It says something about the times we live in that my ‘‘Assam moment’’ — the revelatory, life-altering nano-second of my first visit to the state as an adult — came in a supermarket in Tezpur.
It was a quiet evening, as most evenings in Tezpur, a small town defined by a looming military cantonment, are expected to be. Having done my customary walk down the one road that once made up the city, I drove off towards, as a friend described it, ‘‘new Tezpur’’.
That’s when it hit me, straight in the eyes — a big, two-storeyed structure called KF: ground floor, supermarket; first floor, restaurant. Well laid out, well lit, it had everything from Korean biscuits to a dog food section. My friend grinned: ‘‘Like South Extension, eh?’’
This was Tezpur? Er, yes, it could have been south Delhi. I was introduced to the owner, a shy young man who had decided, a year ago, that Tezpur was ripe for a retail revolution.
So he took out money from his family’s bakery business — Krishna Foods, which explained the name ‘‘KF’, and gambled. Business, he told me, is booming.
How did the idea of big retail get to Tezpur? I asked a local businessman if it was because shopowners were watching more satellite TV. He shrugged: ‘‘Television, yes. But that’s a decade old story. There’s the Internet now. Actually people are travelling much more, going out and coming back, new thoughts, new plans.’’
Having spent a whirlwind week in Assam — Guwahati to Dibrugarh, edge of Meghalaya to edge of Arunachal Pradesh; hell, even crossing the Brahmaputra, an 800 pound gorilla of a river, twice — that supermarket stop in Tezpur put a lot of things in context.
In a sense, the consumer energy in that shop was a parable for the Assam I saw, touched, felt and experienced: a sense of hope, a yearning for change, a desperate keenness to break free of the distorted economy that has trapped the state.
What did I see? A spending boom that is going simply unrecorded in the rest of India. On the Guwahati-Shillong Road — or G.S. Road as it’s called — there’s frenetic construction: new homes, new apartments, Assam’s first modern shopping mall. Interestingly, much of the building is being done by Bangladeshi labourers, a social angularity but an economic gain: another paradox Assam has to come to terms with.
The next growth sector is healthcare. In Guwahati, the mushrooming of hospitals and diagnostic clinics has meant a new magnet for patients from across the Northeast. As one doctor put it, ‘‘Even Apollo is now here. Earlier Kolkata got the referral patients. Now...’’
Even so, there remains a pent-up, unmet demand. Assam is still trapped by the shortage economy. Its relative insularity is a recipe not for profit, but for profiteering.
At a dinner in Dibrugarh, the examples came thick and fast. A litre pack of a particular brand of milk costs Rs 28 in Assam, Rs 19 in Kolkata. A Maruti Esteem in Assam is Rs 40,000 more expensive that one in West Bengal.
‘‘The distance between Siliguri and Guwahati is 500 km,’’ said one acquaintance, ‘‘at the rate of Rs 8 a km, I told the local Maruti manager, it would take the company Rs 4,000 to bring the car here. Why the Rs 40,000 premium?’’ The Maruti executive smiled, and retorted, ‘‘Strategic pricing.’’ He meant: inadequate competition.
‘‘Why not simply buy a car in Siliguri and drive it across?’’ I asked. There’s a tariff barrier. Assam charges an 8 per cent tax on cars bought elsewhere.
No wonder locals sense free trade could be Assam’s route out of the vicious circle; and not just free trade with the rest of India. ‘‘Mark my words, in five years this will be hot property, real hot,’’ said the tea planter in Margherita, two hours from Dibrugarh, on the Arunachal Pradesh border.
His reason was geography. Margherita is on the the old Stillwell Road, the wartime corridor that, with nudging from the Asian Development Bank, could become a trans-Asian trade highway, connecting Assam to Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, even Indonesia.
That’s when goods from the Asean region will arrive straight to Guwahati’s markets — and India’s forgotten corner will reap the benefits of a contest between East Asian and Indian capitalism.
FOR every rupee spent, there has to be a rupee earned. What’s going for Assam, aside from its vantage location on a possible continental trade corridor? Tea — Assam’s gold — is quite clearly a sunset industry in the long term, a process helped by global competition and stifling, slave-era labour laws. Tea bungalows are now marketed as quaint tourism locales. Bamboo — currently dominated by China and Taiwan — is Assam’s perennial future plantation crop.
More than that, there’s tourism. The land of the Brahmaputra could be God’s Son’s Own Country, and not just because of Kazirangha. The grimy old shops of Guwahati’s Fancybazar wait only for an enlightened urban planner.
Overlooking Assam’s signature river, this could be as impressive a riverside promenade as any in Europe or, as is the current fashion, Shanghai.
No society is static, but why did one sense Assam was at the cusp of change? One theory — and it’s only a theory — is that Assam has been a great place to get out of since the mid-1980s. Two decades on, much of the passion spent, there’s a critical mass of Assamese at ‘‘home’’ and away, enriching each other with thoughts and ideas, in some sort of cosmic osmotic process.
For those who’ve stayed behind, there’s a desire to move on, catch up with the India that a decade of reforms has reshaped. How far will it go? Which Assamese politician will tap into the mood? Who knows; but, somewhere in the thick shadows of Kazirangha, the rhino has begun to move.