Sikkim in the Northeast Council

IF ANYTHING, THE move to induct Sikkim as the eighth member of the Northeast Council (NEC) may have come a little late in the day. The integration with the region should have been accomplished long ago to make them the `Eight sister States of the Northeast'. Now that the Union Home Minister, Mr. L. K. Advani, has announced the decision at the 43rd meeting of the NEC, it should take some time for the legislative and administrative formalities to be completed. It makes sense to make Sikkim part of the NEC so that it can form part of any regional plan for development. As Mr. Advani noted, development, peace and security hold the key to the future of the Northeast and in a way are interlinked issues. They have to be viewed and achieved in tandem and that remains the major challenge facing the NEC.

Many suggestions were thrown up at the recent NEC meeting. The Finance Minister, Mr. Yashwant Sinha, made the point that resources were not a constraint, but utilisation of allotted funds remained the main hurdle to development. The State Governments should revamp their administration to monitor the implementation of projects and programmes to ensure that the resources were fully utilised. The Chairman of the NEC and the Assam Governor, Lt. Gen. (retd.) S. K. Sinha, has come up with the backup solution to deal with this problem - to allot the non- lapsable pool of funds to the Council on a 100 per cent grant basis. But there is also the need for an equitable formula for the distribution of resources to the sister-States, who only keep clamouring for the reimbursement of all expenditure related to security in the region. Lt. Gen. Sinha should bring his experience and administrative skills to play in revitalising the NEC and making it a dynamic and vibrant instrument of development and monitoring for the whole region. On its success and institutional support will depend the successful implementation of all development projects.

A major package for the Northeast will be the ambitious Rs. 220- crore information technology network for the region. This would cover all the eight States. But in the first phase, it will link 25 blocks, with a dozen of them in Assam. Given the security environment and the difficulty in funnelling investments into the region, it makes sense to focus on sectors such as IT. Communications and connectivity form the backbone of any IT network. Keeping in mind the high literacy rate in the region, it should not take long to impart computer education in schools and through private enterprise to develop IT skills. But not many people would be able to afford a computer on their own, which makes it imperative to go in for internet booths or cybercafes on the lines of the STD booths. The more efficient States could go in for IT parks to tap the talents of the people and open up avenues for investment.

Since the individual State Governments have not been very successful in implementing Centrally-funded industrial projects in the past, there is a case for the NEC to take on a more pivotal role in choosing the right locations for new ventures and then monitoring the implementation on a time-bound basis. The Council must ensure that the Prime Minister's special package for the Northeast is translated into projects and programmes that can be taken up within the next five years. Development of highways, transport and communications must get the top priority so that the natural resources and the tourism potential of the region can be fully harnessed. Above all, the Council must bring about a regional identity, coordination and `co-petition' among the sister States to spark a healthy rivalry in development and removal of regional imbalances. Empowerment and economic development of the people alone can bring peace and prosperity.