A region with a potential of generating 65,000 MW of hydroelectricity should be indispensable for a country that strives to be a superpower. But what if it continues to be beset with insurgency, infiltration, ethnic strife, emotional detachment, geographic isolation, and drains more energy than it can empower the superpower with.
The Northeast, comprising eight states — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura — accounts for 7.9 per cent of India’s total geographical area and 3.8 per cent of its population. Yet only 10 per cent of the central budget is earmarked for the region.
It seems a lot of money. But ask any “indigenous” person, and he or she will say it is less than what New Delhi — if not on the lips, the “us” and “them” syndrome is in the subconscious — gets out of the region in terms of tea, oil, coal, forest, manpower and other mineral resources. Not to speak about “politically-motivated” money that is earmarked for projects that have little or no viability.
New Delhi too preoccupied
"Today, New Delhi is too preoccupied with Kashmir to give the Northeast a proper thought; so will a superpower India have time for this region, which is equally troubled?” Artax Shimray, advisor of North East Students Organisation (NESO) asked.
“People here by and large favour negotiated settlement to conflicts, but talks with rebel groups keep lingering due to the government’s inability to take decisions. Having said that, militancy is not as serious a problem as ethnic conflicts that are engineered to facilitate globalization as India tries to become a superpower.”
“The Northeast’s strategic importance made New Delhi draw up the Look East policy to develop infrastructure. But, policies for the region do not involve the people and are not transparent. That is why people here are sceptical of the whatever seemingly benevolent steps New Delhi takes, and this has led to anti-dam, anti-mining, anti-infrastructure and anti-industry protests that India cannot ignore,” Shimray added.
According to All-Assam Students Union advisor Samujjwal Bhattacharyya, unresolved conflicts would decelerate India’s drive towards becoming a superpower. What, however, would hold her back would be the issue of illegal influx. At least 15 million Bangladeshis, most of them across the Northeast, are eating up space and resources a would-be superpower needs, he said.
Others feel the region could be key to India’s superpower ambition. Arunachal Pradesh, which has an installed hydroelectric capacity of over 10,000 MW and has potential to generate another 50,000 MW, knows it can empower the superpower. State Power Secretary T. Bagra said Arunachal Pradesh was heading towards becoming a power giant with a slew of MoUs signed for hydro projects that are less of a stress on the ecology. Ecology is the buzzword as the Northeast, despite deforestation, is the greenest part of India and is one of the world's prime biodiversity hotspots.
Need to get over decades of isolation
Ex-ADB official and economic advisor to Assam government Jayanta Madhav feels the importance of the Northeast vis-à-vis India's march to be a major global player was highlighted by New Delhi's Look East Policy. "There are lot of things going against the region — its poverty and unemployment rate is higher than the national average while its per capital income is much lower. But it has more educated people with forward-looking attitude, although it is at the bottom of human development index. It needs massive dose of infrastructure, communication network and market linkage to get over decades of isolation. Most importantly, the Northeast is the geographical link to China, the other superpower New Delhi cannot ignore."
A superpower-to-be needs strategic friends to limit the influence of an established superpower neighbour. That perhaps explains the significance of Northeast, vital to the Trans-Asian superhighway and railway project New Delhi is pursuing.