Assam Year-Ender 2020: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

The state had its share of highs and lows in the pandemic year that many would love to forget, yet also inculcate the forgotten virtues of cleanliness and hygiene.
Assam Year-Ender 2020: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

GUWAHATI:

From COVID-19 pandemic and its impact to the signing of the third Bodo Accord, Assam witnessed a series of events that made headlines in 2020.

COVID-19 hits Assam

A movement against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which was gaining momentum in Assam in January 2020, came to a complete standstill when COVID-19 finally showed up in the state.

They reported the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the state from Karimganj on March 31, 2020, after a 52-year-old returnee from New Delhi tested positive at Silchar Medical College and Hospital.

The virus, which was at first believed to have been spread by returnees from a religious congregation in New Delhi, claimed over 1,000 lives in the state and infected over 2 lakh people by the end of the year.

Adapting to the new normal

From putting the state under periodic lockdown in the subsequent months from April 2020 to reviewing the scene, to removing restrictions subsequently, Assam, like the other states, had to withstand COVID-19.

Economy and business, tourism, education and sports were affected to a point where things came to a standstill.

Cultural events took a backseat as well. For the first time in the state’s history perhaps, there was no Rongali Bihu, given that mid-April was when the pandemic was casting a spell and pandal hopping could have aggravated the situation.

The Assam health department’s response has been noteworthy, though. The exercise of ramping up testing to trace, isolate, quarantine people including the creation of dedicated COVID hospitals, COVID care centres and isolation wards, gained momentum as they restricted active cases, thanks to the high recovery rate.

As the state government relaxed lockdown restrictions, norms such as keeping physical distance, wearing masks and using hand sanitisers were put in place, though not always followed.

People started getting accustomed to the new normal, be it working from home, online classes for students, etc., till things improved.

While the year was all about COVID, there were other newsmakers in 2020, bringing a ray of hope for permanent peace in Assam.

A COVID screening centre in the Uzan Bazar area of Guwahati.
A COVID screening centre in the Uzan Bazar area of Guwahati.TNT Photos

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Militancy on the wane

The third Bodo Accord signed by the Union home ministry, Assam government and various Bodo organisations and outfits on January 27, 2020, brought hopes of permanent peace and stability in a region plagued by violence and insurgency for over four decades.

Post signing of the accord, the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) region was rechristened as Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR).

Ahead of the significant accord, a major peace breakthrough took place with the surrender of 644 militants belonging to eight proscribed outfits of Assam on January 23, 2020.

Among the surrendered cadres included 50 from United Liberation Front of Assam – Independent (ULFA-I), eight from National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), six from Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), 13 from Rava National Liberation Front (RNLF), one from Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-M), 87 from National Santhal Liberation Army (NSLA), 178 from Adivashi Dragon Fighter (ADF) and 301 from National Liberation Front of Bengali (NLFB).

A week later, 968 NDFB (S) cadres based in Myanmar, laid down arms and joined the mainstream.

Signatories of the Bodo peace agreement which was inked in January.
Signatories of the Bodo peace agreement which was inked in January.TNT Photos

The emergence of regional parties

Even as COVID put the brakes to the CAA agitation, it, however, failed to discourage the protesting groups to float regional political parties which they claim to be an “alternative” to the national parties, and a “force” to “dislodge” the ruling BJP from the state in the 2021 Assembly polls.

The year saw the formation of four regional political parties – the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP)-backed Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP), Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) and 70 ethnic groups-backed Raijor Dal, Anchalik Gana Morcha (AGM) and United Regional Party-Assam (URPA).

All of them have been vocal against what they allege as the state government’s betrayal in implementing CAA in the state and, that the regional parties would always oppose such Acts and protect the interests of indigenous people.

Formation of Raijor Dal in Guwahati on October 2.
Formation of Raijor Dal in Guwahati on October 2.TNT Photos

Floods/Landslides

The perennial menace of floods and erosion, yet to be declared a national problem, came back to haunt Assam.

According to Assam disaster management records, between May and October 2020, floods affected about 57.89 lakh people in 30 districts of the state. Over 123 lives were lost in the floods, while landslides caused 26 deaths.

Over 5,474 villages were affected.

According to reports, 151 animals including 12 one-horned rhinos died in Kaziranga National Park because of floods since May in Assam.

NDRF team members during a rescue operation in a flood-affected village in Barpeta district.
NDRF team members during a rescue operation in a flood-affected village in Barpeta district. TNT Photos

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Baghjan blowout

A natural gas producing well of Oil India Ltd, the Baghjan well number 5 in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district, maintained by John Energy Ltd, witnessed an uncontrolled release of gas, crude and condensate on May 27, 2020, eventually culminating in an explosion and inferno on June 9, 2020.

Apart from large-scale destruction caused by the blaze in the adjoining areas adversely affecting the ecosystem and its endangered species, three OIL employees lost their lives, while the disaster left many people homeless.

Experts along with a technical team from the oil sector were engaged relentlessly to douse the fire even as the blaze was diverted to a few pits and the Baghjan EPS. However, the blowout was successfully “killed” after 172 days since it caught fire.

The National Green Tribunal, in the meantime, revealed that OIL had failed to obtain clearances to operate the oil field, and had failed to comply with provisions of environmental laws and with internal safety procedures.

File picture of the debris removal process at the Baghjan site.
File picture of the debris removal process at the Baghjan site.TNT Photos

Dehing Patkai

Amid the lockdown on April 7, 2020, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), permitted a coal-mining project in the Saleki reserve forest which is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.

The move allows the use of 98.59 hectares of land of the sanctuary for coal mining by Coal India Limited.

The development, however, sparked protests among environmentalists and activists in the state.

They filed PILs opposing the government’s move for approving the coal mining project. The state government initiated an inquiry and upgraded the wildlife sanctuary to a national park.

Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary
Dehing Patkai Wildlife SanctuaryTNT Photos

Assam-Mizoram conflict

High tension and uncertainty prevailed along the Assam-Mizoram boundary areas in October following allegations of encroachment by both states, alleged abduction and custodial death of a Cachar resident in Mizoram and explosions in two schools of Assam.

Protests by truckers and residents of an area in Cachar district culminated into an economic blockade that led to a shortage of essentials in Mizoram.

An LP school near the Assam-Mizoram border, damaged by an explosion in October 2020.
An LP school near the Assam-Mizoram border, damaged by an explosion in October 2020. TNT Photos

Fish sector glory

The year also saw Assam bagging four top honours in the fisheries sector from the Union ministry of fisheries, animal husbandry and dairying, including the “Best State” title among the hilly states and northeastern region for top performance in the fisheries sector in the past three years from 2017-18.

The state’s fish output went up to 3.73 lakh metric tonnes in 2019-20 from 2.94 lakh MT during 2015-16 — a rise of 26.87 per cent in four years.

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End of a political era

The passing away of three-time Assam chief minister and veteran Congress leader, Tarun Gogoi from COVID-19 complications and allied ailments on November 23, 2020, not only created a void in Assam or the country’s political scene, but it also marked the end of a political era.

During his tenure as the chief minister from 2001 to 2016, Gogoi helped to deal with and control insurgency and mitigating violence besides improving the state’s fiscal condition.

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal pays tribute to former CM, Tarun Gogoi at Guwahati Medical College Hospital.
Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal pays tribute to former CM, Tarun Gogoi at Guwahati Medical College Hospital.TNT Photos

BJP masterstroke

The incumbent BJP in Assam had the last laugh in a tough year, ticking the right boxes to not only withstand the “COVID test” but also earn vital brownie points ahead of the state elections.

Be it through the so-called “beneficiary-centric politics” with the launch of a series of major schemes ahead of the Assembly elections, or through aggressive political campaigning to have a presence in two tribal councils, where the saffron party ultimately prevailed to the point of gaining kingmaker status.

New BTC chief

The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) also saw the Hagrama Mohilary-led Bodoland People's Front (BPF) come second best after three straight terms with the BJP allying with United People's Party Liberal (UPPL) and Gana Suraksha Party (GSP).

Subsequently, former All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) leader and UPPL chief Pramod Boro was nominated and later sworn in as the chief executive member of the fourth BTC even as the alliance had to prove majority in the BTC Assembly after Mohilary filed a PIL in Gauhati High Court claiming that his party had emerged as the single largest party in the polls.

Opp wiped out from Bodo belt

The icing on the cake for BJP was that it could literally “decimate” the Opposition alliance of Congress-All India United Democratic Front in the BTC polls after the lone Congress elected member joined BJP.

Having lost much of its credibility with some of its legislators and members shifting allegiance to the ruling party, the Congress is a depleted team in Assam.

BTC CEM Pramod Boro
BTC CEM Pramod BoroTNT Photos

Conclusion

The historic Bodo peace accord was just the platform the saffron party needed to launch a “solo” election campaign ahead of the BTC polls.

The strategy, executed by Assam minister and BJP’s key strategist in the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, brought rich dividends in the outcome of elections in another autonomous council as well – Tiwa Autonomous Council, having a presence in four districts of the state.

All said and done, Assam, despite the growing cases and deaths, withstood the test of COVID-19 with no vaccine in 2020.

The state had its share of highs and lows in the pandemic year that many would love to forget, yet also inculcate the forgotten virtues of cleanliness and hygiene.

(Edited by Andre Kongri)

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