Northeastern View | Waiting for “Act East” panacea a decade on - Hindustan Times
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Northeastern View | Waiting for “Act East” panacea a decade on

Apr 11, 2024 11:18 PM IST

The Act East policy was meant to be an interface between Northeast India and Southeast Asia, but region-wide development needs a lot more

From the start, India’s Act East Policy (AEP) — unveiled by the Narendra Modi government in 2014 as an upgrade of the Look East Policy (LEP) of 1991 — had the development of Northeast India hardwired into it. In 2015, the government told the Parliament that the AEP was an “interface” between Northeast India and Southeast Asia. Since then, both the government and policy community have pushed the idea that the progress of the AEP is intrinsically linked with that of the Northeast, and vice-versa.

A liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) delivery truck drives along India's Tezpur-Tawang highway which runs to the Chinese border, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.(REUTERS/ File photo) PREMIUM
A liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) delivery truck drives along India's Tezpur-Tawang highway which runs to the Chinese border, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.(REUTERS/ File photo)

However, 10 years on, the Northeast is yet to see a region-wide overhaul in trade, connectivity and market integration on the AEP’s account. The policy itself seems to have retracted to the background. Why hasn’t the Northeast been able to draw benefits from the AEP? What can be done now?

“Land bridge to Southeast Asia”

Even before the AEP was envisaged, the LEP had introduced the idea of Northeast India as a “land bridge” to the ASEAN region. Geographically, it made much sense. No overland connectivity from South to Southeast Asia is possible without some of the routes directly passing through Northeast India and onward to Myanmar. Brigadier Narendra Kumar (retired), a soldier-scholar, even called it the “Alaska of India” in a 2015 article for the Indian Defence Review, because it offered “all the strategic imperatives that Alaska does for the US.”

While the AEP aspired to infuse new energy into the Northeast’s development, the region was seen as a means to an end. By framing it as a “bridge”, it risked being relegated to a mere strategic waypoint to Southeast Asia, rather than a space that needs undivided and standalone attention. This is crucial because the landlocked Northeast has remained economically underdeveloped and disconnected from regional value chains for decades. Multiple ethnic insurgencies across the region further complicated this isolation.

Since the LEP days, many within policymaking circles seemed to believe that renewed economic progress through better connectivity, trade and investment levels would automatically diffuse political violence. But, the policy failed to achieve that. The region’s total contribution to the national GDP has only consistently fallen over the last three decades since the LEP was launched, and AEP did nothing to turn the graph up. Further, amidst new ceasefire regimes, political violence is creeping back into the region, destroying cross-border linkages and reducing investment potential.

Trade links, especially with neighbouring countries, have improved only marginally. The government has invested in creating new overland linkages with countries like Bangladesh and Bhutan but has failed to make progress on boosting direct border trade with countries like Myanmar. As Shibashis Chatterjee observed in a 2014 paper for the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, most of India’s trade expansion with Southeast Asia has “taken place through seaports”, leaving the Northeast “marginalised”. In the LEP-AEP imagination, Chatterjee argues, the Northeast would remain a “conveyor belt” between India and the ASEAN region.

Assam as an AEP node

Within the AEP, a key strategy for the Modi government has been to make Assam, the Northeast’s largest and most economically well-endowed state, as the policy’s epicentre. In 2017, one year after the BJP won Assam for the first time in history, the state’s governor created a one-of-a-kind “Act East Policy Affairs” department. Since then, Dispur has hosted two AEP conclaves in 2022 and 2023 to bring various stakeholders together. In 2021, India’s external affairs minister, Dr S Jaishankar, called Assam the “springboard” for the policy.

However, beyond conferencing, the department has made little tangible progress in localising the AEP’s benefits to the Northeast. In fact, there is a lack of clarity on whether the department’s mandate is strictly confined to Assam or to the entire region. If it is the former, then New Delhi could end up over-emphasising Assam’s role in the Northeast, thus alienating other smaller states who have traditionally felt marginalised in the region.

The Assam government’s own “Act East through Northeast” formulation – as reflected in the title of the second AEP conclave in Guwahati – demands a broader region-wide focus, rather than an Assam-centric regime that restricts the flow of goods and services to other states. After all, other states too share international borders with India’s eastern neighbours, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. They too can play pivotal roles in fostering stronger regional connectivity. This is even more so because all the other states have progressively closed their economic growth gap with Assam in the last 30 years.

AEP needs a fresh start

While the AEP was an upgrade of an older policy, it looks no different from the old playbook after ten years of inception. There is a need for fresh thinking and arguably even a complete structural overhaul. The Northeast should not be seen as a “bridge” in India’s eastward outreach. Rather, New Delhi needs to frame it as a destination and a source.

The region is replete with talent and resources that can be tapped to ensure that it becomes a standalone node for inter-regional connections. But, this would need investments in strengthening local manufacturing, supply chains and infrastructure, and not reckless expenditure on roads, highways and economic corridors that lead to nowhere.

It is time New Delhi puts the horse before the cart, and invests in local networks of people and products that would draw in consumers from Southeast Asia, rather than the other way around. Let us set our own house in order before we hike east.

Angshuman Choudhury is an associate fellow with the Centre for Policy Research and focuses on Northeast India and Myanmar. The views expressed are personal.

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