New Delhi, June 20: Mani Shankar Aiyar’s mission to develop the Northeast into an international business destination has turned him into a frequent flier to the region with foreign dignitaries for company.
Over the next four days, the Union minister for development of the Northeast will be hosting Thai commerce minister Krirk-Krai Jirapaet in Agartala, Guwahati and Shillong. Russian ambassador Vladimir Trubnikov and Australian high commissioner John McCarthy could be Aiyar’s next two guests.
Regular visits to the region by Union ministers are also part of Aiyar’s plans, though not many of his colleagues have been co-operating.
Aiyar got external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee to travel to Shillong — en route to Indonesia and Singapore — over the weekend. It was as if he was making a point to those Union ministers who have been turning down his requests to visit the region.
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that Union ministers had been requested to travel to any of the northeastern states at least once a month “to end the feeling of isolation among the people there’’. But with the exception of minister of state for commerce Jairam Ramesh and minister of state for shipping, road transport & highways K.H. Muniappa — both of whom were in Guwahati and Shillong respectively for business summits organised by Aiyar’s ministry — nobody else was interested.
Aiyar’s enthusiasm may not have rubbed off on his colleagues, but encouragement has come from abroad. When he visited Bangkok in March for a conference, the former foreign service officer found the Thais more than willing to break new ground in the Northeast. It seemed they understood the potential of Guwahati being closer to Bangkok than New Delhi.
What appears unfair to Aiyar is that Delhi’s Look East policy should benefit the rest of India more than the Northeast, which should logically have been the first beneficiary. “It is in Northeast India that Southeast Asia begins,’’ the minister said. The ministry for the development of the northeastern region (DoNER) is now acting as a bridge for the external affairs ministry to make transborder connections.
The Thai commerce minister will be in Agartala on Friday, leading a business delegation that will focus on rubber, bamboo, handloom and handicrafts. He will proceed to Guwahati the next day to explore opportunities in the power, inland waterways and roads and highways sectors. Sunday is reserved for sylvan Shillong with tourism and horticulture on the agenda.
Apart from hosting foreign dignitaries, Aiyar’s ministry has been organising sectoral summits across the region. Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh was the venue of a power summit, Shillong hosted one on roads and highways and Sikkim got a conference on tourism and hospitality.
Clearly, Aiyar is doing to DoNER what he did to the petroleum ministry when he was there — give it a profile. Critics say he may have to tone down the ministry’s international perspective, but he could not care less.
Aiyar is eyeing development of the Northeast both through domestic and foreign direct investment. On a recent visit to Kunming, capital of China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, in the capacity of minister for youth affairs, he cajoled the Chinese to take a look at India’s Northeast.
“There is such geographic proximity with Southwest China that I will not rest until Guwahati looks like Kunming and Aizawl looks like Dali,’’ he said.