Breeze of change: Development takes root in India’s remote northeast | india | Hindustan Times
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Breeze of change: Development takes root in India’s remote northeast

The ancient root bridges spanning the rivers of the remote northeast are some of country’s most iconic images, symbolising a slower pace of life unimaginable in its bustling megacities.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2015 14:13 IST
A living root bridge near Mawlynnong in Meghalaya. The ancient root bridges spanning the rivers of the remote northeast are some of India's most iconic images, symbolising a slower pace of life unimaginable in its bustling megacities.
A living root bridge near Mawlynnong in Meghalaya. The ancient root bridges spanning the rivers of the remote northeast are some of India's most iconic images, symbolising a slower pace of life unimaginable in its bustling megacities. (AFP)

The ancient root bridges spanning the rivers of the remote northeast are some of country’s most iconic images, symbolising a slower pace of life unimaginable in its bustling megacities.

But a spate of infrastructure projects designed to improve access to the rest of the country and its neighbours is serving as a wake-up call to what has long been a sleepy backwater.

An expanded rail network, a massive road project and new border posts to open up trade with Southeast Asia are underway or in the works -- a prospect welcomed by local businessmen, who struggle to compete with the rest of the country.

“It’s a challenge,” said Amit Jain, as he lists the obstacles confronting his bottling business.

“Raw materials come from states like Punjab and northern states and that takes a week,” he told AFP in his office in Guwahati, capital of Assam.

“And any machinery or spare parts you have to bring in from Delhi or Kolkata so, in terms of commitment on a date, it is difficult.”

Assam is best known for tea production, but the numbers employed by the industry have declined over the years, so its future prosperity depends on the success of companies such as Jain’s Aroma India.

The firm began life producing bottles of massage oils, but has diversified.

It recently landed a contract to bottle spirits for a major liquor firm, although such success stories are rare. Experts say the reasons are obvious.

“Infrastructure in the northeast is in bad shape and connectivity is poor, especially land connectivity,” said Saundarjya Borbora, an Assam-based professor and president of a local economics think-tank.

Workers repair a roof panel above a platform at Guwahati railway station . (AFP)

The northeast region includes eight states, which are not only located far from centres of power such as Delhi and Mumbai, but also culturally and linguistically distinct from the rest of India.

Most are sparsely populated and their combined population is around 46 million, a fraction of the nationwide total of 1.25 billion.

While lacking in numbers, their importance has grown as successive governments have seen them as a gateway to Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Nepal and Bhutan, which all share a border with at least one of the states.

Signs of change

During his inauguration last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “infrastructure is the most important factor” in developing the region, making it a government priority.

Modi attended the opening of a train line connecting two towns in Meghalaya with Assam, the first time the state has been hooked up to India’s vast rail network.

There is also a major rail project in Tripura state and Imphal, capital of Manipur.

A Khasi tribal villager carries an airgun as he walks through a living root bridge near Mawlynnong. (AFP)

Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital, still has no railway station but signs of change are unmistakable even in its villages.

In one of the wettest places on earth, locals and tourists do still cross rivers on twine bridges crafted from the rubber roots of living trees that date back more than two centuries.

But some are falling into disrepair as locals use steel rope bridges at more convenient spots.

A more brutal example of modernisation is in Mizoram, where around 1,000 workers are constructing a 90-kilometrer (55-mile) highway to the Myanmar border.

By the time the NH 502A is completed, expected in mid-2016, as many as 3,100 trees will have been felled and 18 million cubic metres of soil shifted, according to the Indian Express.

It is part of a wider programme to halve the 1,880 kilometre distance between the border and Haldia port in Kolkata, country’s eastern metropolis.

Experts say it could knock four days off the journey time for vehicles, which now takes at least a week. If overland is a headache, it is not much better for air travellers, who often have to get connecting flights in more westerly hubs rather than fly directly eastwards.

Hasina Kharbhih, whose Meghalaya-based Impulse Social Enterprises helps thousands of local craftsmen promote their products, wants to branch out into neighbouring countries, but says it is struggle.

“I still have to fly from Kolkata to Bangkok and Bangkok to Yangon to reach the different villages and activities we have in Myanmar,” she said.

Kharbhih said many of her clients lacked basic business knowledge and skills compared with countries in Southeast Asia.

“We need to be sure these artisans are being plugged in to understand their market -- feasibility, viability. We have to empower these villagers.

“The skills that they have in Southeast Asia and the skills that they have here... We’re still far apart.”