Assam govt. backtracks on election promises, leaves women entrepreneurs in lurch

Assam govt. backtracks on election promises, leaves women entrepreneurs in lurch

Assam govt. backtracks on election promises, leaves women entrepreneurs in lurch

As soon as it came back to power, the BJP-led government rolled back and diluted two crucial promises it had made to the electorate. 

Guwahati: The BJP-led alliance that came to power in Assam this May has already started to come under criticism on two issues — not implementing a complete waiver on microfinance loans taken by women and rolling back a Rs 50 hike in the daily wage of tea plantation workers.

Pratima Gogoi heaved a sigh of relief in January this year when the then finance minister of Assam and current chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, promised a blanket waiver of all microfinance loans taken by women in the state if the BJP was voted to power again. The 45-year-old woman from Lakhimpur district finally felt she would not have to worry about her debt of Rs 1.5 lakh.

Gogoi had taken the loan to start a poultry business, but it failed due to the COVID-19 lockdown last year. She then pinned her hopes on the waiver but is now feeling cheated, instead of relieved. This is because she doesn’t qualify for a loan waiver according to the terms set by the BJP government after it came to power. “It has been a huge disappointment,” said Gogoi, when asked about the scheme.

Workers of tea plantations, who form an influential group of voters in the state, too are unhappy with the BJP government. About a month before assembly elections were held, the state government had on February 21 announced a Rs 50 hike in the daily wage of these workers. However, less than a month after it returned to power on May 2, the BJP rolled back the decision by May 26.

Buoyed by the support it got for the waiver scheme and the hike announced for tea plantation workers, the BJP-led alliance which comprises Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and United People's Party Liberal (UPPL) triumphed in the Assam elections by winning 75 of the total 126 assembly seats.

Angered by the new conditions laid for the waiver scheme, thousands of women have started staging protests across the state and are threatening mass suicides if the state government backtracks on its promise. According to state government data, there are over 26 lakh microfinance customers in Assam who are women and their outstanding loans total Rs 12,500 crore.

Though BJP had not included the waiver commitment in its manifesto, Sarma, who was eyeing the CM’s post, had made the promise at several election rallies. “Once we form the government, we will repay all loans taken by women in Assam, of any amount,” he had said at one such rally.  

On coming to power, the government had formed a committee headed by state cabinet minister Ashok Singhal to advise on the waiver scheme. Within days, the committee ruled out the possibility of extending a blanket waiver and announced certain criteria to identify beneficiaries. “Income tax payee, persons availing multiple loans, those having four-wheelers, and people with an annual income of more than ₹1 lakh will be excluded from the scheme,” Singhal told reporters on June 11.

Gogoi has a four-wheeler and the annual income is more than Rs 1 lakh.

‘Took loan to help family, now in debt trap’

Sabitha Devi from Sonitpur district too is disappointed. “I had taken a microfinance loan of Rs 1 lakh last year and invested it in a small business, but there was no income because of the lockdown. We had to repay the loan on a weekly basis, so I had to borrow more money and I got deeper into debt,” said Devi.

Devi, who does not meet the eligibility criteria as she owns a car and earns more than Rs 1 lakh, voted for the BJP in the hope of a waiver. “But now everything is shattered,” she said.

Many women took microfinance loans to set up small businesses and help their families. Most of them are first-generation woman entrepreneurs. Gogoi said the government should be sympathetic towards them in these difficult times. “My husband, a farmer, is the breadwinner of the family, but even he couldn’t earn much last year,” she said.

A women’s group, Jagriti Nari Shakti Samiti, recently submitted a memorandum to the Assam government with a demand to fulfil the waiver promise. “If the government doesn’t stick to its election promise, we will intensify our protests,” said Rumi Phukan, a spokesperson for the organisation.

Balm for plantation workers

The government was forced to find a middle path with plantation workers after it came under sharp criticism for completely rolling back the Rs 50 hike it had implemented in February. Several influential tea garden workers’ associations warned of mass protests across the state, forcing the government to hold immediate consultations with the organisations.

Later, daily wage was hiked by Rs 38, with effect from February 23 this year.

Ahead of the 2016 assembly elections, BJP had promised to increase the daily wage of plantation workers to Rs 365. At present, after the Rs 35 hike, it is Rs 205 in the Brahmaputra Valley and Rs 183 in Barak Valley. There is a difference between the two as wage is fixed by trade union leaders and the management of the tea gardens concerned. Once these two sides decide on the daily wage, the amount is approved by the state government.

This is the case even though tea plantation workers are an influential vote bank. “Of all the tribal and ethnic groups of the state, the electoral role of tea tribe community has become the most crucial. They comprise 35 lakh voters, which is enough to play a decisive role in any election,” according to a published paper, ‘Electoral Participation of the Tea Tribe Community in Assam: Special Reference to Lok Sabha Election of 2019’, by Pranami Laskar, a PhD scholar of Assam University.

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