“People tend to club all the states when they talk of the northeast region”
Brajesh Kumar | March 24, 2010
The first thing you notice as you enter Minister of State for Rural Development Agatha Sangma’s office at Krishi Bhawan is that her petite frame does not match with her rather big chair. The next thing you notice is that her desk is free of the usual clutter— papers, briefs, files and the paraphernalia.
The daughter of P.A. Sangma, veteran Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader from the northeast, was first elected to the Lok Sabha in May 2008 through a by-election, and became a minister of state soon after getting re-elected from Tura in Meghalaya in May 2009. She takes pride in calling herself “the second youngest minister in the cabinet”.
In an interview with Neha Sethi and Brajesh Kumar, she talks about being a 29-year-old minister, her ministry that is implementing the UPA’s flagship welfare scheme NREGA, and the northeast. Excerpts:
What prompted you to join politics?
Joining politics was more of a party decision. The personal choice in this decision was limited for me. I just had one day to decide whether I wanted to file nomination papers for elections or not.
Was it easy for you to join politics as you are from a political family?
Of course it was easier for me. I had a strong platform and people recognised me. We had a name in the area and people had faith in my father.
How did you feel on winning the first election?
I was in a daze... Things were happening very quickly.
You were an MP for about a year and now a minister. How different it is being a minister from being an MP?
Both positions have their own perks. But being a minister keeps you more occupied. It streamlines your work and keeps you more focussed. The area focus of your work is more precise and limited once you are a minister. A minister of state has to deal with the entire ministry and rural development ministry is a very large one. It is a very powerful ministry. It concentrates on development of rural areas. Being part of a ministry simplifies the work as it is more focussed.
What role do you think you have been playing as a young minister?
It has been a short period since I became a minister. It has just been a few months. There is a time and place for young MPs to prove themselves. I think there is no point in trying to do something just to make yourself visible or to prove your point. I am here trying to understand the situation in the ministry. It is not difficult to understand what to do in this ministry. I have exposed myself to seven to eight issues that I want to concentrate on.
As a minister of state for rural development (drinking water supply and sanitation) what are your priorities.
Since I am responsible for the sanitation and drinking water supply department of the rural development ministry, my goal is to provide for sanitation and drinking water in the rural areas of the country. And let me tell you it’s a huge challenge on both fronts. As far as sanitation goes my ministry’s target is to make the country ‘open defecation free’ (ODF) by 2012. But, I personally think it is unrealistic. There are variety of reasons for which we will miss the deadline. Some the reasons are cultural barriers and beliefs, insufficient funds and non cooperation of states. However, the ministry is seized of the importance of the making the country ODF. Since it has a direct bearing on the health of the people and to an extent on the tourism sector, the ministry will ensure the target is achieved as early as possible. I have been travelling around the country meeting state officials and pushing them to achieve the target.
In the case of providing drinking water supply, the sustainability is the key. While at present we are mostly using the ground water, the focus has to be shifted on using surface water. We need to make people aware of water harvesting. My ministry is working hard on making water harvesting a priority. Also we want to ensure people switch to cost effective, environment friendly methods of water purification. Use of terra fill technology as against reverse osmosis is being encouraged.
What do you think have been your achievements in the ministry?I can’t really take credit for anything but I have raised my voice and pushed for the green part of NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). I have tried to push for work on the green side of NREGA. Ecosan, or ecological sanitation, is another initiative that I have been working on. It is a system of sanitation which requires no water. There is a need to have 100 percent sanitation in the country but if we go on the model of urban India then we will be unable to sustain it. The current model uses a lot of water. Under this system, the solid and liquid human waste is segregated. But this system is more expensive than the traditional system, like any other sustainable system. And to be able to implement it on a large scale will be a problem.
What are the areas that you want to concentrate on apart from your ministry-related work?
The issues that I am keenly interested in apart from my portfolio are education, environment and health. But I also think that they can be incorporated in the work that I am already doing. Convergence of work is really important.
How are you trying to integrate your other interests with your ministry work?
Almost 60 percent jobs under NREGA are already on water conservation. We are promoting green jobs under NREGA. Some projects that are going on are for revival of traditional water bodies and rooftop harvesting. There is a lot of scope for innovation in these jobs. State governments should also be proactive. There is a need to make rural economy sustainable.
Are you satisfied with the governance in the northeast region? How do you think you can contribute as a minister of state for rural development?
There is vast scope for improvement in that area. The schemes that are formulated are great and for the benefit for all. But there is a huge question mark on the implementation of the schemes. There are gaps which need to be filled up. Governments in the northeast need to equip themselves. They need to point out the gaps and fill them up. We see a lot of haphazard infrastructural planning in that area. For example, the Public Health Engineering (PHE) department starts laying down water pipes in many states without understanding how sustainable the water source is. It is only later that they assess the actual potential of the source.
People tend to club all the states together when talking of the northeastern region. The whole northeast region cannot be seen as a homogeneous entity. There is a lot of difference in the governing of each state. Sikkim is one of the best governed states in the region. It is a very progressive state. Arunachal Pradesh, on the other hand, is a very difficult state because of the high-level of corruption. Meghalaya is a dormant state. The problem there is an unstable government. The state is not progressing at the pace that it should. Manipur is dealing with two problems at the same time: insurgency and corruption.
The Indian government is providing a lot of funds for the development of the region. Ten percent of India’s budget is allocated for the northeast region. The real question is how these funds are being used by the various states.
As a minister of state for rural development I am taking up water harvesting in a big way. Mizoram is doing very well on harvesting rain water. I have written to the chief minister of all the states to follow the Mizoram example. I am so concerned about the sanitation in the region. I am doing all I can to provide sanitation to the every part of the region.
People from the northeast often complain of discrimination. What do you think can be done to change this?
People from other parts of India need to accept that people from the northeast are as much part of India as they are. There needs to be an attitudinal change. They need to accept them as individuals and not in a superficial way.
The integration of the northeast with Indian history and culture can play an important role. There is hardly any talk of the contribution of the northeastern people in the Indian freedom movement. This needs to be taught and highlighted in schools all over India. They (students elsewhere) also need to be taught how culturally rich the region is.
Another solution is two-way access. There is a need to have better educational institutes in the area so that students from other regions in India can go to study there. They will then be able to understand our culture and us in a better way.
What do you think should be done for the development of the northeast?
Instead of concentrating on developing a region, we should talk about developing rural India. (Urban) India’s growth story should be replicated in rural India too. Rural India should be included in India’s growth.
What do you have to say about the demand for a separate time zone for the north east region?
It’s a genuine demand and as highlighted by the cover story of your magazine, a proactive effort is desired in this direction. Insufficient daylight indeed hampers productivity and a separate time zone will address the issue. I will take up the subject in the northeast MPs forum and formulate a policy to pursue the demand.
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