Details of Discussion
Issues related to agriculture: Several participants spoke on the agriculture sector, especially on the plight of small farmers and share croppers who depended on rainfed farming and had no access to finance. Due to poor marketing links, moreover, even bumper crops did not lead to better incomes for these farmers. The situation was compounded by subsidized PDS food grains that made the efforts of small farmers unsustainable. This scenario was leading to the migration of the rural youth to nearby towns in search of wage work. A participant suggested that the focus should be on local production planning, local storage and local distribution and this would substantially protect the interests of small farmers. It was also felt that availability of micro-finance and professional expertise could help the agriculture sector. The animal husbandry sector also required training and support.
The feminization of labor in agriculture and related gender issues was also discussed. More women were involved in agriculture but there was not much change in their economic condition. It was also pointed out that the presence of arsenic and fluoride in the water was a major problem. A participant suggested that the focus should be on rainfed agriculture and that rainwater harvesting at the family level should be encouraged.
Interestingly, one participant suggested that subsidy for farmers should be gradually tapered off and they should be encouraged to build up their own asset base and capital. There was also a need to ensure skills development among the rural youth who were looking for jobs due to the poor returns in agriculture.
Developmental Needs including Strengthening Infrastructure
The discussion began with the need for strengthening infrastructure in the region particularly transport, communications and power. It was mentioned that the most recent problem being faced by newly developed urban centers in Assam was garbage disposal and this needed more attention than was being given at present. A technological and scientific solution was required for which the World Bank's support was welcome. The need to improve public transportation systems, particularly in the urban centers, was also mentioned.
A participant made a plea for Bank-supported research programs and suggested the creation of enterprise incubation centers in the urban areas. He also felt that there should be region-specific target indicators in countrywide programs. The need for more research to understand the uniqueness and rich resource base of the North East, including Assam, was also mentioned. To boost employment and reduce poverty, some areas for possible Bank support included: micro-finance and mechanisms to take it to the needy; developing the cooperative sector; skills building; and market integration with other regions of the country.
A participant cautioned that for all the development planning in Assam, the fact that it was vulnerable to torrential rains and heavy flooding should be kept in mind. On the issue of road networks, he pointed out that Assam held the record of the highest number of road accident-related deaths in the country.
Pollution and Sustainable Use of Resources
Several speakers expressed concern over the increasing pollution load due to growing urbanization. One speaker gave several micro-level suggestions. These included: pollution control through an effective method of garbage and waste disposal which was even threatening the Brahmaputra; only mini-hydel power and gas-based energy to be encouraged by the government, along with a subsidy to promote the use of solar energy; and, the promotion of river transportation for the movement of goods to decrease the load on the road network. He also felt that eco-tourism should be promoted. There was also a suggestion that development in various regions should be seen in terms of the area's ecological setting, e.g. forests, plains, mountainous regions, etc.
Interestingly, one participant pointed out that with regard to the use of coal, the Bank should support efforts to mitigate the ill-effects of coal rather than abandon coal-driven energy projects altogether. It was mentioned that without the use of coal, India and many other developing countries would face an insurmountable energy crisis. However, mitigation efforts could only be successful through the transfer of technology and technical assistance, and the Bank could play a role in this.
Several speakers raised the topic of the carbon footprint of development projects. It was suggested that farmers in Assam should try out other types of agriculture rather than remain focused on cereal production. In addition, low-input low-risk farming should be encouraged through more demonstration projects. The use of solar energy should also be promoted with the help of technology; an example worth emulating was the successful use of solar lighting at the Kaziranga National Park. One participant wanted to know whether the World Bank supported carbon credit trading as there were instances of the system being abused by developed countries.
Database and Monitoring
Several participants spoke on the inadequacy and even lack of data, particularly data related to sectors such as maternal health, education and the status of government projects and development programs. It was pointed out that some panchayats did not even know the size of the population under their jurisdiction. Many PRIs were therefore not really activated and in no position to conduct effective local resource mapping. In the circumstances, planning, resource allocation, and monitoring were extremely difficult and a targeted approach was not feasible.
One participant mentioned that information regarding the development impact of a particular project or scheme was not available to interested people; more information on demonstration projects also needed dissemination. It was generally accepted that a weak database at different levels was a common problem in the northeastern states. At the same time it was generally agreed that there was need for independent monitoring at the block, district and state levels.
There was a suggestion that a list of consultants who could lead development projects in Assam was desperately needed. Their expertise and knowledge of Assam's resource base could effectively link macro and micro planning and help in integrated development.
Several speakers brought up the subject of education and more specifically the high dropout rate and poor quality of elementary education. It was pointed out that the poor quality of education was reflected at the matriculation level as only 0.6% of the students opted for technical education after this stage. This meant a lack of skilled manpower to meet the needs of the market and the demands of development. Another speaker talked of improving the content in formal education and expressed concern over the dying traditional knowledge of tribal society, including the crafts and fine arts of the northeastern region, including Assam. The speaker also wanted more value to be given to understanding the relationship between natural resource management and the human condition, which was missing in formal education. This was particularly necessary for today's youth. It was pointed out that once upon a time there was a high level of community participation in education and that this had now practically disappeared. A participant inquired whether PPP in scientific research was possible.
The need for meaningful skills training, particularly for the youth, was repeatedly brought up by several speakers. This could halt the migration of rural youth that was taking place in several districts. Here, the role of the Bank was emphatically supported.
The lack of education was also responsible for the continuing social evils in society, particularly in the tea-growing regions, including alcoholism and superstitions around exorcism. It was also pointed out that the Bank had not made any mention of improving the lot of street children who needed a home and support from various quarters.
A speaker noted that the World Bank should also scrutinize the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) reports pertaining to projects/programs in which the Bank was involved either as a funder or the provider of technical assistance. There was also a need to look at the outcome of the Bank's earlier investments in health and education and assess whether the development goals had been achieved in a meaningful manner.
Concern was expressed over growing inequalities in the region including in Assam. For example, it was pointed out that FDI was only coming into the developed areas and there was a need to ensure that the benefits of this inflow were more widely distributed.
Several participants spoke on this subject and wanted to know how the Bank was improving transparency and opening itself up to scrutiny by civil society in the country. There was discussion on how the public perceives the World Bank and the outcome of its assistance. A participant wanted to know if the inputs of civil society would be reflected in the final CPS document and whether the public would have a chance to review the document before it was finalized. The lack of transparency in the progress of government schemes and projects was also highlighted by several participants.
One participant asked whether the World Bank had its own priorities and policy or was just acting as an agency to help implement major government programs and policies. The participant felt that the Bank had to clarify this point to the public.