“Assam is an investor’s paradise” March 2018 issue

“Assam is an investor’s paradise”

Ever since Sarbananda Sonowal took over as Chief Minister of Assam in May 2016, he has been working hard to attract investors, both domestic and international, to the state. The Dollar Business, caught up with Sonowal to understand how he plans to make this northeastern Indian state an export hub.

Interview by Niladri S. Nath | June Issue 2017 | The Dollar Business

TDB: After taking over as Chief Minister of Assam in May 2016, you said that the state will go through a major transformation. How have matters progressed since then?

Sarbananda Sonowal (SS): Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put Assam on a resurgent growth track. In concurrence with Assam’s ambitions to be the gateway to South East Asia, the Ministry of Road, Transport and Highways has sanctioned Rs.1,26,000 crore for development of roads and infrastructure in Assam. The government has also undertaken a project for dredging the entire stretch of the river Brahmaputra, from Sadiya to Bay of Bengal. This ambitious project will allow big ships to navigate and help Assam access the sea route. Our initiative to develop waterways up to Chittagong Port, Bangladesh, will also boost economic activity in Assam.

The Government of Assam passed the Ease of Doing Business Bill 2016 in the first Assembly session itself. Now, registration and clearances for setting up of industries can be obtained online through a Single Window Clearance System. Assam was also the first state to approve the GST bill. To create a conducive business environment, a land bank has also been set up. In fact, land was allotted to Patanjali at Balipara, in Sonitpur district, within a week’s time. A new land pooling scheme is also being considered. Infrastructure creation is another major initiative of the current government to attract investment.

TDB: What initiatives has the government undertaken to create an investor-friendly environment?

SS: We will soon formulate a new State Industrial Policy to attract investment. The government will hold a global investment summit, ‘Advantage Assam’, in the month of November which will bring together heads of states, ministers, captains of the industry, senior policymakers, heads of institutions and academia from across the globe. Meanwhile, road shows are also being organised in different parts of the country like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata to attract investment.

The Industries & Commerce Department has also launched a new scheme called ‘Sarothi’ – it’s the Chief Minister’s Startup fund. In this regard, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed with Assam Gramin Vikash Bank. The basic objective of the scheme is to provide financial assistance in the form of loans with interest subvention. The loans availed by the beneficiaries will be supported by the state government through an interest subvention of 5% per annum. Also, an Export Promotion Industrial Park (EPIP) at Amingaon, near Guwahati, is now fully operational. A Mega Food Park at Tihu is already operational, while the bamboo, tea, textile, and plastic parks will soon be operational.

TDB: Is private sector responding to government initiatives?

SS: Since we came to power in 2016, over 25 industries have invested more than Rs.5,000 crore while creating employment opportunities for 30,000 people. This is a remarkable achievement for the state of Assam. It signifies that our efforts towards providing good governance is bearing fruit and we have been able to create a conducive business environment. I believe, this is only the beginning of a new industrial era, an era that will see Assam scale new heights of progress.

TDB: Last year, you urged NRIs to look at Assam as a serious investment destination. How has the response been?

SS: During the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Bengaluru last year, I called upon NRIs to take advantage of the congenial business environment in our state. Assam has a very promising and investor-friendly environment. Alongside the pristine natural beauty that has caught the imagination of everyone, the state also has enormous possibilities and opportunities in terms of connectivity, industrial infrastructure, natural resources and policy initiatives. Assam has over 70 ongoing industrial infrastructures projects and the government will soon set up an ‘Act East Department’ to explore the vast opportunities across the international border, and strengthen business, communication, investment and cultural relations with neighbouring countries.

The response of NRIs have so far been encouraging. Lots of queries and suggestions have been received. We are constantly engaging with NRIs and industrialists to invest in Assam. That is why we plan to hold a Global Investment Summit where we will invite and partner with global business leaders. I have met several NRI entrepreneurs and representatives of foreign companies and have sought their cooperation to foster industrial growth in the state. We also have had very fruitful and positive discussions with NRI delegates and representatives of companies from countries like US, UK, Canada and France.

TDB: You had invited a Google delegation to discuss ways to achieve success in ‘Digital Assam’ project. What has been the progress so far?

SS: In line with the ‘Digital India’ programme, Assam too has ensured that government services are made available to citizens electronically. I discussed with the delegation various ways to boost the government’s efforts to create a knowledge centre in each district. We are focusing on rural connectivity to connect the rural masses through technology and in turn empower them. We will soon sign an MoU with Google India to enhance the use of digital medium in the operation of small and medium sized local businesses for skills development, promotion of digital literacy among women and putting the rich culture of our state on the global map.

TDB: Tea has for long been a major export from Assam. How do you plan to further develop this sector?

SS: Assam has the world’s largest contiguous area under tea cultivation and accounts for one-fourth of the world’s total tea production. The small tea growers play an important role in strengthening the tea economy of the state. To organise small tea growers and help them benefit the most from government schemes is a priority. We are also pursuing the Tea Cess Utilisation Policy, which is a revolutionary step taken by the Assam government to empower small tea growers through financial support. Incentives will be provided for transportation of green tea leaves alongside subsidies for expansion of tea gardens as well as for procuring plantation equipment. In view of the mission to be an organic hub, assistance will also be provided for conversion of existing tea gardens to organic farms. The government has also tied up with Assam Agriculture University and Tocklai Tea Research Institute for imparting training on good manufacturing practices to increase exports.

"Assam is poised to become a launch pad for South East Asian markets"

TDB: What other opportunities does Assam offers that can help it become an export hub?

SS: Potential business sectors in Assam include bamboo, silk, medicinal herbs, plywood, pharmaceuticals, etc. Plastic and polymers is another potential area.The bamboo industry has the potential to change the fortune of the state’s economy because 70% of the country’s bamboo is produced in Assam. In fact, India has the second-largest reserve of bamboo in the world after China and its cultivation can benefit farmers. We are going to set up a bamboo-based fuel-grade bio ethanol plant in Numaligarh Refinery Limited soon.

TDB: How can Assam contribute to India’s economic and industrial growth?

SS: Assam is an investor’s paradise with an enormous market for all kinds of products and services. It has abundant natural resources and world-class infrastructure. Assam’s strategic location combined with its rich natural resources and skilled manpower provides an investor with a perfect opportunity. Assam can be a natural choice for investors, for it’s from here that South East Asia begins. The state is the gateway to North East with Guwahati being its commercial hub. Assam is well poised to be a launch pad for investors to capture the South East Asian markets. Assam and the North-East markets, in general, are full of potential and opportunities.