The Tripura model: growth marries development

While all chief ministers are hawking their growth as the model for India, Tripura’s Manik Sarkar shows growth is hollow without development. If you don’t hear of him much that’s because he doesn’t shout about it.


Shivangi Narayan | August 9, 2013

Two minutes before your plane touches down at Agartala airport, it passes through the international border of Bangladesh, separated merely by a boundary wall. And there is a distinct feeling of entering a different time zone in reality, not metaphorically, as one steps out of the airport for a glimpse of the capital city of Tripura.

In fact, the sun rises and sets much earlier in Tripura and other parts of the Northeast than rest of India. The serene and tranquil atmosphere in Agartala and other parts of the state stands in sharp contrast to the brisk pace of economic development that invariably accompanies building of monstrous structures of brick and mortar and setting up of industries. The larger part of Tripura still retains its lush green tea estates and forests, and has tried to resist the fury of growth.

In doing so, Tripura has paid the price: its per capita income is below the national average.

However, the state has evolved its own growth model which is distinctly different from developed regions of the country. At 93 percent, Tripura’s internal assessment of literacy rate (87.22 percent according to 2011 census) puts it among the highest performing states of the country. Similarly, the state performs far ahead in terms of health facilities, sanitation and social security measures, making it a pioneer on the human development index (HDI). Besides, Tripura’s rural road connectivity is apparently one of the best in the country.

But what appears set to transform the state is the discovery of a big reserve of natural gas. In less than a decade, Tripura promises to emerge as the biggest energy hub of the region by setting up new super thermal power plants. By all accounts, Tripura will be a hugely energy-surplus state – a scenario that would trigger robust industrial growth. There are all indications that the time lag Tripura suffered since its assimilation into India would be adequately made up by a new model of development.

A glimpse of this trend could be found in the Big Bazaar outlet in the newly opened mall in Agartala – the first in the state capital; indeed, the state. The razzmatazz was typical of any Big Bazaar outlet anywhere in the country: the hubbub, the hectic activity, and the hush-hush discussion among families whether the price is better than the store next door. Only, in Agartala all the three came with an extra dose of excitement.

For now, the mall is the latest talking point in town. As Parijaat Bhattacharjee – all of 19 and in the middle of some last-minute shopping before she leaves for the US, where she studies – explained, a Big Bazaar outlet might be just another place to shop for daily necessities in Delhi and Kolkata but for Agartala it means the state is moving on the “path of development”.

While most customers seemed happy that an outlet like that has opened in Agartala, they could not identify any specific advantage of shopping in a mall over the regular market. Someone vaguely said, “All things are present under one roof,” while others said it is a necessity.

At 3 pm, Agartala looked like it had just woken up from a deep slumber – and many would contend woken up a decade or two too late.

A study in contrast
For anyone used to life in a big city, Agartala might be an experience in turning back the clock – still celebrating the ingenuous excitement on the city getting, say, its first McDonald’s, or its first mall, or a plush restaurant or café.

But if that is one parameter to gauge development, the state would point its fingers at another: the human development index. Here’s a rundown:

  • Infant mortality is 29 per 1,000 births against a national rate of 44 and maternal mortality rate is 4.
  • The state has a sex ratio of 961 against the all-India average of 940.
  • The tea stalls in the capital city operate without the ubiquitous “Chhotu” to help the owner. According to Tripura’s education and food minister Bhanu Lal Saha, there is no child labour.
  • Rural areas just outside Agartala look as if they have just been swept over; brown pucca and semi-pucca houses neatly line the road, with little or no garbage dumps and no open defecation.
  • There are few beggars either in Agartala or in the rural areas, and no slums can be seen. “There is no starvation in Tripura due to our public distribution system, which is the second best in India, next only to Kerala. Every family below the poverty line (BPL) gets rice at Rs 2 per kg,” education and food minister Saha said.
  • While the state’s internal assessment puts the literacy rate at 93 percent, the 2011 census pegs it as 87.22 percent, making it the fifth most literate state of India with 100 percent school enrolment.

But despite the enviable record, an undercurrent of discontent is evident in Agartala, whose social indicators are among the best in the country. And that high education rate is partly responsible for stoking that frustration. The high demand for education can be seen on the streets of the state capital, which are dotted with hoardings of different private medical, engineering and other colleges, unlike its other ‘developed’ metropolitan big brothers. Otherwise, there are as many as 38 colleges, including a central university, and 24 public libraries, including a state central library and state archives, in Tripura.
This high level of education has created a population which requires jobs commensurate with its qualifications. But jobs are hard to come by in a state where industries and private companies have not set up shop. With only government jobs as their redemption, students see a bleak future awaiting them after graduation. And even in government jobs, incomes are low, government employees said. “We are paid at least Rs 10,000 less than government servants (of same rank) in the rest of the country. I don’t buy the argument that the government doesn’t have money to implement the sixth pay commission,” rued a government servant in Agartala.

Little wonder, then, that Agartala voted for Congress rather than the ruling Left Front government in the assembly elections last year, as people feel the Congress is more in sync with their ideas of development than the Left. As Sudip Roy Barman, the Congress MLA representing the Agartala seat, quipped, “People do not have money and employment in this state but there is a lot of construction going on with state funds. Is this their (government’s) idea of development?”

The Bangla connection
Absence of industries cannot be entirely blamed on the state government, though. Tripura is situated in the valley of Bangladesh and shares 84 percent of its border with the neighbouring nation. Being a landlocked state, it suffers severe connectivity issues with other parts of India. There is only one railway line, that, too, a metre gauge one and introduced only as late as 2008. Trains take almost 20 hours to cover a distance of around 500 kilometres between Agartala and Guwahati in Assam. As a result, though endowed with sufficient resources like natural gas, bamboo, rubber and educated human resource, industrial growth has not picked up.

Jitendra Choudhary, Tripura’s minister for industries, IT and rural development, said developing the railway network is the central government’s responsibility and a state can do little barring put pressure on the centre to work faster. But he added that even with a broad-gauge track Tripura is too far from mainland India for its products to be viable in terms of prices when they finally reach there.

“Bangladesh would be a better market for the state as the 16-crore population of Bangladesh would easily absorb the produce of the small population of 37 lakh (of Tripura). A corridor to southeast Asia through Bangladesh would also be beneficial,” Choudhary said.

“We have been asking the central government repeatedly for developing this corridor but nothing substantial has been done so far,” the minister said. But in the absence of big industries, which might take time to come to the state, Choudhary said they are developing cottage industries in rubber and bamboo which are the state’s natural resources. “Our objective right now is to set up micro-, medium- and small-scale industries in rubber and bamboo,” he said. “We have created a rubber park in Bodhungnagar in West Tripura, besides a bamboo park and food park to encourage cottage industries in rubber, bamboo and food processing.”

According to state health minister Tapan Chakravarti, the state has got access to Bangladesh’s Chittagong port for internal trade (Tripura to Kolkata) but not for export. While the state is awaiting more access in near future, Chakravarti said till then a two-lane highway (NH 44) is Tripura’s lone connecting string to the rest of India. While commuting on the highway is fraught with risk during monsoons, as landslides are common, a strong transport lobby worsens the situation – the high cost is inversely proportional with facilities for commuters. “Yahan aise hi hota hai, madam (this is how it is done here),” as taxi drivers put it.

Terms are non-negotiable and for every argument you get a don’t-care-much shrug. With hardly any options, one has no choice but to give in. Trucks, Tata Sumos and rickety buses ferry goods and people. “The train takes the same time as the bus but at least we are comfortable. A 14-20-hour ride in the bus is taxing,” said a passenger waiting at Agartala’s Radhanagar motor stand.

Yes, they are waiting for a faster train and with it an access deprived to them for ages. Till then, the government is busy preparing a base that, it hopes, will let it take the jump for development. With 94 percent voting in the last elections, 2 percent women more than men, it looks like people have the faith. At a blood donation camp in West Agartala on July 14, women came in large numbers to support the camp inaugurated by chief minister Manik Sarkar. They all rose in unison as if on cue when the unassuming chief minister entered the venue, and again when he got up to address the gathering.

Women understand development because the lack of it hits them the most. The camp gave reasons to believe that the state government might be doing something right.


Also read, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar's interview on Tripura model of development here



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