North East India is a collage of culture, demographic diversity and untapped economic potential. It is a treasure of ‘folk knowledge’ and ‘traditional wisdom’ that has sustained civilisation for millennia, without any external linkages. It holds 22 percent of India’s forest cover, 8 percent of its land mass and 4 percent of its population. It is surplus in water, land, forests and resources and is indeed the geo-strategic and economic pivot of India.
Geographic disposition of North East India makes it a land bridge to South East Asia. It gives India access to Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Tibet and Nepal. All seven states give access to a foreign country, which is both an opportunity and also a vulnerability. It is India’s Alaska, but remains asphyxiated in conflict due to secessionist movements and inter-tribal clashes. The conflict in the Northeast is due to a mix of socio economic factors, misperception of threats to cultural sovereignty, traditional land rights and politico-economic aspirations of the tribals.
The potential of this geographical and economic pivot needs to be unlocked. It is currently strangulated in internal security quagmire and regional politics. Professor Pranab Das in his report, “North–East, ‘The Power House of India’: Prospect and Problems” estimated that North Eastern States including Sikkim have the potential of 84,000 MW of hydro power which is about 43 per cent of the total hydro power generation capacity in the country. However only 5 percent ofthis power has been harnessed so far. Lying between two energy surplus states Myanmar and Bangladesh, it has the potential to harness their power too, making it the Manchester of India.
Challenges to Develop North East India
The North East Region (NER) has historical and cultural linkages with the neighbouring countries. Thriving cross border trade existed mainly on barter and on local currency. This was disrupted by partition, with negative impact on the economy of the region, which thereafter became a hub of smuggling of contraband, drugs, weapons and even consumer goods. With the onset of insurgency, the illegal trade routes were taken over by various insurgent groups, which gave birth to the conflict economy, that thrived due to mis-governance and poor connectivity. The thriving illegal trade led to clash of interest among the insurgent groups and tribes as a result of which armed gangs, under the pretext of fighting for tribal sovereignty mushroomed, to control the key areas along the international borders.
Development of North East was hampered largely due to mis-governance and inability of the elected government to deliver governance. Delivery of governance can be ensured when people are connected by physical and digital communication. Both these aspects of connectivity were not looked at and there was hardly any communication for grievance redressal of people by elected governments. Under such circumstances, corruption, nepotism and nexus between state administration and insurgents took root. It suited politicians, bureaucrats and insurgents, because they all flourished and remained unaccountable to the people and the nation. Even today, three state capitals are not even connected by rail and the border areas still remain geographically distanced from their state capitals.
There is a lack of understanding of geographical realities of the North East. The complaint of the people of the NER is that policies are made from Delhi without understanding the geography and demography of the region. That is why India’s Look East policy remained a slogan, without having any impact, economic or otherwise on the people. For the Act East policy to fructify, internal connectivity within the NER is a prerequisite, followed by connectivity with the rest of the country as also with neighbouring countries. Act East must be looked at from Guwahati and not from Delhi, the idea being to integrate the NER with South East Asia and ASEAN.
Insurgency remains a curse in the NER, and this must be resolved using both hard and soft power. Proxies are making an endeavour to give impetus to the insurgency and there is a move to coordinate and reorganise splinter groups under umbrella organisations so that the rank and file do not erode further.With the assistance of Chinese intelligence agencies, Manipur insurgent groups have been brought under one operational umbrella as Coordination Committee (CorCom). Members of CorCom include, Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), PREPAK (Progressive), Revolutionary People’s Front and United National Liberation Front (UNLF). Similarly United National Liberation Front of West South East Asia (UNLFW) have been created by brining together NSCN-Khaplang,ULFA-Independent, Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup (KYKL), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), People’s Liberation Army (PLA), United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB Songbijit faction). This endeavour is to reignite insurgency in the North East, which must be crushed at the earliest.
Threat to internal security is not only from the armed rebellions but also from the colonisation of Brahmaputra Valley and demographic inversion. The NER has approximately 26 major tribes and more than 200 sub tribes apart from Ahoms. The tribes are largely territorial in nature and thus any encroachment on their territory would attract tribal backlash. As a result the illegal migrants have settled in Brahmaputra Valley and occupied large tracts of forest and vacant land. The indigenous people now feel that their traditional rights are being compromised for political gains. These tribes and illegal migrants have not been able to amalgamate in one society and as a result has led to tribal versus settler and inter-tribal clashes.
There are certain fundamental issues that have remained mired in ambiguity. There is often a complaint by the local government, society and people that there is no synergy in the perceived interests of state and centre government. The policies framed by the Centre look into perceived national interest, often compromising local interests. People demand that policy formation should be state and region specific and not Centre specific. A Tangkhul Naga leader from Ukhrul told the author that the conflict is mainly due to local and regional issues and such issues cannot be negotiated from Delhi. Ultimately, the dialogue has to be between people and ethnosocial groups. Negotiating an agreement between the stakeholders without creating a direct dialogue and communication between the tribes is unlikely to succeed. Thus the first step should be to open direct communication between the local tribes and interlocutor should only facilitate to iron out issues of economic development, territorial rights, cultural over-reach and amnesty and rehabilitation to the misguided youths. The accords often fail if the agreement is forced top down, which is why it should be a bottoms up approach.
NER as an Economic Pivot
Former Prime Minister Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee said, “When I look at the North East, I also look at India’s extended neighbourhood in South East Asia… because of its proximity with the South East Asian markets, India’s North East enjoys locational advantage of great importance… vibrant commercial exchange with South east Asia can galvanise growth and development in the North East including through tourism where I see a major synergy”. Foundation for economic and cultural integration of the NER with South East Asia can only be laid on physical and digital connectivity. The pace of connectivity needs impetus and regional and local government has to play larger role in ensuring conducive conditions for maintaining steady pace of development.
India’s total bilateral trade with ASEAN in 2005-06 was USD 21 billion. This increased to USD 65 billion in 2015-Ironically, the NER does not contribute significantly to the above. If India’s Act East policy is to work, it must make the NER a trade corridor for ASEAN and immediate neighbourhood. It would require infrastructure in terms of connectivity, dry ports, trade convention centres for interaction with the industry and suitable and secure economic hub centres. Guwahati, Imphal, Aizawl and Agartala should be developed as dry ports with commercial trading infrastructure. A modest target should be to trade of at least 10 percent of total trade with ASEAN through the North East. Similarly, the trade to Bhutan and Bangladesh should also be from NER instead of from Kolkata.
There are various models of economic integration with the neighbouring countries. It ranges from integration through infrastructure, consumer markets, soft skills and socio economic institutions. Economic integration for bilateral trade is subject to fluctuation and availability of quality products at competitive cost. However, economic integration through infrastructure, soft skills and socio economic institutions has long shelf life. If we study Chinese model, it started with trade relations based on consumer markets at highly competitive cost and is now shifting to infrastructure linkages because that has infinite life such as BRI and C-PEC. India has an advantage of cultural and ethnic similarities with the regional neighbours and historical and cultural ties with some of the ASEAN nations. Thus, more than trade, India should look at integration through infrastructure, soft skills and institutional linkages.
Myanmar and Bangladesh are gas surplus nations. Both nations are hungry for power and energy. India can make up current deficiency of power in the NER by importing gas and surplus power can be exported back to Bangladesh, Myanmar and even to Nepal. It would require setting up some of the gas power generation plants along the borders of these countries to facilitate export of the surplus electricity. Thus, a model of import gas and export electricity or construct and run gas power plants in the respective countries is a viable option. It would generate revenue and make up deficiency of electricity of states such as Nagaland, Manipur and Aizawl.
The NER could also be made an exclusive agriculture, horticulture, flower and herb cultivation zone. No other region has such a vast variety of fruits, organic food, flowers and herbs that can be grown in the North East. India can be a global leader in flower, vegetable and organic food export from the North East. Even the orchid flowers in the North East have more than 500 exotic varieties in the wild and can be mass produced in specially designed farms. Similarly, places like Sikkim can be made organic food exclusive zone. However, it would require supply chain and government support to oversee production of cash crops (vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers). Once the quality of produce stabilises and production and quantum improves, these products could be directly exported from the NER to ASEAN and to other parts of the world.
Jhum cultivation is part of the culture since the land is collective holding of the community. It certainly destroys the green cover, however, it can be made commercially viable and prevent destruction of green cover. Normally a piece of land is used after a gap of approximately 10 years. While the vegetation is cleared and trees are cut and sold as timber, however, there is lack of understanding with regard to cutting of mother trees. Tribal need to be educated and made aware that mother trees should be protected for rejuvenation of the forest cover. In addition there are large numbers of local spices including teak that can grow to a reasonable height and thickness in a decade and can be used for commercial farming. Thus, while doing Jhum, the saplings of teak and endemic species of trees should be distributed for plantation. Once the locals understand the commercial value, it would open another avenue of sapling nurseries on commercial scale. As a result forest cover can be retained and Jhum would provide teak/timber as commercial scale.
Long term relationship is maintained through development of leadership and alumni associations. The South East Asian nations look forward to Indian institutes of higher education in the field of quality schools, IT, management, medical sciences, social sciences, art, culture and language. There is a need to create international institutions for ASEAN and immediate neighbours (Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan). These institutes should be developed and catered for international students with the state of the art facilities at Guwahati, Imphal, Shillong, Agartala, Kohima, Itanagar and Aizawl. The model that could be worked out is 30 percent students from neighbouring countries/ASEAN, 20 percent all India composition and 40 percent students from the NER. Similarly, Manipur and Mizoram should have sports development centres catering for sports person of Nepal, India, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh in the field of football, boxing, archery and hockey. These institutions would act as basic building blocks of permanent ambassadors of India in these countries. India could offer 25 percent vacancies to the sportsperson of foreign countries and balance from rest of India. The school boys association is stronger than any other bond. Thus, even certain international schools providing quality education, sports and academic environment should be created. Schools on the pattern of RIMC and militaryschools should be created for international students in the NER. This will ensure alumni in almost all fields including military.
Making NER power surplus by exploiting hydropower and gas, is an area that India needs to focus. Even the Eastern Nepal rivers are required to be incorporated to build surplus power for the regional countries. China is integrating immediate and extended neighbourhood through BRI. India should just look at integrating immediate neighbourhood through power and soft skill development. It is achievable and doable but requires credible and fixed timelines. Since the projects would be of strategic nature, hence agencies with credible track records should be involved. In Maldives, India lost an opportunity and toe hold on the strategically significant island nation because commercial interests were overriding the strategic interests and India lost both due to myopic and narrow approach of developer. Tourism sector remains unexplored. People need to be skilled to host tourists in traditional way of life of the tribal culture and home stay.
The NER gives India a strategic pivot to interact economically, culturally and socially with ASEAN and immediate neighbouring countries. These nations act as buffer but could also become a cause of internal instability if not handled in an astute manner. India must develop the NER, first internally and then link it with the regional countries. It should become a destination for job seekers in the farming, food processing, herbs, flower cultivation and marketing sector. It has the potential to be a global leader in organic farm sector and government must incentivise organic farming before the soil is destroyed forever by unscientific method of use of fertiliser. The NER is our heritage which must be protected and its potential fully realised.
Brig Narender Kumar, an Infantry Officer, commanded a Rashtriya Rifles Battalion in J&K and Assam Rifle Sector in Manipur. He is currently Distinguished Fellow at United Services Institution of India, New Delhi.