Look East through North-East

The North-East of India acts as the bridge between two sub-regions; namely South Asia and South-East Asia. The Partition of India in 1947 caused the extreme geo-political isolation of the Northeast, also making it the most regulated (AFSPA) border region and one of the most exposed territories. 

It comprises about 8 per cent of Indian Territory with little more than 3 per cent contribution to India’s massive population. The region is home to more than 240 of the 744 tribal communities listed in first schedule of the constitution. These tribes live in the hilly regions of Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh and makes up nearly 25% of the region’s total population and up to 95% of the population in some states such as Mizoram.

Growing insurgency along the eastern borders, meager economic and social development, and internal conflicts have troubled the policymakers to tap the resources for national and international interests. In this backdrop Look East Policy (LEP) was put forward way back in 1991, but hitherto, full dividend has not been reaped due to multifaceted factors. These factors include lack of economic development and socio-political integration of the region with rest of India owing to the fact of gross neglect by government of India, ongoing militancy since independence, language barriers, and limited historical connections with the region excluding Assam. A disconnect is present, not only between North-eastern region and rest of India, but also within the region. Issues of inner line permit (ILP) and diverse ethnic insurgency have also been a major deterrent for developmental activities. 

With the inception of LEP, Indian policy makers have realized the benefits of connectivity of North-East region with South Asian nations as a prerequisite for overall development of the region. In order to make the LEP relevant for the region, India has laid greater emphasis on enhancing connectivity through all the possible modes of infrastructure development such as land routes, railways, air connectivity, waterways, energy infrastructure development both in field of hydroelectric and hydrocarbon and telecommunication linkages.

Connectivity through the North-eastern states became a priority for India not only for development and integration of the region to mainland but also for foreign policy, providing a new dimension to the LEP. A well connected North-East region will help India in transportation of heavy trade goods to be carried out conveniently through neighboring countries like Myanmar and other ASEAN countries. The extension of railroad network and upgradation of key infrastructure like power supply and telecommunications, etc will go a long way in meeting requirements like ability to act urgently to cross-border extremists’ threats and to combat drugs trafficking through the Golden Triangle. Thus, the region requires urgent attention through infrastructure development, investment opportunities, and employment availability; and an emboldened connection with rest of the India on political and cultural grounds.

Linking the landlocked region to Myanmar’s Sittwe port and Bangladesh’s Chittagong port is vital for its economic well-being. Similarly, the bus service between Imphal and Mandalay and integrating the North-East with the trans-Asian highway system require the Centre to actively supervise these projects. The ongoing upgrade of the Imphal and Agartala airports will ease the pressure on the region’s lone international airport in Guwahati; this would then be serviced by the proposed airstrips across the North-East. The Greenfield airport, being built near Gangtok in Sikkim will further strengthen border infrastructure and also expected to bring more tourists to the state, further adding to one of its most important source of income. 

Empowerment is needed on several fronts ranging from economic, social, and political. Measures like, skill development of youths shall be ensured to tap human resources in development processes. As numerous North-East migrants’ work for BPO industries in other part of country, it would be in the interest of people if a BPO-hub is developed in the region itself. It will open opportunities for neighboring nations to directly avail service sector tie-ups without rushing to Bangalore or Gurgaon.

At present the political representation from the region is meager and is further hampering the assimilation of such a diverse region into the policy framework of central government. More representation would ensure more participatory nature of democracy and decentralization of policies. A single representative for whole of the North-East in the cabinet, itself shows the lacklusterness and commitment towards integrating the region. 

There is an acute need for generation of faith between people from North-East and rest of India in order to bridge the historical gaps and culturally assimilate the region. However, social discard and apathy of North-eastern people is on increase with each racial attack on them in other parts of India.  Their branding as ‘Chinki’ or ‘Chinese’ is against personal dignity as enshrined in the constitution. It would require a massive cultural drive from all the sections of media and popular representative fields to promote talent from this region and increase their visibility in mainstream. The recently increased popularity of sportspersons from the region is a positive development, which was possible only after creation of basic sports infrastructure in the region, particularly Manipur and Sikkim. 

Tourism is one area where the likely dividend is multifold. A big campaign in eastern neighbours projecting the immensely pristine bio-diversity would encourage the tourists to visit this area, further adding to the employment for locals and service sector enterprises. In the wake of cultural similarities with these nations, activities and events connecting south east nations to North-eastern region through religious bonds can also bring fruits. It would be a step further in empowerment as well as emergence of the region as a hotspot of tourism. Recently, government organized ‘Horn Bill Festival’ that was a successful event in encouraging people’s participation in governmental events. The Prime Minister’s presence also highlighted the festival in national and international mainstream media and thus, increased its popularity. Many such events should be organized to engage people to people contact and thus giving them a platform to discuss optimistic measures of development. Focus should be given to international events at regular intervals engaging more number of common people rather than mere diplomatic events happening behind the veil.

Consequently, Government has also initiated some bilateral projects and has also become party to some multilateral projects, aimed at enhancing connectivity between the North-East and Southeast Asia. The important ongoing and potential infrastructure projects in this regard are BCIM corridor, Moreh -Tamu--Kalewa Road, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, Trans Asian Highway, India-Myanmar rail linkages, Kaladan Multimodal project, the Stilwell road, Myanmar-India-Bangladesh gas and/or oil pipeline, Tamanthi Hydroelectricity project and optical fiber network between North-East India and Southeast Asia.

While all these projects are a positive step, further the North-East should be involved in various sub-regional initiatives, such as the BIMSTEC, MGC and Kunming initiative, as a separate economic entity, which, in turn, would facilitate the harnessing of available regional economic opportunities. The bottom line is that the idea of enhancing connectivity between North-East and South-East Asia is a welcome step and has the potential to change the socio-economic landscape of the region. But to make this effective it should be supplemented by efforts to prepare the North-East for this opportunity. 

Gaurav Bansal