The Northeast’s ethnic and geographical diversity invariably piques curiosity and a plethora of committees, councils, departments and even a ministry have been created by the Centre to assuage the region’s perceived sense of alienation.
It is this ‘difference’ and lack of awareness about the region that evoke insensitive and sometimes brutal reactions towards residents of the Northeast in other parts of India. Every time there has been an assault or killing, like the one of Arunachal student Nido Tania in Delhi early this year, a new committee is born. Hardly had the probe into that incident progressed that a youth from Manipur was beaten to death in the national capital on the night of July 20. It makes one wonder whether these committees really serve any purpose, other than perform facile anthropological acrobatics.
One of the first organizations intended for the region was the North Eastern Council. Then, in 2001, the department for the development of the northeastern region (DoNER) was created. It was given the status of a Union ministry in 2004, to meet development challenges and boost infrastructure deficit in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Assam and Sikkim.
The Union DoNER minister, Gen. (retd) V.K. Singh, was on his maiden visit to the Northeast recently. Speculation had been rife, prior to the allocation of portfolios, over which MP from the Northeast would be the new DoNER minister. Of the two inducted into the Narendra Modi ministry from the region, Kiren Rijiju from Arunachal Pradesh was named Union minister of state for home. Assam’s Sarbananda Sonowal became minister of state for skill development, entrepreneurship, youth affairs and sport.
The first DoNER minister, C.P. Thakur, was appointed on an experimental basis, from January 2003 to May 2004. Under the first United Progressive Alliance government in 2004, Meghalaya’s P.R. Kyndiah was appointed cabinet minister in charge of DoNER and tribal affairs. In 2009, under UPA-II, B.K. Handique from Assam was cabinet minister in charge of DoNER till July 2011. Subsequently, Paban Singh Ghatowar, also from Assam, was made Union minister of state of DoNER till 2014.
Opinions were divided on an ‘outsider’ being given charge of the Northeast’s development. But Singh, on his first visit, vowed to resolve the impasse over the 2000MW Lower Subansiri hydel project, which has been stalled since December 2011 following stiff opposition by anti-dam organizations in Assam. What he really needs to know are the priorities of the states.
For example, Tripura urgently needs simultaneous upgradation of its metre-gauge rail track to broad gauge but the railway ministry and NF Railway have remained silent on the issue. The railway and general budgets earmarked no allocation for this, though Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have won favour. In Arunachal Pradesh, the lone train service was suspended in May, following protests by students on influx. The railway budget announced two new trains for the state, without considering these bottlenecks. This is where DoNER could play facilitator.
The panel probing Tania’s death has mooted a North East Centre to create awareness and alleviate racial discrimination, with facilities for voluntary registration of people from the region. If this isn’t racial profiling, what is?
The proliferation of such centres is actually detrimental to the development of the region and only lines the pockets of a few. The bridge between the mainland and the Northeast can only be built on empathy, sensitivity and a liberated mind to accept and appreciate diversity.