Economic backwardness of North-East (NE) India compared to mainland India is not a recent phenomenon. Since the colonial period, the region has been a witness to highly inequitable rates of economic growth. Notably, the region lacks in uniformity, integration and assimilation with rest of India, primarily due to its diverse social, cultural, political, geographical, and historical features.
Historically, long colonial exploitation and since independence, government’s neglect has let the region being marginalized. The absence of political, social and economical rights has taken the shape of anti-establishment struggle in the name of ethnic or regional conflicts. The regional imbalance and backwardness, among others, are one of the most crucial factors that significantly amount to regional unrest. The insurgency movements derive their roots from various internal and external factors. The internal factors include: differences in language and ethnicity, tribal rivalry and ethnic resentment, migration, underdevelopment, control over local resources, access to markets and a widespread feeling of exploitation and alienation from the Indian state. A different history marked with various tribes claiming different regions as their native kingdoms, like Karbi Anglong, Nagas, Mizos, Ahoms etc. Naga and Bodo insurgency is a good example of historical claims stretched to contemporary times.
Similarly there are several external factors which have affected the region’s political and social landscape from time to time. Most important of them is, illegal migration from Bangladesh, which has been a major cause of conflict among Bodos and Muslim migrants. This is not only a regional or social issue but also a political failure. Similarly there are organized criminal groups and organizations dealing in illegal arms, drugs, and human trafficking, which have vested interest in keeping the region unstable, as a region not completely administered by the government is in favour of such people to run their nefarious activities. Vicinity of Golden triangle makes NE further vulnerable to activities mentioned above. Adding to the threat is support from China or Myanmar to insurgent groups active against government.
Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) has also been one of the most contentious and controversial act escalating the gap between government and people. It has been claimed that this act has grossly violated human rights of common masses under the aegis of special power. This also creates a major stage for unrest in the region. Role of military is seen as a face of central government and the disgruntled people feel more secure with insurgents rather than co-operating in developmental activities. Continuous tussle with government is a greatest impediment in the path to development.
Difficult geographic terrain makes porous border very difficult to access thus acting as a haven for insurgents and terrorists. It also discourages infrastructural development activities that can bring prosperity to the region in economic and social aspects. Business enterprises are unwilling to invest in the region due to the presence of insecurity and insurgency. The region is in dire need of better connectivity that discourage trade facilitations between states or even among nearby regions.
The political rights have been marred with least opportunities for NE people. A mere glance at NE’s representation in Indian Parliament reflects the apathy of large chunk of population being grossly neglected. Social disconnect can also be observed through cultural disharmony displayed either by NE people or by people from rest of India. Migrants coming to different metro cities of India face several ethnic slurs characterizing their appearance differences and at times even physical attacks. So, the social disconnect is not only about the physical disconnect of NE region or people, it’s also about backwardness of mind or morals and attitude of rest of Indian masses.
One of the reasons for the economic backwardness of the NE states is the poor state of basic infrastructural facilities. However, the Indian planners neglected this critical aspect of development of social (Educational and Health) and physical (Rail, Road and Air) infrastructure for a long period. Only in recent years, serious efforts have been made for the provision of these facilities and new airports and airstrips apart from railway’s extension to the region has been started.
The bottom line is that economic backwardness and regional imbalance is a heterogenic concept and encompasses several hidden factors not explicitly mentioned under them. Regarding NE region, strict definition of backwardness or regional imbalance seems improbable. The region is suffering because of multitude of factors, which are not just a result of economic backwardness, but also of troubled history, tough geography, racial differences and resultant prejudices.
Similarly the external factors add to the woes of region and maintain the region poor and disconnected, further helping the insurgents and criminals. Thus, while economic factors do play an important role, they are not the sole factor responsible for the insurgency. In fact in case of Nagaland, the insurgency is particularly a result of identity politics and has itself become a factor which has kept the region poor rather than the other way around. While the economic growth of Sikkim, the lone state from NE, which can be claimed to be completely free from insurgency has also shown that if insurgency is removed then NE can grow at a rate at par with rest of India. This also shows that the insurgency in itself has kept the industry and other factors of economic development away from people and overtime it has become a vicious cycle, which can be broken only with pro-active intervention from Government of India.