Realise the potential of the North Eastern Council
The 68th plenary meet of North Eastern Council (NEC) was convened recently at Guwahati, under the stewardship of Union home minister, with eight chief ministers and governors in attendance. NEC, established under an Act of Parliament, came into existence in 1972. The Shillong-based advisory body has a different standing vis-à-vis the five zonal councils, constituted under the States Reorganization Act,1956. It was handed the remit of regional planning and ideation upon specific matters of shared interest — interstate transport, flood control and planning. However, for most part of its existence, NEC has fallen short of political expectations.
At the outset, the raison d’être of such a body in a federal polity must be understood. Small states of the north east, carved out on ethnolinguistic lines, are home to a diverse population of over 200 ethnicities. Circumscribed by an international border of over 5,000 kilometres, the region shares a tenuous link with the mainland through the Siliguri “chicken neck” corridor. Flanked by Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China, its geostrategic significance cannot be overstated. The region is at the heart of Act East Policy, being the gateway to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) through Myanmar. It lies at the inflexion of the infamous golden triangle of drug smuggling. The unique character of the northeast, poses distinct cultural, economic and strategic challenges. There is an obvious need for a forum to address the big picture, harmonising competing policy goals, in a spirit of cooperative federalism.
NEC must reinvent itself as a regional think tank. The home minister hinted at some change, with greater focus on the most backward parts of the region. The body needs to sharpen its attention on four verticals, where the northeast offers a comparative advantage — hydropower, horticulture, ecotourism and trade. With an estimated hydropower potential of nearly 60,000 MW, the region could become the powerhouse of India. Sadly, less than 3% of this potential has been realised. The fertile land of northeast is producing exotic high value crops — tea, medicinal and aromatic plants, quinoa, kale, kiwi, orchids, dragon fruit, passion fruit, palm oil and large cardamom . The production, however, is thinly dispersed. Weak market linkages, limited warehousing infrastructure and cold chains constrain transportation of produce to the mainland and beyond. The region accounts for nearly three-fifth of India’s bamboo production, yet there is no comprehensive plan for its industrial application. The global bamboo industry is pegged at a level of $68 billion and countries like China and Japan have successfully harnessed it commercially. A holistic approach for horticulture and agriculture development embracing aggregation, processing and marketing in a hub and spoke model, is a crucial missing link. Bhutan, in spite of its small size, has emerged as a leading ecotourism destination in south Asia. Tourism in the north east has failed to take off in absence of a well-developed vision for tourism circuits. Trade over the land route with Myanmar has seen limited traction, even though it has shown encouraging results with Bangladesh. Initiatives by states in these areas, would at best be sporadic and lack economies of scale. In any case, state governments are starved for funds and lack adequate capacities. An empowered NEC, must provide mentorship for planning and oversight in these priority sectors.
Several challenges beleaguer the northeast. The most pressing of these are absence of connectivity, entrepreneurship and skills. Connectivity is the silver bullet which can catalyse investment, growth and competitiveness. The northeast lies at the crossroads of ambitious international corridors — the Asian highway, the east-west corridor and the BCIM highway. These must be supplemented by intraregional economic corridors with robust road-rail linkages up to Kolkata, including logistics, transport and industrial infrastructure. Digital connectivity is weak and inadequate, hampering financial inclusion and growth of technology companies. An overwhelming dependence on government jobs, owing to lack of private enterprise, is leading to a burgeoning problem of youth unemployment. A professionally managed venture capital fund, which provides seed capital and hand holding support for startups would help nurture a new generation of young entrepreneurs These challenges would be best addressed at the regional level.
Weak governance capacities of the northeastern states shackle their ability for effective planning and execution. The NEC can play the role of an institutional anchor for constituent states, and help draw a blueprint of comprehensive development. Given the region’s strategic significance, ministers of external affairs and commerce can also be included as members of the NEC. This would demystify the Act East Policy and bring trade at the forefront of policy agenda of northeastern states. A partnership with a leading academic institution, such as IIM-Shillong, will create an ecosystem for undertaking evidence based policy research.
Delhi is far too remote to plan for a region with such complexity and diversity. The NEC is ideally suited to take up this mantle, and serve as a bridge with the central government. Leading up to the NEC turning 50 in 2022, this is an opportune occasion to take a fresh look at its mandate and dwell upon a course of reform. The transition of NITI Aayog could serve as a template for a suitable reincarnation of the North Eastern Council.
Ashish Kundra is an IAS officer, currently posted as Commissioner GAD, government of Mizroram
The views expressed are personal