shillong. One of India’s better talents in Hindi singing, Zubin, is from Assam. When you have talent, you require a formal set-up to give it shape. You need studios, instrument-makers, production centres to bring out CDs and DVDs, and you need to market them. That’s it. How come it hasn’t happened in 60 years?
I have no idea. We do have studios but it’s not on a large scale. We often discuss about Bollywood, which has so many musical sequences and songs in movies. They have many dancers behind the main actors in a song. They have a big dancing crew. Men and women in the Northeast are all very good at dancing as well. We discussed with one of the companies that people from the Northeast could be recruited into Bollywood. We discussed ideas on promoting the Northeast in Bollywood, in terms of dancing and scenic beauty. You can have film shooting in the Northeast. It’s so beautiful. People go all the way to Switzerland to shoot for movies. These things have happened on a much smaller scale in the Northeast but nobody has been able to bring it all together. You miss the whole thing sometimes if it happens on a small scale.
That brings me to the next puzzle. Why does the Northeast not have a movie industry? You have music, drugs, alienation, folktales, tribes, history, militancy, unemployment. Great stuff for movies.
I really don’t know. There are people who individually make it, but there hasn’t been anyone who can revolutionise it. People are not very enthusiastic about taking a chance. They want to make sure that they have the day’s meal, and the next day’s meal. The kinds of things that you mention are probably for people who are already well established, who can take a chance on creating something like this. It’s also to do the agrarian nature of people here. They don’t want to experiment on new things unless an outsider would come and do something.
Why do you need outsiders? You need role models from inside. All you may need is some help from outside.
Maybe somebody will come up with it. There are young businessmen in Shillong, for instance, like Ming who owns the Centre Point hotels. He is very young and he is always organising these rock shows. He uses a few local artistes but he gets many artistes from outside, like from the US. But it’s basically Shillong and probably Guwahati. It does not really unite the Northeast.
|“People from the Northeast don’t want to return home and contribute after they see the glitter of big cities in India”
The Northeast has so much music and sports talent, but you won’t find people to integrate the whole thing. My brother has a production company and he was in the process of trying to create documentaries. Then he contested the election and now he is very busy. He has a studio where people record their music, but it’s not a huge thing. Once in a blue moon, somebody would come and record their songs. It’s strange because people are talented but are probably not creating their own music. They generally mimic other songs.
The rest of India watches mostly similar television. In the Northeast, however, Indian channels are barely watched. Does that contribute to the non-Indian feeling? If so, what is to be done?
That could be one of the reasons, but it can’t be the integral thing. Hindi movies are banned in Manipur. Korean movies do better than Hindi movies in Nagaland and Meghalaya. People from these places are similar to those from the Northeast in terms of features, so they get more fascinated by Korean movies. But this is just one aspect really. There are bigger issues. This is just one fragment. There are so many things that need to connect between the Northeast and the rest of the country.
Have you met Irom Sharmila?
Is it lack of access, or lack of interest or don’t you agree with her protest?
To be honest, I’ve been an MP for seven months. It was not something I had planned. It was a consequence of my father’s resignation from Parliament. (Former Speaker PA Sangma is Agatha’s father). There was a bye-election. These seven months have been spent trying to find my place. I’ve not been able to learn about the Northeast in this little while.
I’ve spent these seven months trying to know my constituency. I have travelled extensively in my constituency and tried to meet as many people as I could. For me, this is just a trailer. My real purpose is to come back in the next election (in April-May 2009). I have used this period to get to know my people and to know where exactly I come from. People I represent should also know that this is Agatha Sangma. There are so many people who did not even see me, but have voted for me. There are very very intense and complex issues in the Northeast.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a long way to go, have a lot to learn, and a lot to figure out. I’m very keen on being a proactive part of the Northeast. I want to be a vocal part of society. I intend to create a change. There are grave issues, I know. I never had the opportunity to meet great people from the Northeast.
We discussed some of the grave issues. What else can you highlight?
People from the Northeast need to feel they are part of India. I want to make my people feel that there is somebody from here in Parliament. She is one of us. Therefore, indirectly, we are all part of India. Many a times, we are not able to relate to India. We forget that we are actually Indian.
People call themselves Garos in Meghalaya. To think that they are Indians would be the second thing. Whereas the first thing should be that we are Indians. These are attitudes that will take a long time to change. You can’t change that overnight. It has to be because you really feel it from inside. You need to feel that the country is doing something for you.
What do you think we should do about illegal migration from Bangladesh into the Northeast?
It is one of the most dangerous issues that India is going to face in terms of security. Sadly, we are so busy thinking about Kashmir and the India-Pakistan border that many times we forget that the Northeast shares borders with several countries, through which all sorts of activities take place. This includes illegal immigration.
What is happening in the Northeast is very sad. We find a lot of people who have come from Bangladesh. Initially they used to come for seasonal work but now they have slowly started settling down. They have started getting the voting I-cards. It is in collaboration with some politicians as well.
You find illegal immigration being accepted and made part of the system for the benefit of certain people who are creating a vote bank. We have to complete the fencing of the border as soon as possible. It is taking a very long time. The second thing is to deal with the I-cards. Garo Hills and Bangladesh are so close that people who lived before the fencing of the border started don’t even realise that they are shifting from one country to another.
Because the borders are close by and people have become close-knit. They have established markets. So, even as we do these things, we have to be sensitive to the difficulties that people will face. The main thing is to issue proper identity cards as soon as possible.
Also, there has to be criteria to include a name in electoral rolls. These people come for 12 months and obtain I-cards. I don’t know from where they get it. It is very strange. Nobody should be able to cheat the country and obtain electoral I-cards.
|“We have to complete the fencing of the border as soon as possible. It is taking far too long”
What proper manner can we have for voter I-cards to these immigrants?
They get fake caste certificates. We have to ensure that these things cannot be forged. There are expert forgers, but people are not bothered to do anything about them. It is so entwined with the political system. They are all well connected here. It is a win-win situation for the people who are actually supposed to be preventing illegal immigration. The politicians get more voters. The immigrants find a home. These politicians don’t feel the need to stop the illegal immigration.
The Agatha Sangma Agenda
- Mainstream the Northeast
- Equip the Northeast economically
- Push rest of India to create employment in the Northeast
- Help tourism catch up with its potential in the Northeast
- Treat the Northeast as a special zone, even if there are losses
- Modernise security network
- Improve physical connectivity between Northeast and rest of India
- Offer uranium reserves in Shillong to India
- Ensure adequate compensation for the uranium
- Roads to and from uranium mines to Guwahati and Kolkata
- More proactive state governments in Northeast
- Better work ethic in Northeast
- Make doctors and engineers return to work in Northeast
- Music schools and universities in Northeast
- Special scholarships to sportsmen, especially footballers
- Recruit more people from Northeast into Bollywood
- Make it easy and attractive for shooting Hindi movies in Northeast
- Send more dancers from Northeast into Bollywood
- Integrate music industry in Northeast
- Encourage people to make movies in Northeast
- Fence border asap
- Issue identity cards to Indian citizens
- Make people from Northeast feel they are Indians first
- Lay down criteria to get voter I-cards
- Catch the forgers who make fake caste certificates