Key to 'Looking East'


India’s ‘Look East’ policy, launched in the early 1990s, was a genuine progressive advance to promote industrial/economic development in the North-East Region (NER) and place it right at the heart of socio-political dialogues across Asia Pacific. Since then, numerous studies reflected upon its effects on sustainable human development. However, not many (if any at all) have pondered over the importance of strategic natural resources management (NRM) as key to development in NER.

The Brahmaputra Board was established in 1980 to collectivise/channelise efforts in basin-wide NRM and maximise returns. But the Board, as it appeared through decades, has been severely undermined by multifaceted challenges, ranging from planning, finance, strategy selection, method implementation, lack of latest technology, adequate personnel, inter-agency exchanges that keep redu­cing its relevance. It is actually questionable, how much power the Board really has to devise policies and/or enforce laws. Question is, what to be done, and how?

There’s probably no clear-cut answer to that. But one way to go best about maximising benefits in the NRM sector is probably to open up the institutional/ governance framework for privet investment. But even before that, the authorities have to realise that is not just about the “hardware”, such as infrastructural reforms, but the more delicate aspects such as collaborative research and information sharing which forms the foundation to any institutional framework.

Importance of research to support decision-making and policy development has always been overlooked in the NER, just as much as in rest of the nation. For example, how much of grant money (central/state) has so far been allocated to study effects of climate change on river dynamics in the Brahmaputra-Barak basin, which is the mainstay of water supply sector in the NER. Frequent flooding, bank erosion, denudation, soil loss, siltation etc, pose tremendous adversities to river dynamics.

But how much effort has been put in place to evaluate changes in alluvial processes? How much to assess the impacts of changing alluvial processes on socio-economic developments? Shifting (Jhum) cultivation is a known menace to soil ecosystem in the NER. But how much work has been done in past five years on governmental enterprises to understand effects of Jhum on soil carbon dynamics, regional carbon budget, or greenhouse gas emission?

Added to all, these are eternal issues of slope instability, landslide, earthquakes etc, which often cause irreversible damage to lives and lands. But is there yet any systematic assessment of environmental mitigation efforts and/or efforts to chart out related investment over time?

The World Bank Report (2007) on NRM in the NER emphasises on urgent data release: "Many valuable data are in confidential government reports that are unavailable in the public domain. As a result, there is little (or no) peer review of the knowledge base and no independent analysis of the data. These restrictions on data access need to be re-examined, since earlier reasons for confidentiality have been made irrelevant by technological developments."

But to carry out research what is needed up front is to establish a transparent institutional framework, based on realistic goals, cost-effective strategies and prudent financing schemes. One of the Planning Commission’s reports — Yojana, 2005 — underscored the need to increase accountability in annual financial investments in the NER. But at the same it time, it clearly states that projected benefits from regional investments will never bear fruit if the loopholes in existing institutional framework are not mended with stringent reforms.

Of course, it is lot easier said than done, especially for a region fraught with multifaceted strife over health, education, poverty, job, water-food-energy and every imaginable sort of infrastructural inadequacy that comes in way of laying strategies for maximum commonwealth.

And on top of it all, there are eternal issues of political unrest, separatism, tribal feud, illegal migration etc which seem see to multiply by day. But it is really time now, that the sparring egos reached a middle ground to seek sustainable solutions and offer themselves sound institutional framework to monitor/manage the natural resources.

The need for multiparty ties become more compelling in anticipation of climatic adversities on water and forest resources, both of which affect human dynamics on many different levels (food, water, job, health) and thus need variegated task forces. State and central authorities are devising adaptive strategies, but they frequently lack defined protocols for active liaison between the task forces.

Decentralisation approach
What more, we need inputs from stakeholders at every stage, from site investigation to technology selection to method implementation. In other words, there should be frequent interaction between authorities and public parties (civil societies and NGOs) with provisions of iterative review. It is also the backbone of decentralisation approach, the latest buzzword in public works system in India. But for NER, is it just a goodwill hunting? How to acquire the information (if any at all) to assess the participatory structure?

Not that there are not enough organisations devoted to NRM. It is rather the opposite: there are too many. Over the years, each of the `Seven Sisters’ established their own ministries/boards. For best intentions, no doubt, but in effect, it has made decision-making/information-exchange a tortuous and unnecessarily time-consuming affair.

This is actually a major hardship faced by the Brahmaputra Board: too many organisations working at own pace and discretion without much coordination. And there’s rarely synergy among them even to the extent of often offsetting each other. And more than often, they are understaffed, if not underfunded.

The World Bank urges on establishing formal, informal as well as indirect institutional arrangements for NRM by enhancing inter-state participatory basin management network including trade-off analysis of different development and management options.

But the fact of the matter is, without sincere efforts to refurbish/rejuvenate existing machinery and providing handsomely for research, nothing will bear fruit. The question: is it already past that time we realised and committed to it?

(Chaudhuri and Roy are assistant and associate professors, respectively, O P Jindal Global University, and Co-Directors, Centre for Environment, Sustainability and Human Development)

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