The Northeast needs a skilful person who can take the region out of its insurgency grip, mobilise leaders of substance and work out a decentralised multi-level development strategy

A vibrant Northeast? This is not Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s catch-all phrase for the seven northeastern States, though the region does figure in his list of priorities for economic rejuvenation, and strategic and infrastructural development.

I am not sure if General V.K. Singh’s choice as MoS (independent charge) for the development of the Northeast is right, even though he is knowledgeable about the region. He has the reputation of being straight-forward and a doer, but only in the realm of defence so far. The Northeast today needs a skilful politico-economic person who can take the region out of its insurgency grip, mobilise leaders of substance and work out a decentralised multi-level development strategy aimed at fostering the region’s growth.

The Look East Policy

The land-locked region continues to be stuck in politico-bureaucratic status quo, even after Prime Minister Narasimha Rao placed it under special focus as part of the Look East Policy in 1991. This has since become an integral part of India’s foreign policy rhetoric, which has already travelled from phase one to phase two under various Prime Ministers without addressing basic infrastructure and all-inclusive growth.

Each Prime Minister has reiterated the country’s commitment to take the Look East Policy forward, but this has been done somewhat half-heartedly in view of strategic and logistical problems emanating from sporadic bursts of violence by terrorist and insurgent groups operating on both sides of the border. Today, the situation on the insurgency front is somewhat easier, especially along the Myanmar and Bangladesh borders. Still, “caution” has to be the mantra.

The northeastern States account for about 8 per cent of the country’s geographical area. They share less than 2 per cent of their borders with other Indian States and share 98 per cent with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and the Tibetan region (of China). The challenge is to convert this location disadvantage into an opportunity. This can be done by opening up the seven-State gateway to more than millions of ASEAN consumers for trade, commerce and education. The Northeast requires proactive, bold policies. People are alienated because of lopsided economic growth stemming from a Delhi-centric approach to issues. The leaders in Delhi ought to understand the changing lives of the tribals who have adopted modern values, fashions and modes of living, and frame policies accordingly.

The Northeast can be rejuvenated by making the region a focal point for growth. Removing the Restricted Area Permit and Inner Line Permit would help to integrate the region with the rest of India. However, amid numerous misgivings about the existing institutional mechanism, what is reassuring is the concern among central and regional authorities and intellectuals about the future of the region and the alienation of its people.

This concern was expressed in an international conference organised by Chandigarh’s Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development in Shillong on June 6-7 in collaboration with the North-Eastern Hill University. The Shillong conclave had a number of prominent persons and experts drawn from different disciplines and nationalities to deliberate on India’s Northeast and southeast Asia. This initiative had the support of the External Affairs Ministry since it has stakes in opening up the region to Southeast Asia. While there was an overwhelming view in favour of preserving the distinct identity of northeastern people, there was also regret that the bureaucracy “has been indifferent to understanding tribal communities” since its stress “is on mainstreaming of culture.” A healthy economy, innovative tourism-oriented packaging of rich tribal heritage, and projecting modern facets of society are the keys to solving this problem. The success of Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival is one example of how the region can add to India’s cultural richness.

The Northeast has higher standards of living and literacy, but it also has an unbalanced economy and suffers from a terrible industrial sickness. Except Meghalaya, all the States in the region face a power shortage, despite the fact that the Northeast has a huge reserve of hydroelectric potential (30,000 to 40,000 MW). Power apart, the region needs special efforts for the development of world-class infrastructural network of roads and railways, for strengthening the telecom sector, healthcare services, and tapping into the agricultural industry and the region’s rich biodiversity. It can also emerge as a hub for higher education for the entire Southeast Asian belt.

There has also been concern over the involvement of non-regional entrepreneurs. We need to examine ways and means of creating a unified common market of nearly 40 million people which will provide a big boost to the economy of the region. We also have to ensure a massive investment flow for infrastructural development on both sides of the border in order to improve connectivity for trade and commerce. This will help the emergence of local entrepreneurs. As it is, the Delhi-Hanoi rail link, trilateral highway project between India, Myanmar and Thailand, and some other initiatives have got bogged down by red tapism and a lack of political will.

I would like to draw from the study of a northeast magazine that spoke of regional entrepreneurship. It said: “India needs entrepreneurs for two reasons — to capitalise on new opportunities and to create wealth and new jobs.” Compared to the rest of India, the level of start-ups in the Northeast “is much lower” because of “major bottlenecks and barriers to entrepreneurship like know-how, finance, administrative burden and cultural and social factors.” A few professionals, who tried to start initiatives on their own, did not get support, but this is changing.

Bridging the gulf

At the human level, there exists a big gulf between people from the hills and people from the plains. This has resulted in creating a trust deficit. Recent ugly incidents in Delhi have only reaffirmed the distance that separates the Northeast from mainstream India. Promoting understanding at the human level apart, it is also essential to bridge the chasm in the areas of communication, information and culture. We have to provide people from the Northeast opportunities as well as honour, dignity and equality. The North-East Region Vision 2020 document states: “It is in Northeast India that Southeast Asia begins and as such, it is for the Northeast to play the arrow-head role in the further evolution of this policy. This requires a redefining of the ‘Look East Policy’ to resolve outstanding issues of trade, transit and investment with countries neighbouring the region. It also involves promoting Indian investment infrastructure in partner countries, especially Myanmar, particularly in respect of ports such as Sittwe and international highways to connect the Northeast Region with ASEAN.”

In the long run, the Northeast, as an expert put it, can become a partner in “a wider Brahmaputra-Yangtze-Mekong quadrant.” Let us hope for the best. Over to Prime Minister Modi.

(Hari Jaisingh is a former editor of The Tribune.)

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