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Leaders of ASEAN at India Breakfast Summit in Singapore
Leaders of ASEAN at India Breakfast Summit in Singapore|Twitter
OPINION

India’s Northeast needs to take that giant leap

‘Act East Policy’ lacks ground mobilisation as political and business leaders from region are not coming together to chalk out a pragmatic road map to move ahead

Patricia Mukhim

Patricia Mukhim

India is a federal republic that gives its states the freedom to craft out their own development paradigms. India’s Northeast was once a consolidated whole clubbed as Assam, with only Tripura and Manipur as royalties that acceded to India. The Khasi and Jaintia Hills were ruled by chieftains who later also signed the Instrument of Accession to India in 1948, albeit with a Standstill Agreement that ceded only some governance rights to India while retaining others to themselves. It’s a different story that the Standstill Agreement was never honoured in letter and spirit.

Nagaland had always contested its alignment with India and continues to live in that limbo. Mizoram had its bout of insurgency in 1966 following the famine (mautam) brought about by the flowering of the bamboo plant which in turn gave rise to a glut of rodents that ate up the rice grains and anything edible.

The response of the Assam government and the Central government then was so pathetic and lacked the urgency that the people of Mizoram expected. They were forced to protest and take up arms and to fight for sovereignty. This fight only ended with the Mizoram Peace Accord of 1986 signed between Laldenga, the insurgent leader, then chief minister Lalthanhawla and Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India.

The Naga insurgency started in 1952 when the Nagas boycotted the first general elections in independent India. The Naga fight for sovereignty has gone through many twists and turns and is now at a point when the NSCN (IM) the group that is leading the movement signed a Framework Agreement with the government of India in August 2015. The Agreement will observe its fourth anniversary on August 3 this year.

While the killings in Nagaland have largely subsided, extortion, which is given the euphemism of “taxation” by the NSCN (IM) and its other offshoots in Nagaland, continues unabated and is often a major obstacle for start-ups that have not become strong enough to meet these demands. Those taxed the highest are the non-tribal traders who have, however, perfected the modus operandi for getting back the taxed amount from the consumer.

Everything from the safety pin to toilet paper to exercise books is taxed. In fact, anything that is brought in from “India” is rudely taxed.

The Naga insurgency is the model that set the trend for other armed groups to emerge. The Nagas knew the arms trade route and also provided training to later entrants into the trajectory of militancy such as the ULFA, NDFB, BLT, the Dimasa and Karbi outfits and later the Khasi and Garo armed groups. It is no surprise that the Northeastern states were christened the ‘conflict zones.’

The Naga insurgency is the model that set the trend for other armed groups to emerge. The Nagas knew the arms trade route and also provided training to later entrants into the trajectory of militancy such as the ULFA, NDFB, BLT, the Dimasa and Karbi outfits and later the Khasi and Garo armed groups. It is no surprise that the Northeastern states were christened the ‘conflict zones.’

Development lagged because much time and money was spent in containing insurgency and the argument went that unless bloodshed and killing was arrested development cannot happen. It was never seen the other way round – that development would wean many of the educated young men from militancy. However, it would be wrong to say that militancy is all but over.

The other day in my interface with a number of young Naga leaders, I was told that the recruitment process was still active and that the NSCN (IM) for instance funded the studies of several young men with a bond that they would serve the outfit on completion of their studies. The quest for an independent Naga homeland that includes parts of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh is therefore a living chapter and the books have not been closed yet.

Sometimes you meet aspiring young Naga women leaders like Ashe Kiba Sumi who is disabled but has not allowed that disability to hinder her aspiration to help others like her. All the young Naga men and women of her age and education know that there is corruption at every level of governance. Appointments to Government jobs are never fair and always involve payment of money to the appointing authorities. When young people try and get information through the Right to Information (RTI) route they are asked why they want information and are discouraged from getting information.

In the past, large chunks of development funds were diverted to militant outfits in Manipur and Nagaland. This was open knowledge and roads and bridges remained decrepit on the pretext that there were no funds to complete them. This was even while elected representatives, especially those in government, enriched themselves no end.

The many mansions in and beyond Dimapur tell the story of corruption in high places and the complete absence of whistle-blowers. Sometimes you meet aspiring young Naga women leaders like Ashe Kiba Sumi who is disabled but has not allowed that disability to hinder her aspiration to help others like her. All the young Naga men and women of her age and education know that there is corruption at every level of governance.

Appointments to government jobs are never fair and always involve payment of money to the appointing authorities. When young people try and get information through the Right to Information (RTI) route they are asked why they want information and are discouraged from getting information. Since these are small societies where everyone is either related to someone or the other in government or politics taking action after the RTI often becomes difficult. This in fact is the bane of all tribal societies and the story is the same in the other states as well. You have to be close to a politician or a bureaucrat to climb the ladder to social security.

It is in this scenario that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in 2015 when he visited Northeast India that the much touted 'Look East Policy' articulated by the Congress Government under PV Narasimha Rao in 1992 would now leapfrog into a new avatar called the ‘Act East Policy’. The ‘Look East Policy’ would also mean that countries beyond India’s Northeast should start looking west towards India as their trading partner.

So while we in India realise that we cannot look westwards to build our trading economy and that the countries to the East are far more economically vibrant after they had overcome the 2008 financial crisis. The point is that much of the trade between India and South East Asia and the Asia Pacific countries happen through the ports of Chennai and Vishakhapatnam and there is very sketchy trade connection between South East Asian countries and the states of India’s North East. Yet the scope for that trade is tremendous apart from the fact that the people share common racial traits and that makes it easier to culturally mingle with one another.

India has some of the best technical and management institutes of which two are located in the North East - the IIT at Guwahati and the IIM at Shillong. These Institutes could benefit hugely if they admit foreign students. IIM Shillong is already well networked with some Chinese institutions and there is a regular exchange program. The IIM Shillong could explore possibilities with the other SE Asian counties as well.

The problem is that there is no department within the Ministry of DoNER that could fast-track the Act East Policy (AEP) and catalyse ideas into action. All that we have heard are discussions and more discussions, seminars and workshops where every aspect of the AEP has been thrashed out. This policy seems to suffer from some kind of paralysis because the political and business leaders of the Northeastern states have not come together to chalk out a pragmatic road map after which they could sit with their counterparts in the SE Asian countries.

This requires not one or two sittings but a series of them to firm up decisions taken and launch that first trade item or items and establish that first cultural exchange program that will take a life of its own. This region has several well-established educational institutions that could offer courses that are not available in Myanmar or Laos or Cambodia. India has some of the best technical and management institutes of which two are located in the Northeast -- the IIT at Guwahati and the IIM at Shillong. These Institutes could benefit hugely if they admit foreign students. IIM Shillong is already well networked with some Chinese institutions and there is a regular exchange program. The IIM Shillong could explore possibilities with the other SE Asian counties as well.

Interactive session by chief ministers of Northeastern states on ‘Act East Policy’
Interactive session by chief ministers of Northeastern states on ‘Act East Policy’
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What the AEP lacks is ground mobilisation. Many young entrepreneurs produce stuff that we are not aware about and trade those in small volumes, unbeknownst to us. There are farmers that grow those raw materials and entrepreneurs who source the products from them and process them and put them up on the online trading portal. This involves a value chain of services and human resource that is gainfully used in completing that value chain. Hence the launch on July 8, 2019, of the MeghaMart, an online trading platform for entrepreneurs, by the chief minister of Meghalaya, Conrad K Sangma gives hope that the AEP can take one leap forward into the activisation of the Act East Policy. “This online trading platform would include entrepreneurs and traders from the other North Eastern states as well,” Sangma added.

Meghalaya chief minister Conrad K Sangma launching ‘MeghaMart’
Meghalaya chief minister Conrad K Sangma launching ‘MeghaMart’
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However, what is also needed to activate the AEP is better connectivity between the countries of South East Asia and the Northeastern states. At present, Guwahati is the only international airport. The small state of Kerala has four international airports, Kannur, Kozhikode, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. Kerala must be doing many things right to be able to rise to this height. It is here that the government of India must be bold enough to discard those security-centric glasses with which it views India’s Northeast. Granted that 96% of our borders are with foreign countries and some of our neighbours are not exactly friendly but the very fact that we have so many international borders also means we have more trading points.

We have Moreh, Dawki, Nathu La and Petrapole, among others, which suffer from infrastructural problems as well as inadequate warehousing and cold chain facilities. The Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in its recommendations has listed out measures to truly reap the benefits of trade through the Northeastern region. This includes a mix of infrastructure investments and trade facilitation measures as under:

1) Land Customs Stations should be upgraded to state-of-the-art integrated check-posts (ICPs) aided with amenities like weigh-bridge, warehousing, parking facilities etc.

2) The border check points should get high quality IT infrastructure, quality testing labs and quarantine facilities for agricultural trade, banking and foreign exchange facilitation centres.

3) More Border Haats should be opened to encourage and facilitate seasonal trade between the North East India and its neighboring countries. It is imperative to develop a robust supply chain and logistics infrastructure on a hub-and-spoke model to ensure smooth transportation.

4) Private investment should be encouraged in potential areas of manufacturing and agrihorticulture commodities.

5) List of permitted items for both border trade and haats should be further expanded and revised at regular interval.

6) Non-functional LCS should be made functional along with developing new LCS especially in the regions like Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. India also needs to consider opening up new trading route to expand the scope of trade in this area.

Each state needs to do its best to get on the AEP bandwagon for therein lies our economic strength.

(Patricia Mukhim is a social activist, writer, journalist and the editor of The Shillong Times. Recipient of various honours of national and international repute, she was also bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2000 by the government of India. She tweets at @meipat. Views expressed above are her own)