| All that is special
The Indian Northeast region, comprising about 5 per cent of the land area and 8 per cent of the population of the country, is one of the most complex in Asia, with about 200 ethnic groups, languages and dialects. These societies have lived in isolation not only from the rest of the country but also from each other, and both legal and illegal migrations have created new fault-lines in traditional societies. The whole area, where parochialism transcends nationalism or even regionalism, is in painful transition, trying to learn tolerance of other ethnic groups and adjust to the concept of planned development.
There is a tendency to assert that the Northeast is not ‘integrated’ with the rest of India because of ethnicity and insurgency, but this is only partly true; Arunachal Pradesh, which has the biggest number of tribes, is peaceful, while Manipur, which is prey to secessionist groups, is otherwise well integrated in terms of arts, culture and sports. Nagaland is the only state where militants are not reconciled to their tribal space being part of the Indian Union, though even there many people see benefits when compared to neighbours like Myanmar and Bangladesh.
There is another aspect to human integration: 90 journalists from Assam alone work in Delhi, 10 per cent of the information technology sector people in Bangalore are from the Northeast, hospitality sectors all over India look for and employ young people from the Northeast because they speak good English. Five thousand young persons from the region each year go to other states to find employment.
The Northeast comprises eight states with only 1 per cent bordering India — the rest of the borders are with Myanmar, China, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. India’s trade with the countries bordering the Northeast has gone up five times, but no impact is seen in that region because this commerce is through the seaports. The five-nation Bimstec was supposed to help the Northeast, but there is a lack of connectivity that precludes the opportunities leading to results.
Our import substitution economy after 1947 deprived the North-east of its natural markets, as did the 1971 Bangladesh war. There are massive imports into the region, and Chinese consumer goods are to be seen in every marketplace. The exchange rate is unreasonably low for Chinese imports and these goods have obviously not come through established channels. Illegal trade and smuggling exist because there is no trade facilitation.
There are three points for border trade with China at places where there is no dispute regarding the boundary; Lipulekh in Uttaranchal opened in 1993 and Shipkila in Himachal Pradesh in 1994. I led the Indian delegation to Beijing in 1994 that proposed the opening of Nathu-la to the Chinese. It then took nine years for the memorandum to be signed, and a further three for the border point to be opened for trade.
For 58 years after the Younghusband expedition of 1904, Nathu-la had been the main artery between India and China and made possible 80 per cent of the trade between the two countries. The expectation was that by 2010 trade at Nathu-la would represent 10 per cent of the total Indo-Chinese trade, namely $1 billion. Why 2010' Because the Border Roads Organization said it would take as long as that for the one-track road to be made into two lanes. Considering that India and China are among the two fastest growing world economies, and with Tibet itself growing at 12 per cent, Nathu-la should improve prospects for the whole Northeast, which has been left behind at about half of India’s growth rate.
However, the optimistic prospects envisaged for Nathu-la trade and its beneficial effects have not materialized, and do not look as if they ever will. If the Northeast opens up, would it be primarily for our exports or only for imports of cheaper Chinese goods' This question seems to obsess the decision-makers in New Delhi, who always want to play safe.
Progress in the Northeast depends on the creation of assets in power, infrastructure and opportunities. India may be looking East but evidently not to our own Northeast. The shocking fact is that 97 per cent of the natural resources in the Northeast, such as hydroelectricity, biodiversity and minerals, is not exploited. There is practically no private sector involvement. The entrepreneur does not need tax breaks and incentives from the state. What he looks for first are raw material sources, the potential market and logistics.
Tourism could transform the Northeast. Ethnologically and linguistically, the Northeast has historic links with south-west China and the Mon-Khmer peoples in Myanmar and Thailand. The structures for tourism are poor, but infrastructure is equally poor in south-west China, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, which are all also landlocked. Yet those countries and regions attract manifold numbers of tourists; Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and Myanmar surpass by far the tourist numbers to the Northeast. There has been no use made of specialized promotion, such as adventure, veterans of World War II, wildlife, spiritual or other nostalgia (for tea planters and missionaries) or eco-tourism. Air connectivity to the neighbouring countries does not exist, and in the permit raj of inner line, restricted area, and protected area, permits are a serious obstacle.
The North Eastern Council was set up as long ago as 1971 and has been revamped many times since. Health and education are identified as priorities, along with employment, good governance and food security. The public’s interest in participating in development is high. But while multiple recommendations are drawn up, little or nothing is seen on the ground.
The Centre’s response has characteristically been, as in Kashmir, to throw money at the problem with no consideration of outcomes or accountability. In addition to the allocations in the state plans, there are funds from the NEC, and Central ministries since 1998 have allocated a non-lapsable 10 per cent of their budgets for the Northeast. There is reimbursement of expenditure incurred by northeastern states on security-related issues, funds for the modernization of the police, border areas development grants and other sources of funding too numerous to mention. Yet the minimum identified needs have not been met despite the massive funds poured into the region. With this cornucopia of funds, there has been great seepage and massive corruption. Effective measures to prevent this have neither been devised nor executed. Pumping in funds leads to distortions in the economy unless there are investments in real assets. The shift from agriculture to industry and services is going at a snail’s pace even compared to the rest of India.
There are legitimate fears of loss of identity — and the demand by various ethnic groups for increasingly more autonomy continues and has to be addressed. The need to protect the socio-cultural and religious practices of the various ethnic groups and to give them an effective say in running their own institutions has often been underlined. But there is no adequate devolution to the minority tribes in the autonomous areas and funds are not released directly to the autonomous councils.
The various ethnic fractures prevent cooperation in anti-militancy drives. The Union government has to deal with combating the 30-odd active militant groups both because of the states’ reluctance to get involved owing to the alleged lack of financial and human resources, and the Centre’s suspicion of the state governments’ ability to keep intelligence reports confidential. Even to resist illegal migration, HIV-AIDS and drug trafficking, there is little cooperation between the states. In other words, there is a lack of trust and faith all round.
This is the reason that so many aspects of governance in the region have been left to the supervision of the army, and the prolonged deployment of the military, which is unfamiliar with the local terrain, language, culture and social ethos, has led to serious recriminations and alienates the local people. After 50 years of existence in the Northeast, the armed forces act is viewed as tyrannical and it inspires hatred.
The Union government might want to look East but most of its bureaucrats in the region look West. Admittedly, life is difficult, and education facilities are limited. There are restrictions on the acquisition of property by ‘outsiders’. The result is that there is no long-term commitment on the part of the civil service. An administrative and police service for the region composed exclusively of officers from the Northeast is long overdue.