| Looking ahead
The Northeast was last week inadvertently thrust onto the crossroads of international diplomacy. When the Confederation of Indian Industry and the ministry for the development of the northeastern region began planning a full-day investment conference in New York as part of the just concluded India@60 celebrations, it was generally presumed that the event would be at best a talking shop that brought together Indian-Americans with roots in the northeastern states and their leaders back home. What the organizers had not counted on was that in the very week that their conference was taking place in New York, images of a mass revolt in Yangon would dominate television screens across the world, that President George W. Bush would use his address to the United Nations general assembly to announce new sanctions on Myanmar or that the UN security council would become seized of the situation that is just across the border from India’s Northeast.
This columnist had expected to see the investment conference hall full of well-heeled Indian-Americans from the Northeast since the organizers had reported a very good response to the first effort to promote the region in the United States of America. I was, therefore, curious about a fair sprinkling of other Americans in attendance. At least two of these Americans did not carry business cards: it is highly improbable that a genuine businessman would go to an investment conference without calling cards. A greater surprise to me was that at least one of them knew that border trade between India and Myanmar was conducted on the basis of a 1994 bilateral agreement and that this agreement provided for goods traffic into and out of Myanmar through Moreh in Manipur and Champhai in Mizoram.
Businessmen are usually into making money and often do not care to read up fine details or the history of border-trade agreements of the countries they do big business with. Those who are interested in border trade between two far-away countries are more likely to have concerns about those borders than about trade. It was logical to conclude that the interest of these two gentlemen was not in any of the investment schemes that were being discussed at the conference but in larger issues that related to the Northeast. That impression was reinforced when another American revealed his affiliation to a think tank he would not name. He conceded that he was at the conference because his organization had a deep and longstanding interest in Myanmar. But he wanted to keep a low profile since he felt that an investment conclave was not his place although he hoped to learn more about the region by listening to chief ministers and others from the northeastern states.
All of a sudden, it made a lot of sense why Mani Shankar Aiyar, the irrepressible Union minister for the development of the northeastern region, has been campaigning for a branch office of the ministry of external affairs with responsibility for the entire region to be located in one of the states looked after by his ministry.
Bush is determined to leave some legacy of successful democracy promotion and is turning his attention to Myanmar after the dismal failure of his efforts in Iraq. This time, other Western countries are willing to tag along, largely because they hate the generals in Naypyidaw and have a soft spot for Aung San Suu Kyi. But the result of all this is that the strategic importance of the Northeast has suddenly increased from New Delhi’s point of view.
International interest in the region is bound to go up as the US and the European Union look for new ways to bring the military junta in Naypyidaw to heel. And last week, India was under attack in influential segments of the American media for its unwillingness to toe the Western line demanding regime change in Myanmar.
There was a time when the international community — or at least those countries which felt they had a strategic stake in the Northeast — turned exclusively to the Central government and its agencies for answers to their questions. That is now changing as leaders in the Northeast acquire a bigger profile and secure the wherewithal that enables them to control the destinies of their states. In Sikkim, for instance, Chief Minister Pawan Chamling was elected for a third consecutive term in office three years ago: in New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, what interests Northeast-watchers is the role he has played in reopening the historic trade route between Sikkim and Tibet through Nathu la. Chamling said at last week’s investment conference in New York: “In the very near future, this route is likely to be a normal trade route that will function under the mostfavoured-nation arrangement. This means connectivity and market access to the entire eastern Himalayas and the huge and unexploited region in the entire western landmass of China. Our exports could be anything varying from people-centric commercial services to energy and from construction material to traditional incense sticks used in monasteries and temples. This is the shortest and most viable land route to access the Chinese market from anywhere in South Asia.”
Other chief ministers, deputy chief ministers or senior ministers too referred to the region’s geography, surrounded as it is by Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. They underlined their proximity to Thailand as well, stressing the critical role they would have if India’s 15-year-old “Look East” policy initiated by P.V. Narasimha Rao realized its full potential any time sooner than later. But for that, the region needs investment.
Two recent developments relating to the Northeast offer the hope that a more realistic and reasonable approach to the region’s development may be on the anvil. One is a document commissioned by the ministry for the development of the northeastern region called “Peace, Progress and Prosperity in the Northeastern Region: Vision 2020”. The document is still a draft and although it runs into 329 pages, it is significantly different from many voluminous government reports that merely state the obvious. For instance, “Vision 2020” calls for an end to the decades-old practice of offering tax holidays, credit facilities, export-promotion incentives and subsidies among the means to attract capital to the Northeast. “Inflows of private capital are more likely to be enticed by the availability of critical inputs like power and other enabling infrastructure, sufficient demand within the region for an entrepreneur to reap minimum profits and functioning marketing networks,” the document argues. It also takes the realistic view that a big inflow of private-sector investment into the region is unlikely any time soon: therefore, public investment will be the key to economic growth in the foreseeable future.
Perhaps in recognition of the need for such course correction, leaders from the Northeast came to New York with a realistic agenda. They did not propose big manufacturing projects, but concentrated, instead, on their potential for developing the services sector or tourism. There was, of course, some talk about big electricity schemes in view of the hydel potential of the region, but much emphasis was placed on the English-language skills of people in the Northeast, which made the region potentially attractive to American companies which outsource call-centre jobs to developing economies.
The CII has opened four offices in Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, reflecting renewed interest in the Northeast within private industry. Dipankar Chatterji, chairman of the CII’s Northeast Council, has made 200 field trips within the region since the organization decided to take up the Northeast as an initiative.
The National Democratic Alliance government took unprecedented interest in the Northeast because the Bharatiya Janata Party believed the region was under siege and needed urgent attention. Its decision in 2001 to set up the ministry for the development of the northeastern region was largely the result of such concern. But now, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, considers the Northeast his home and says as much during his visits there. Singh has visited the region more than any other Indian prime minister although he still has a year-and-a-half to go to complete his first five-year term in office. Clearly, a combination of circumstances is favouring the Northeast like never before. The question is whether the region will let this opportunity slip or take advantage of what is coming its way now.