New Delhi: The time is ripe for India to open up the border with Myanmar for increased access to the tiger economies of Southeast Asia by using Northeast as a gateway, said North Eastern Council (NEC) secretary Ram Muivah in an exclusive interview with EastMojo. While agreeing that the region needed to develop a strong logistics framework to enhance the creation of value-added products, Muivah, who was recently in New Delhi to attend the Indian Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC) two-day North East Business Summit, asserted that the ongoing infrastructure development would help position it as an attractive investment destination.
Here are the excerpts from an exclusive interview with Muivah:
EastMojo: What makes India’s Northeast region attractive to potential investors?
Ram Muivah: Northeast is actually poised for take-off. Now that there is peace in the region and security of life and property are assured, that makes it attractive to investors for these are some of the basic things that they look for. Secondly, work on lots of new projects like roads, airports and railways will be completed over the next five years. That will provide a very good infrastructure backbone to the region. You can already see the difference in Assam, Meghalaya and Sikkim that have built a strong infrastructure. Those states already receive the highest number of tourists in the region. However, Nagaland, Arunachal, Manipur and Mizoram, they are currently lacking in both tourist arrivals and investment. The reason is lack of infrastructure. Luckily, now the construction of a four-lane highway is underway between Dimapur and Kohima. Another two-lane highway is being built from Silchar to Aizawl and beyond. Then a four-lane highway is also being constructed to Itanagar. Investors will find Northeast to be an attractive investment destination over the next five to ten years.
EM: Creation of world-class infrastructure is one area. There is the added challenge of developing skilled human capital. What is being done in that area?
RM: Northeast has human capital at least in terms of the literacy rate. Mizoram and Tripura are already 99% literate, while Sikkim and Nagaland aren’t far behind. So, we do have English-speaking and IT-savvy human capital. What we need is financial capital. And therein lies the importance of attracting investors.
EM: What kind of industries are you looking at attracting initially?
RM: One of the strengths of the Northeast is horticulture. For example, the finest lilies and orchids in the country are grown in the region. Then we also grow the best variety of pineapple. Because of the high mountains we also grow kiwi as well as avocado and stevia. Therefore, apart from tourism, horticulture can be one of the attractions for investors. There is also a potential to develop footwear and bamboo industries. About 60% of India’s bamboo comes from the North East. However, at the moment there’s only one processing unit for that in Agartala. We need to have such units in the rest of the six states as well.
EM: But horticulture also requires the development of very robust logistics, including a strong supply chain management framework for the creation of value-added products. But that is presently lacking.
RM: Yes, you are right. The growth of horticulture is presently hampered for the lack of proper infrastructure. Given the prohibitive cost of transportation, buyers don’t come to Northeast. For example, the potato for the Frito-Lay plant near Guwahati comes from Indore! That is the reason why we need to encourage the development of contract farming in the Northeast so that those who have capital can come and invest, while we provide them with land and labour.
EM: How do you intend to create a favourable environment for enterprise, one, within the region and, two, to attract investors from other parts of the country?
RM: Of course, our objective should be to encourage local entrepreneurs. Outsiders alone cannot develop the region. For that, we need homegrown entrepreneurs for they will be the engines of growth. But that requires financial capital. Therefore, the ministry of DoNER has in a modest way started a venture capital fund. The money is given to North Eastern Financial Inclusion Trust (NEFIT), which has incorporated a company to administer that fund capital. This is one small example of how we are trying to encourage local enterprise.
EM: You have also been an advocate of strong creating linkages with the nations of South and South East Asia.
RM: In fact, that is one of the most important areas. For 50 years, Myanmar was a closed economy under a military junta. In 1962, General Ne Win expelled most Indians and the economy was closed. But today, there is democracy in Myanmar. Therefore, this is the time to open the Northeast region to Myanmar. India needs to increase its engagement with the country by opening more land customs stations and integrated check posts. Also, more roads links need to be developed between the two countries. Our 1,600-km land border with Myanmar needs to be opened up to facilitate easier access to the tiger economies of Southeast Asia.