Looking at the Northeast, sans the blinkers


India has big plans for her Eastern neighbours, most of which will be implemented through the Northeast region of the country. How far these projects will benefit the Northeast, and whether New Delhi can make a shift in its traditional perception of this region, only time will tell, says Nitin Gokhale.

THE attitude of the people in rest of India towards the Northeast has been like our treatment of a distant relative who exists in the mind, but about whom we know precious little. Our knowledge about this relative is often based on misinformation, half truths and innuendos. That’s exactly how the rest of the country largely treats the eight sisters in the Northeast!! Although the divide between “Northeast” and the mainland has lessened over the past decade with more exchange of people and ideas between the two, it is certainly true that in Indian metropolises, the Northeast continues to remain a mystery.

The Northeast dilemma

So how does the rest of the country view the region? There are two very popular and convenient views. One view is that the region, comprising the eight states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim, is the country’s pampered child. Many think that the Centre has been pouring in disproportionate amounts of money into the region, which is ultimately misutilised. The second school of thought holds that New Delhi, and New Delhi alone is responsible for the economic backwardness of the region, and that the neglect by the Centre is monumental.

The truth as usual, lies somewhere in between.

That gap will have to be bridged with careful strategy designed to sensitise people from the rest of the country about what the region really means to India in terms of geography, languages, culture, traditions and even from the point of view of national security, and why the people of the region matter.

For years, a section of the leadership and the educated elite among the Northeastern states have become willing partners with the ‘exploiter’ class from Delhi. Today, the entire Northeast is dependent upon the rest of India more than it ever was. There is no internal revenue generation worth the name in these states, private enterprise is more an exception than a rule, and a majority of the population is dependent upon the government one way or the other.

An observation by a high-profile study group, the Northeast Study Group (NESG) constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2002 to draw up a 25-year vision on development of the Northeast, still largely holds water. It said: “A parallel system of governance by the insurgents on the one hand, and ministers, MLAs, the bureaucracy and police on the other, is responsible for the political instability and backwardness in the Northeast”.

The group had then felt that the entire system of governance is in a state of collapse in the region. “Whatever money comes into the region for development ends up in the hands of a chosen few,” it had rightly observed.

The question is: Why has it happened? There are no clearcut answers, but endemic corruption and poor management of funds are the two main reasons identified by many analysts. The funding pattern, evolved over the years has given rise to a nouveau riche class comprising mainly corrupt politicians, a section of bureaucrats and businessmen in the region.

So, have we lost the Northeast forever? Many optimists like me, are convinced that the Northeast has several things going for it to catch up with the rest of the country. For one, it can act as a bridge between rest of India and Southeast Asia. Myanmar, now a member of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), has become a major link between India and ASEAN countries. And Northeast, particularly Manipur, ought to become the center of thriving and integrated economic space, linking the two dynamic regions with a network of highways, railways, pipeline, and transmission lines crisscrossing the region.

The vital links to and with Myanmar

Development of the Northeast is also very integral to India’s policy on Myanmar.

Northeast is a corridor and a transit route to Southeast Asia. Infrastructure building tops the priority. A big project already under way is designed to turn the Kaladan River into a shipping route, linking Mizoram to Myanmar’s port of Sittwe, which India is helping develop. India has also agreed to upgrade an extensive network of roads and bridges in Myanmar that would effectively connect the Northeast (and the rest of India) to Thailand as soon as 2016. Both sides are also exploring the possibility of setting up train routes through the country. Facilitating border transit would make the Northeast a gateway to Myanmar – a potential boon for trade as well as tourism.

A think-tank, Aspen Institute India, has in fact said in its report on Myanmar recently: “With the Myanmar economy opening up and the world showing greater interest, India has to think big and look consciously for a high profile entry. One of the important new initiatives that India could take up is the setting up of a large, multi-purpose Special Economic Zone (SEZ) around Sittwe. Setting up of another SME-oriented SEZ should also be considered in or near Setpyitpyin (Kaletwa), to which point the Kaladan River is being made navigable, in the region adjoining the Indian border which happens to be amongst the most backward areas in Myanmar.”

India is currently upgrading the Sittwe port and making 225 km of the Kaladan River from Sittwe to Setpyitpyin (Kaletwa) navigable. This point would be connected to Mizoram by a 62 km road which India is committed to construct. The Kolkata-Sittwe sea route is only 539 km. These projects are designed to provide connectivity between mainland India and its Northeastern states through the Indian Ocean and Myanmar territory.

So, have we lost the Northeast forever? Many optimists like me, are convinced that the Northeast has several things going for it to catch up with the rest of the country. For one, it can act as a bridge between rest of India and Southeast Asia.

The report further states: “Sittwe is the hub of these transport connectivity arrangements. The SEZ could have power plants, fertilisers, plastics, chemicals and other downstream industries, export-oriented greenfield projects, tourism complexes, a super-specialty hospital, housing complexes and educational institutions as an integral part of the master plan. Select Indian companies can be encouraged to invest and participate. Such a project would create a high impact economic region for planned and sustainable long term socio-economic development in the country. The need of the hour is to systematically create economic opportunities by bringing together industry and people in well-planned localised areas, with adequate enabling infrastructure and public services. Availability of world-class infrastructure can be a differentiator for Myanmar and improve its competitiveness as a destination for industry and business investment.”

India’s Northeastern states and Myanmar should be the main target markets of many products manufactured in the SEZs to once again make India’s Northeastern states and northern Myanmar a natural economic zone, which they historically were, providing a sustainable economic life line to the Northeast. But this would require enormous fast-paced infrastructure development on the Indian side of the border with Myanmar, which is primitive and is hardly geared to handle the traffic that would be generated due to the Kaladan project. Indian private sector companies have a good track record of setting up greenfield airports and ports. These could be additional areas of our collaboration.

In terms of land connectivity, India’s National Thermal Power Corporation has envisioned a vision plan for the next 20 years. Additional rail link and the Sittwe-Aizwal-North Assam road link are also new plans. These should be viewed as long term strategic investments from India and be expedited.

Manipur shares a 398-km border with Myanmar. But more importantly the border town of Moreh has been a traditional trading hub with Myanmar, and therefore has vast potential to become a major export centre from India for the Southeast Asian region. Here’s why; according to available statistics, bilateral trade between India and Myanmar more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, expanding from $557 million to $1.2 billion, most of it through Moreh. Disappointingly though, it pales in comparison to the bilateral trade between China and Myanmar which in 2010 amounted to an estimated $3 billion.

The Trilateral Highway

The efficacy of various projects related to the Trilateral Highway as a component of the Asian Highway cannot be overlooked. The Trilateral Highway aims at connecting India’s Northeast with Thailand via Myanmar. It could mitigate the disadvantages of landlocked Northeast India. There has been an agreement between India and Myanmar on the construction and upgradation of the Kalewa-Yargyi stretch of the Trilateral Highway during recent meetings. In its larger and more ambitious frame, the Trilateral Highway project is an example of triangular road diplomacy between India, Myanmar and Thailand, with a vision of inter-linking the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. It is a component of the Asian Highway, which is scheduled for completion by 2016. Proposed and implemented by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP), the Asian Highway Project includes the Asian Highway 1 and 2 that would pass through the Northeast, connecting India with its eastern neighbours.

While the Asian Highway is being built along planned routes to cover a wide spectrum of road network in the Northeast region of India, much more needs to be done by the Indian government to make the road functional. The Asian Highway needs to be interlinked with other critical projects that are envisaged to be completed as part of the ‘Look-East Policy’ such as the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Project and Trans-Asian Railways.”

Nevertheless, with better connectivity and implementation of various development projects, the Asian Highway would enable the Northeast region to become a business hub of South Asia. Economic linkages already exist by virtue of the prevailing legal and illegal trade between India and Myanmar through Moreh, a business border town in Manipur, and Tamu in Myanmar. Concrete economic benefits are expected with the establishment of border haats. In addition, internal trade routes have the potential to enhance accessibility to sub-regional markets that connect Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan.

Thus, with the coming of the Asian Highway, Myanmar will become the point of convergence as well as the linking route between India and the other Southeast Asian countries. That, in turn, will lead to the creation of more secure and safe living spaces for the populace residing on either side of the border.

But there are apprehensions too. Local people in the Northeast fear that the opening of the Asian Highway and
absence of inadequate enforceable regulation on immigration, illegal migration into the region may increase manifold. Also, past promises have not translated into real progress. Manipur, and to a lesser extent Nagaland, must take advantage of the liberalisation that is taking place in Myanmar.

But that potential can be fully realised only if New Delhi starts looking at Manipur as an important starting point in India’s ‘Look East’ policy, instead of as a dead end of the country’s road network.


Nitin Gokhale

The writer is a veteran journalist with 32 years experience, who has lived in and reported from the Northeast between 1983 and 2006.