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A high-level ‘Act East Forum’ led by the PM should be set up in the Northeast

The region has emerged as the practice ground for the NDA’s cooperative federalism

analysis Updated: Jun 21, 2018 12:41 IST
Artists perform the traditional Assamese Bihu dance during the flagging off ceremony of the international half-marathon "Bhag Northeast Bhag" in Guwahati earlier this year(PTI)

The centrality of India’s North East region (NER) is once again emerging as many intra and inter-regional scenarios unfold in our neighbourhood.

As per India’s Act East Policy, the northeast will connect us with the Southeast Asian countries. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative will introduce a newer connectography in both South and South-east Asia, making the NER a core intervening geography.

But the regional initiatives — like the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN), the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) — cannot flourish if the NER remains underdeveloped and poorly connected. The NER has 7.9 % of the country’s geographical area, 3.76 % of national population and about 2.8 % of the net state domestic product. Most important, 98% of NER’s border touches the country’s neighbours but less than 2% runs along the rest of India.

The North Eastern Council was set up in 1971, and an exclusive Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, in 2004. Given the present government’s renewed development interventions, one would have expected the NER to be a growth pole and a pivot. The take-off should have actually happened at least two decades ago.

National policymakers have failed to physically visit the region and build confidence among the masses. Rent-seeking on local coal, oil, gas, forests, water and even wildlife and traditional medicinal practices have become institutionalised. The region’s resource richness actually turned into a resource curse.

Four core issues remained unaddressed. First, the dominant national discourse presents this region as a conglomerate of violence, insurgency and instability and low self-sustenance. This kept away potential development partners, and even today is the most formidable stumbling block in opening the NER for better opportunities.

Second, building critical educational institutions has taken a backseat. The training, building capacities and empowering the huge mass of talented youth in the region has not happened for decades. An unaccounted amount of money was poured in, but no investment was made on social capital formation.

Third, communities have become inward-looking, and identity politics has acquired more diabolical dimensions. Despite the creation of several states in the NER, the confidence level within the central governance team on the ability and reach of the locals to manage their own affairs has remained relatively low.

Finally, the borders that had historically witnessed large-scale interactions has gradually became a no-go zone. The orthodox military underpinning of predatory borders and border states as incubators of insurgency has overwhelmed the psyche of national policy makers. At the same time, Border Gate Economic Zones in nearby Vietnam extend to China, Laos and Cambodia — and huge border exchanges between Muse in Myanmar and Ruili in China have benefited the locals.

Despite a substantive redeployment of resources by the Modi-led government, a Chinese proverb — the mountains are high and the emperor is far away — continues to epitomise the NER’s reality. The region has emerged as the practice ground for the NDA’s cooperative federalism. To consolidate and sustain the NER’s role in India’s Act East project, there must be transformational interventions in the ways we operate. A high-level Act East Forum led by the prime minister should be set up, with the NER given a clear role and adequate representation.

Mahendra P Lama is former member of the North East Vision Document 2020 Team and National Committee on revamping of North Eastern Council

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 21, 2018 12:41 IST