One size fits all won't work in this region

One size fits all won't work in this region

India and South East Asia meet in the North-East, which six decades after independence, remains uniquely disadvantaged by Partition and the legacy of colonial rule. Thus, not less than 96 per cent of the region’s borders are with other countries; only four per cent is connected to the rest of India.

The region’s population is barely 2.5 per cent of India’s overall and its complexity can be seen in its more than 220 distinct ethnic groups. The North-East is frontier land where migration from other parts of India and South East Asia has taken place over the centuries and continue to do so. However, despite the natural eco-diversity and wealth of the region – abundant forests, minerals, oil and gas as well as rivers and water – the region has remained underdeveloped, vulnerable and poor.

Among the key factors is the colonial economic model of exploitation of resources and development of plantation crops such as tea and jute, which over time have declined in importance.  The prosperous tea gardens and companies in the Assam and Barak Valleys were connected to international markets in London. Steamers and ferries took goods and people from as far as Dhaka and Kolkata to Dibrugarh in Upper Assam and back. Large reserves of oil and gas were discovered here in the 19th century and still supply a substantial part of India’s energy needs.

Though the region has been one of the well-known part of the subcontinent for well over a century. Partition and the India-Pakistan wars shut down the river route and it is only in recent years that Bangladesh and India have negotiated legal instruments of reopening trade, commerce and navigation on these rivers which are the lifelines of tens of millions of people in Bangladesh and the North-East.

Among other factors critical to the lack of growth in the area has been the roiling alienation which has taken the shape of political campaigns and armed revolts against the State. A sense of political, economic and historic distance has added to the fault lines of geography and ethnicity. But New Delhi still seems unable to articulate a comprehensive approach to issues, relying instead on a sling shot process that hinges on the immediacy of a problem.

During a panel discussion last week, a BJP spokesman began listing all the initatives that the NDA government had taken for the North-East, including roads and infrastructure.  I cut him short:  “You’re missing the point—do you think that the Naga movement or the Mizo uprising was about wanting better roads?”

This lack of understanding of the core issues before the region and a one size fits all approach remains at the heart of some of the knots that New Delhi has tied itself up along with, good intentions of “development and growth.” There are plans to push through four lane highways in the Himalayan foothills where the soil and ecology are so fragile that even maintaining a good two lane is a tough challenge at the best of times! Of course, the scores of dams and hydro-power projects to turn the great rivers of the region into placid ponds is another issue on which there is public opposition and acute division, with the wide held perception that these are benefiting local and national oligarchies and elites.

Political conditions

However, it is a fact that insurgency has waned and political conditions have improved in the past two decades, largely because of public fatigue and that there is a high public interest in ensuring that the fragile peace in different states holds. This, despite the recent attacks on soldiers in Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh by a breakaway Naga faction and its allies.

With new policies of economic opportunity, skill development and infrastructure creation as well as regional cooperation, economic and social conditions in the North-East and its neighbourhood could change dramatically in the next decades. But these will depend on a slew of initiatives. The following are indicatory, not comprehensive:

Political engagement and peace building that involves the public (including ridding the region of brutal, discriminatory laws like AFSPA which are in direct opposition to policies which seek to encourage domestic and international investment)

Good governance that ensures delivery of basic services and meets basic needs, especially health and education (at 300, Assam has the worst maternal mortality ratio in India)

Use a range of local technologies and approaches which encourage local employment and skill growth (organic farming, the Assam-type house which can meet the shock of major earthquakes, homestays in tourism circuits); large infrastructure projects need to be approached with acute care in a highly seismic and politically sensitive zone

Expand trade through river routes to Bangladesh

(The writer is Director, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research and leading commentator on the region)

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