From "Look East" to "Act East": Modi, what about the Northeast?

The Northeast, which has largely been dominated by the Congress, offers the BJP a new political arena where dissatisfaction is omnipresent.

 |  7-minute read |   14-11-2014
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It's no secret, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (and his think-tank) have a way with words. Addressing the leaders gathered for the East Asia Summit at Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar's new capital - which is ghost town on most days, Narendra Modi, brushed aside 23-years of a rather ineffective "Look East Policy" and ushered in the age of the "Act East Policy".

I must admit it, all in all, "Act", just sounds so much better than "look". "Act East", sounds progressive, it gives the impression of a positive, proactive foreign policy measure thought out and executed by a government and a country that means business. However, if Modi and the powers that be mean business, they must first act on the Northeast, otherwise the "Act East Policy" will end up being just another catch phrase that is reworked two decades from now.

Envisioned by the Narasimha Rao government in 1991, the Look East Policy (LEP) looked to improve India's ties with her immediate strategic neighbours to the east, specifically Myanmar, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. The underlying belief was that booming trade with India's eastern neighbourhood would boost the economies of the "seven-sisters" and in turn economic prosperity would create an atmosphere of peace and stability in the conflict stricken region.

Nestled between Bangladesh, China, Bhutan and Myanmar, despite being landlocked, the Northeast is perfectly positioned for trans-border trade with East Asia. Logic would imply that after 20 odd years of the LEP, where the stress was on trade and industry, the region should be a buzzing hub of industry and trade. But it hasn't quite panned out how Narasimha Rao had hoped. While the region has no real industry to talk off and the trade itself is negligible, out of India's total export volume of roughly $260 billion, the Northeast's share is only about $0.01 billion.

So, if the BJP led government is serious about reforming this flawed policy they need to start with the Northeast Region (NER).

First and foremost they need to deal with the multiple, long standing insurgencies in the region. While Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura are home to multiple armed groups and or ethnic violence, Arunachal serves as a safe haven and conduit for many groups. Since Modi is in Burma, lets talk of Moreh in Manipur, the most active Land Customs Station (LAS) - border trading post, between India and Myanmar. Moreh, is a hell hole. It is the hub for smuggling - guns, drugs, teak you name it you can get it there. Its home to several underground groups, of various ethnic dispensations, which then situated themselves along the highway collecting "tax". It's a non descript border town with a single sliver of road connecting it to Manipur, with no specific infrastructure to facilitate trade, even when 95 per cent of the cross border trade with Myanmar is facilitated through Moreh.

It's hard to imagine any businessman wanting to set up shop in a region where there are multiple governments, most of whom are gun toting "underground" governments, but each has a separate tax.

On the flipside, while Modi, addressing dignitaries gathered at Nya Pyi Taw spoke of fighting terror collectively, it is ironic that Myanmar serves as a safe haven for most of the active UG groups in India as well as a source, conduit and final destination of arms and drugs. Unlike the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh that cracked down on Indian UG camps in their territory the government in Myanmar, as of now, has no such plans.

Having said that, many UG groups in the NE are hopeful that the BJP will deliver for them a solution, so lets assume that the government of the day is able to move past these long standing armed conflicts, some demanding sovereignty, they then need to deal with the problem of infrastructure. Sticking to Moreh, if we take the stretch of road from Imphal, Manipur's capital, to Moreh, the gateway to Myanmar, the 120 km seem more like a torturous 5 to 6 hours drives because of the horrible road conditions and the multiple security posts and UG "tax" collection points and let's not forget this road forms a part of the India - Myanmar - Thailand highway project. Roads in the region are so poor that in 2013, Armstrong Pame, a 28-year-old sub divisional magistrate from Tamenglong district in Manipur, organised locals to collect money and then build a 100 km road to connect their village to the highway.

The lack of connectivity isn't restrict to Manipur alone, travel in the region is tiring, time consuming and not efficient. It's bizarre that the British had built and used more airstrips in the Northeast during the World Wars than are active today especially when rail travel is very restricted in the region. So for that last twenty years, each successive government has spoken about LEP and connecting to East Asia, but connecting East Asia to what? There are no roads, barely any railway lines and very few airfields; hence there is no trade and industry.

While LEP and NE Vision document 2020 talk about trade and industry, since 1991 the state has failed to facilitate the development of a cold storage mechanism to harness the massive agriculture potential in the region leave alone a cost effective manufacturing industry to cater to East Asia. Coal and tea, not finished goods make up 95 per cent of the Northeast's exports, hence, there is no value addition or job creation resulting from the trade.

All this is happening when the Centre pumps in huge sums of money each year, but nothing seems to happen. However, each time I visit, more money has been spent on paper, yet nothing changes on ground, except when I go for parties, certain people with links to the government have fancier cars and bigger businesses. The numbers seem to agree with my observations, the seven states of the Northeast have the highest per capita investment by the Centre, averaging Rs 2,574.98 against the national average of Rs 683.94 and though majority share of the state government's budget is allocated for development, the Finance Commission reports that the region has the lowest levels of infrastructure development in the region. Corruption in the region is rampant and largely unchecked, because everyone gains from turning a blind eye.

Reports suggest that through their tax collection the various Naga underground groups collect Rs 600 crore of central funds annually and political parties turn a blind eye as the UG groups help them fight elections. This same pattern is replicated throughout the region, how does Mr Modi plan to tackle this nexus?  

Years of flawed local governance and center's apathy has created a situation where the educated youth have four option, join the government, leave the region (and face discrimination) in search of work, work with the UG or do nothing.

The Northeast, which has largely been dominated by the Congress, offers the BJP a new political arena where dissatisfaction is omnipresent.

If the BJP is in fact serious about the "Act East Policy" as well as benefiting the Northeast, the first step would be to identify what the region presently has to offer to Myanmar. Myanmar desperately wants from India language training, more specifically English as well as IT. While the Indian embassy has started multiple institutions for English and IT, why not bring in the Northeast?

The region is facing a massive problem of educated unemployment, which in terms compounds the problems of rampant drug use and thereby AIDS as well as keeps insurgencies alive. Known for their English language skills, why not create training modules for the unemployed youth of the Northeast, and have them become educators, who in turn train the Burmese in English language skills?

For India to "Act East", we have to rapidly act in the Northeast. The government needs to engage more openly and effectively with the different underground groups to create an environment of peace and stability, which in turns allows industry to grow. Corruption and the monsoon are the two biggest roadblocks preventing infrastructure development in the region and government vigilance can help eradicate one. A specific plan and system needs to be built for the Northeast, taking into account three months of monsoon where little can be done and a reach out program needs to developed to help foster the spirit of entrepreneurship. The potential is there; the government just needs to "act" on it.


Avalok Langer Avalok Langer @avalokl

Conflict Journalist.

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