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Surge in foreign tourist flow to Sikkim

Surge in foreign tourist flow to Sikkim

Sikkim witnessed an increase of almost 90 per cent in the arrival of foreign tourists in 2019 compared to the previous year thanks to the lifting of restrictions on the visit of Bangladeshi nationals to the Himalayan state.

According to the data released by the Sikkim tourism department, 1,33,388 foreigners visited Sikkim in 2019, which is 62,216 more than the 71,172 tourists who had toured the state in 2018.

“Out of 1,33,388 foreign tourists, 60,542 were from Bangladesh and 56,781 from Nepal,” a senior official of the tourism department told The Telegraph.

Earlier, there had been restrictions on visits by Bangladeshis and people of four other countries to Sikkim.

People of these countries had to seek permission from New Delhi to visit Sikkim, but were mostly denied.

After the lifting of the restrictions, a Bangladeshi citizen with a valid Indian visa has to download the special endorsement application from the Indian high commission website and submit it at any of the Indian Visa Application Centres.

Tourism stakeholders are elated at the surge in the arrival of foreign tourists.

“Bangladesh was always a captive market for us because of the country’s proximity to our state. We had expected this surge with the lifting of the restrictions. We hope there will be a further increase in the arrival of tourists from Bangladesh,” said a hotelier.

The tourism department believes there had been a rise in the arrival of domestic tourists in 2019 once the figures of the last quarter are compiled. Till September last year, 11,96,468 domestic tourists had visited Sikkim, compared to 14,26,127 in the whole of 2018.

The last decade has seen a phenomenal growth of tourism in the state. From 5,52,453 tourists in 2011, the final figure is expected to be over 16 lakh in 2019, which is almost triple the 6,50,000-odd population of Sikkim.

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NIA interrogates IIT faculty member

NIA interrogates IIT faculty member

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Saturday interrogated a faculty member of the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, in connection with a case in which it is probing an alleged nexus between several KMSS leaders with Maoist groups.

Arupjyoti Saikia, who teaches history in the department of humanities and social sciences at the IIT, was summoned by the NIA and questioned at the agency’s Sonapur office for more than three hours. Saikia is known for his works on peasant politics in the state as well as forest and ecological history.

Saikia’s advocate Santanu Borthakur told The Telegraph: “He was summoned to depose his statement and evidence in connection with the case in which four KMSS leaders, including Akhil Gogoi, were arrested. The agency has asked him to come again on Monday.” The NIA has also arrested KMSS leaders Dhairjya Konwar, Manas Konwar and Bittu Sonowal in connection with the case.

NIA sources said Akhil was allegedly in touch with the Revolutionary Communist Centre which later merged with the CPI (Maoist).

“Taking advantage of the current situation and the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Akhil was spreading the Maoists’ tentacles and ideology in the state,” an NIA source said.

Though not revealed officially, it was suspected that Saikia had been in close terms with several KMSS leaders for a very long time and also during the anti-CAA protests.

On Friday, the NIA had questioned KMSS leader Hussain Mohammad Shahjahan for almost six hours in the same case. Shahjahan has also been asked to reappear before the investigating team on Monday.

Both Saikia and Shahjahan were summoned by the NIA under Section 160 of the CrPC. Under the section, an investigating team has the power to require the attendance of witnesses in a case.

Finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had also hinted at the alleged role of leading academicians of the state in the violent protests against the CAA in December 2019.

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Scrap CAA, NSUI says in letter to Mukhi

Scrap CAA, NSUI says in letter to Mukhi

The Assam unit of the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) on Saturday held a protest here against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and wrote to governor Jagdish Mukhi saying that the state was not in a position to accept more foreigners.

Around 100 NSUI members staged a one-hour sit-in near Gauhati Club, during which NSUI national president

Neeraj Kundan, state president Jyotibikash Changmai and 40 others were detained and later released.

Kundan told the reporters, “The more the Centre and the state government try to suppress the voice of students, the more they will raise their voice against fascist rules and laws. BJP-led state governments are arresting and detaining even those who are protesting democratically.”

He later tweeted: “Detained during the protest against #CAA at Assam. CAA is totally against our Constitution and democracy. This government is trying to divide people on the basis of religion which India will never accept.”

The All India Congress Committee (AICC) also said that Kundan’s detention was in complete violation of democratic rights.

The AICC tweeted: “In complete violation of democratic rights @nsui President, Shri @Neerajkundan has been detained by Assam police for peacefully protesting against unconstitutional CAA.”

In its letter to Mukhi, the NSUI expressed its opposition to CAA, saying it has created discontentment among the citizens of the country as a whole and Assam in particular.

Changmai wrote that the CAA violates the Assam Accord, according to which the cut-off date is March 24, 1971.

The NSUI urged the governor to convey the message to the Centre to scrap the CAA and bring peace to the state. “Through the Assam Accord, the state has already taken the burden of those migrants who came before March 25, 1971. It is now not in a position to accept the burden of more foreigners. Its population density is above the national average,” it wrote.

Earlier, Assam Pradesh Youth Congress president Kamrul Islam Choudhury and Assam NSUI vice-president Zubair Anam were arrested for their alleged involvement in arson during the anti-CAA protests here.

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River travel, tourism boost

River travel, tourism boost

Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Saturday said the river connectivity project from lower Assam’s Dhubri to Upper Assam’s Sadiya will be completed by 2022.

“Once river transport begins, it will not only benefit locals but also boost river tourism,” BJP Dhubri unit president Debamoy Sanyal said. AIUDF general secretary Aminul Islam hoped the project is completed in time to boost the economic growth of small towns and villages along the Brahmaputra.

Sitharaman also announced that archaeological sites of Sivasagar in Assam and four others in the country would be developed as iconic sites with on-site museum.

Sivasagar deputy commissioner Lakshmi Priya said, “It is a matter of great pride that our historic city has been declared an iconic site.”

Additional reporting by Kongkon K. Bora in Sivasagar

All Tai Ahom Students Union vice-president Basanta Gogoi said: “We would like to convey our thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Sarbanda Sonowal for their initiatives.”

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Plethora of steps for Northeast

Plethora of steps for Northeast

When the budget speech is so long, replete with recitation of verses with anecdotes, it becomes irritating and that is what happened today.

The victim was definitely the feel-good factor, although there were many new steps taken by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

The presentation was along three themes — aspirational India, economic development and caring society.

Economic development will come from agriculture and rural development besides trade, commerce and industry. Similarly, aiming for a caring India with provisions of social welfare measures are parts of aspiring India too. The same measures do have an impact on economic development.

The need for the government to increase demand so that growth takes place at a higher rate was made visible through numbers that were thrown in for agriculture and rural development, tourism, health and education sectors. But the highlight of the speech was stolen by the reforms in the rates of personal income tax and the removal of dividend distribution tax (DDT).

While the rate of personal income tax was reduced for the lower income earners so that they boost consumption demand, the challenge to move away from the exemptions to pay an amount without having to depend on the tax consultant is a positive step. Changes in DDT, concessions for MSME, start-ups, cooperatives, charitable institutions are steps towards a more liberalised economy.

One would have expected a mention of agricultural income tax. Even a bold step towards rationalisation of subsides should have been there. Emphasis on horticulture would help the Northeast because of the potential it has. Tourism is a sector which is important for the region. In skill development, students from the Northeast are recognised in the hospitality sector. With the new provisions, more people from the region will get employment.

Electrification of trains is another good step. Then there is development of the waterway. A cultural centre to come up in Sivasagar district will create more scope for tourism.

Overall the budget expectation was about increasing the fiscal deficit so that the govt can boost the economic parameters. There was an increase, but not to the extent expected. This meant that the government is not looking at the short term, even in the face of much criticism. The budget cleverly played around with numbers, making changes in the sectors that needed the push.

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Trade bodies laud budget

Trade bodies laud budget

Industry bodies on Saturday said Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget proposals will give a big boost and meet the needs of the Northeast.

Sitharaman said the Northeast had a very high priority in the government’s developmental agenda. “Government is ensuring smooth access to financial assistance from multilateral and bilateral funding agencies to help introduce innovative and global best practices. Central government has effectively used an online portal to reduce the gestation period. This has improved the flow of funds to the Northeast,” she said.

There are three major takeaways for the Northeast — launching of Krishi Udan on international and national routes, Sivasagar to be developed as an iconic site with on-site museum and completion of the 890km Dhubri-Sadiya river connectivity by 2022.

Different trade bodies said the emphasis on waterways, tourism and agriculture sector would give the region a much-needed boost.

Ranjit Barthakur, chairman of Ficci’s North East Advisory Council, welcomed the move to develop inland waterways. “This has been a long-standing suggestion by the council and we feel this can go a long way in boosting the economy by improving connectivity,” he added.

The Centre has been focussing on inland waterways and the World Bank recently announced Rs 630-crore aid for its development in Assam.

Sitharaman also announced the Krishi Udan initiative on international and national routes to help improve value realisation, especially in the Northeast and tribal districts.

S.K. Barua, chairman, CII North East Council, said the scheme will boost the agricultural sector exports in the region. “The Kisan Rail scheme will also benefit the farmers.”

Ashish Phookan, chairman of Ficci’s Assam State Council, said with adequate support from the government, Sivasagar, which has a number of tourist attractions, could be converted into a second tourism hub after Kaziranga. There was not much cheer for the tea sector. Tea Association of India secretary-general P.K. Bhattacharjee said the withdrawal of two per cent TDS (tax deducted at source) on cash withdrawal of more than Rs 1 crore continues and there was no relief.

North Eastern Tea Association adviser Bidyananda Barkakoty said: “We welcome the decision to extend Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthan Mahabhiyan (PM-Kusum) to farmers and urge the government to extend it to tea growers. Use of fallow and barren land in tea estates for setting up solar-power generation units will not only help them generate electricity but will also help sell additional power, which will bring in extra revenue.”

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal tweeted: “A perfect #JanJanKaBudget exhibiting the spirit of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas and Sabka Vishwas in action.”

Tripura deputy chief minister and finance minister Jishnu Dev Varma said it was a practical budget.

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Gogoi concern on non-Bodo exclusion

Gogoi concern on non-Bodo exclusion

Former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi on Wednesday claimed the Bodo Accord could “backfire” on the government because non-Bodos residing in the BTAD (Bodoland Territorial Area Districts) were “not” consulted before the pact was signed in Delhi on Monday.

The state and central governments have been asserting that it was a win-win deal for all stakeholders as it had tried to address the concerns of all and not only a deal for the Bodos, particularly highlighting that territorial integrity of the state had been kept intact. A key demand of the Bodo groups was a separate Bodoland state.

“What was the hurry to sign the pact? Why didn’t the government discuss and take the opinions of the other indigenous communities living in the BTAD? It’s due to the shortsightedness of the ruling party this accord may give birth to new problems. I suspect it is a new jumla of the ruling BJP,” Gogoi told reporters here.

He also criticised the idea of appointing deputy commissioners and superintendents of police in consultation with the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) chief executive member. “This has indirectly allotted the home department to the BTC from the state government. It may adversely affect Assam’s law and order in the future,” Gogoi said.

Adip Kumar Phukan, working president of Asom Songrami Mancha, a new political party, said the pact was “not” democratic as it had allegedly ignored the sentiments and concern of the 67 per cent non-tribals living in the BTAD. “The BJP-led NDA government has buried the basic objective of its sabka saath, sabka vikas slogan by signing the Bodo Accord with only 33 per cent Bodo population residing in the Bodoland Territorial Region. Moreover, it has partially fulfilled the aspirations of the Bodo communities. The Centre has to allay the fears of the non-Bodos,” he said.

Prabajan Virodhi Mancha convener Upamanyu Hazarika also highlighted the exclusion of non-Bodos from the consultation process. “Once again chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and his government have participated in widening the rift between indigenous communities and further worsening the status of non-Bodo indigenous communities in the BTAD, who had earlier become second-class citizens under the 2003 Accord,” Hazarika said, adding that the “unilateral” accord with one while excluding others will create new tensions.

However, assuring equal opportunity for all, irrespective of caste, communities and religion, BTC spokesperson Tridip Daimary said, “The fresh accord will ensure inclusive development and will create a new landscape of economic prosperity for all in the BTR. The pact is not meant for a particular community. There is no discrimination in the name of caste and communities. The fresh accord will simply expedite development.”

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Anti-CAA posters at Saraswati Puja mandaps

Anti-CAA posters at Saraswati Puja mandaps

All colleges under Dibrugarh University in Upper Assam on Wednesday decorated the Saraswati Puja pandals with anti-CAA banners and slogans to create awareness among people.

“As per the instructions of the central committee of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), we have decorated the Saraswati Puja mandap with anti-CAA themes and all the colleges under Dibrugarh University have done this. We intend to create awareness among people, both young and old, in towns or villages, that CAA is not good for us and so we are not going to accept it,” Pallab Jyoti Moran, president of Doomdooma College Students Union, told The Telegraph.

“We won’t stay like second-class citizens under illegal Bangladeshis. Don’t treat us like second-class citizens. We are against illegal immigrants, Hindus or Muslims. We have taken their burden till 1971. We want the bill scrapped. Please save the Northeast, save Assam to save India. We want to tell Modi we will not accept, we will not tolerate CAA. We will continue with our peaceful protest till the law is scrapped,” he added.

“This India is not of a particular party or leader. This India is of Indians. Assam belongs to each and every indigenous person. No government can impose whatever they want. We are against CAA and will remain against CAA,” Madhu Bala Chetry, a student, said.

Assam witnessed major protests after the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill on December 9 last year. Five persons died in alleged police firing in the anti-CAA protests.

The law will accord citizenship to six persecuted communities from three neighbouring Islamic countries who had entered the country before December 31, 2014, even without valid documents. In Assam, the people are worried that CAA will help lakhs of Bangladeshi Hindus settle in the state, posing a threat to the language and culture of the state.

“The CAA violates the provisions of the Assam Accord and is anti-Assam and unconstitutional,” said Sriram Tanti, a student.

According to the Accord, the cut-off date for detection and deportation of illegal migrants is March 24, 1971.

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After Bodo pact, eye on Ulfa talks

After Bodo pact, eye on Ulfa talks

A day after Dispur invited the banned Ulfa (I) for peace talks, Assam Public Works (APW), an anti-militant forum formed in 2000, threw its weight behind the initiative and asked leading organisations in the state to support the move to usher in permanent peace.

APW said recent mainstreaming of all the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) factions, which signed a new Bodo Accord on Monday, has brought a ray of hope for durable peace and prosperity in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) area.

“Similarly, to instil permanent peace in the state, Paresh Barua has to join the peace talks. Unless he or his faction joins, no peace pact can yield the desired result. His joining is a must. Therefore, the people of Assam and all organisations should welcome the government’s move and welcome the Ulfa (I) leader if he decides to join the peace process,” APW president Aabhijeet Sharma told The Telegraph.

Urging the pro-talk factions of Ulfa, which is already in talks, to invite Barua for a lasting solution to the decades-long Ulfa movement, Sharma said efforts should be made to check people who have been using the name of Barua to further their own ends.

Peace talks between Ulfa led by Arabinda Rajkhowa and the Centre are in the final stages, focussing on the key demands of constitutional safeguards for the indigenous people of Assam, resolving the problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh and details of the whereabouts of 50 leaders and cadres, who went missing from its erstwhile headquarters in Bhutan during the flush-out operation launched in the neighbouring country in 2005.

Formed in 1979 with the objective of restoring Assam’s sovereignty, Ulfa began its armed revolution. In June 2008, two companies of Ulfa’s 28 battalion announced the first unilateral ceasefire and subsequently its leaders joined talks with the Centre in 2011 after the outfit’s top leadership was flushed out from Bangladesh and subsequently arrested in India.

The Ulfa (I) was formed in 2012. Barua stayed away from the talks as the Centre was against discussing the issue of a “sovereign” Assam, his key demand. The outfit’s strength is said to be between 150 and 300 while that of the Ulfa is about 1,400.

The last attempt to get Barua to the talks table by the People’s Consultative Group, whose members were chosen by the outfit, lasted for about three years from 2005 when the Congress was in power. Those in the know say the deal was almost done but reports about Barua unwilling to come overground derailed the efforts, of which litterateur Mamomi Raisom Goswami was a key player.

Former chief minister Tarun Gogoi said on Wednesday, “The Congress was ready for discussions with Barua but not on sovereignty. We wanted talks within the Constitution.”

Anup Chetia alias Golap Baruah, general secretary of Ulfa and Barua’s cousin, told The Telegraph that it would be a great boost to the talks if Barua joined. He said they were in touch.

The BJP’s Assam unit president Ranjeet Kumar Dass also appealed to Barua to join the peace process and end militancy in the state.

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Bodo pact ensures surrender of 4 NDFB factions

Bodo pact ensures surrender of 4 NDFB factions

At least 1,500 cadres of four factions of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) will lay down arms before Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, along with nearly 130 weapons, at a surrender ceremony here on Thursday.

The NDFB factions, which have signed a peace treaty with the government on Monday, will give up arms as a part of the agreement of the Bodo Accord. This will be the second surrender ceremony in the state within a week.

Last Thursday, 644 rebels from eight militant groups, including United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent (Ulfa-I), NDFB, Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), Rabha National Liberation Front (RNLF) and others laid down 177 arms, responding to a government peace initiative that will allow them to rehabilitate under government schemes.

“The arms-laying ceremony by the members of the NDFB groups will be held at Gauhati Medical College and Hospital auditorium at Bhangagarh. Besides, the chief minister, state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam police chief Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta along with others will be present at the event,” said official sources.

The four factions of the NDFB, which signed the pact, are led by Ranjan Daimary, Govinda Basumatary, Dhiren Boro and B. Saoraigwra. Though three factions of the outfit were already in peace talks with the government, the lone faction, led by B. Saoraigwra, came overground on January 11 and signed a ceasefire agreement, paving the way for the recently signed Bodo Accord. “With this Bodo Accord and the joining of the cadres of NDFB in the mainstream, it’s the end of the violent Bodo movement,” said Sarma. He added that according to the treaty, the criminal cases registered against members of the NDFB factions for non-heinous crimes shall be withdrawn by the state government, according to the procedure established by law.

However, criminal cases registered in connection with heinous crimes shall be reviewed case by case according to the existing policy.

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