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Doing business with the Dragon

An open, democratic polity must be backed by social and economic goods for the people of Arunachal Pradesh.

ht view Updated: Dec 03, 2013 22:36 IST

As President Pranab Mukherjee noted in his convocation address at the Rajiv Gandhi University in Arunachal Pradesh, the state "is on the threshold of a major economic transformation". The Sino-Indian contretemps around the president's visit provides an opportunity to examine the implications of these 'transformations' in some detail.

New Delhi, which usually gives its minority-dominated, electorally-insignificant Northeast states short shrift, has some important reasons to pay special attention to Arunachal Pradesh. While the state does not have an indigenous ethnic insurgency movement - its Tirap and Changlang districts on the border with Myanmar are affected because of the presence of Naga insurgents - its domestic politics is becoming increasingly complicated due to the rapid changes underway in the state.

The economic transformation the president talked about has in large measure to do with the huge infrastructure development programmes that are being introduced. The focus is on some mega-dams being proposed on the major rivers as well as the ambitious Trans-Arunachal Highway that will connect all the district capitals.

Recently, Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Nabam Tuki expressed his frustration at the slow progress in the construction of dam projects. Sections of the tribal communities that live in the river valleys have opposed the dam and other infrastructure projects because of the potential environmental consequences. As communities with no written history and whose cultures are usually tied to a specific physical environment, development can mean not just physical displacement but also cultural and social displacement.

From the president's address where he called on the students to "conduct research on challenges to hill economy [and] conflict between traditional and modern institutions", it is clear that the political and social consequences of these projects have begun to exercise policymakers in New Delhi.

The building of dams is tied to the business of establishing first-user rights so that China cannot later build similar infrastructure upstream and jeopardise India's access. Further, all along India's border regions, there is a strong feeling among communities that they have been hard done by the Indian State in terms of access to basic physical infrastructure. Developments across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Chinese side are often referred to enviously by many border communities from Arunachal to Ladakh.

There is thus, a challenge for both New Delhi and Itanagar to back up the advantages of an open, democratic polity with the equally important imperatives of social and economic goods for the masses. It is perhaps the failures in this latter regard that also explain the belligerence across the Indian political spectrum, and particularly in Arunachal, when it comes to China's territorial claims. In the last few years, the State has become increasingly vocal in expressing its displeasure about Chinese statements about the state. In their dismissal of the opposite point of view, Itanagar's reactions mirror those of Beijing when the latter blithely ignores, say, Japanese control or claims over disputed territory.

And yet, just as the Chinese continue to do business with the Japanese, so also do Arunachali leaders wish to increase interactions across the LAC. The president acknowledged this when he referred to "border trade opportunities and integration of the Northeast economy with the national and global economies".

Clearly, the China factor has many shades in Arunachal Pradesh.

Jabin T Jacob is assistant director at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi

The views expressed by the author are personal