Peace and stability are considered as some of the prime factors of development, primarily in India’s North Eastern Region (NER) which is politically volatile and conflict ridden. In the face of insurgency, ethnic-conflicts and illegal migration, the region is considered to be one of the most troubled hot spots in South Asia. Traditionally, various geo- political and socio-economic impediments have kept the NER isolated from the rest of India. It is unlikely that the Northeast will undergo a drastic transformation in the near future unless it is opened up to the world. Ever rising unemployment is considered to be a major factor behind insurgency. High incidence of poverty has enabled the insurgent groups to recruit new members through illegally raised money. Indeed, the major source of financing insurgency in NER has been extortion which is termed “taxation” by insurgent groups.
The NER demonstrates a unique human experiment of unity in diversity – a conglomeration of different ethnic groups having different political affiliations and aspirations. However, people in the rest of India often believe NER as a single block, thereby ignoring the immense diversity in culture, interests and aspirations. This kind of ill-informed perception has also hindered the chances of resolving the issues of under-development in the region. Improved transport infrastructure and connectivity, enhanced trade and free movement of goods & people would help transform the region. However, given the past history of violent protests against massive influx of illegal immigrants on the one hand, and the internal contradictions within the region on the other, the road to development and peace may not be a smooth sail.
Manipur, which has been hard hit by the activities of militant outfits, has been the most disturbed state in the NER. While the spiralling unemployment among the educated youths and economic backwardness in the state is considered as the cause of insurgency in Manipur, it is argued that the rise of turmoil in the state has a fragment of historical issue, coupled with a sense of alienation prevailing in the minds of youths. The situation had precipitated due to mounting tension between various ethnic and tribal groups. The trend of violence Manipur experienced in the recent past also demonstrated the level of instability and threat to security in every aspect. Frequent insurgency related bandhs and economic blockades, unprovoked killings, extortion, bomb blasts and protestations have adversely impacted development.
Militancy in the NER has affected the region in a devastating way and stunted its economic growth. In addition, competing demands and conflicting interests of different ethnic groups over the limited economic resources caused further rise of insurgency related activities. Huge development funds in the form of grant-in-aid allotted to the North Eastern states by the central government have not brought the desired results. This has vindicated the viewpoint that shortage of funds has not been the root cause of the prevailing conflict situation in the region. According to some reports, development funds are being diverted and accumulated in the hands of middlemen or vested interests. In essence, the existing political dispensation and the administrative mechanism in the region couldn’t deliver the required process of implementation. The consequence is that the NER in general still felt deprived of socio-economic security due to economic backwardness and a high deficit in the area of infrastructure development, even after seven decades of independence. On the one hand, a fragile security environment has been hampering development, and on the other hand, lack of development or lopsided development coupled with perceived sense of alienation among the indigenous people has complicated the conflict situation. Thus, the insurgency issues, which have impacted the security environment in the NER, were found to be involved in the vicious process of cause and effect. The linkages between insurgency and unemployment have also added more fuel to the problem faced by the region. The educational institutions in the region produce huge unemployed degree holders, as they provide prototype education, preparing youths only for unproductive and unskilled jobs. Unemployment is rampant in India’s North East, and the poor states in the region could not meet the ever rising demands. Such a situation has further heightened the frustration and anxiety amongst the larger chunk of young population in the region.
LACK OF INFRASTRUCTURE, ECONOMIC DISPARITY AND EVER INCREASING NUMBER OF EDUCATED UNEMPLOYED YOUTHS HAS FUELLED SOCIAL UNREST IN THE REGION. IN MOST OF THE NORTH EASTERN STATES EXCEPT ASSAM, PUBLIC SECTOR EMPLOYMENT HAS BEEN THE ONLY MEANS OF EMPLOYMENT AS THERE ARE NO PRIVATE INDUSTRIES OR FIRMS IN THE REGION. IT HAS BECOME A VICIOUS CYCLE, WHEREIN UNDERDEVELOPMENT AND LACK OF INFRASTRUCTURE FUEL INSURGENCY, AND INSURGENCY PREVENTS INVESTMENT FROM PRIVATE SECTORS, AND LACK OF INVESTMENT IN TURN UNDERMINES DEVELOPMENT PROCESS.
There are reports of insurgent outfits in this North Eastern Region having nexus with politicians and other organisations. Hence, insurgency has become more of an endemic and yet complex problem which has completely engulfed the region resulting in the breakdown of the states and their economies. To make things worse, the North East India has been deprived of the economic opportunities like infrastructure, connectivity and entrepreneurship, thereby disrupting development in the region that has been trailing behind the rest of the other states of mainland India. Though the region is endowed with abundant natural and human resources, it is yet to be utilised or harnessed at the optimum level. The North East has the potential to become the hub of regional economic development as it provides the strategic link between the markets of India and South East Asian countries. India’s NER can completely transform itself as the booming growth centre of India and showcase as the most sought after region which was ignored even during the post-independence era, until India embarked on its Look East Policy (LEP) Phase-II in the beginning of the 21st Century.
Physical expansion of road networks in the border region per se may not necessarily limit the activities of insurgents. At the same time, better connectivity would facilitate deployment and movement of troops for border patrols and to contain subversive activities of insurgents. In the long run, this is expected to augment the capability and efficiency of the establishment in securing the highways and other strategic areas which have significant growth potential. The Asian Highway Project, the Trilateral Highway and other national projects including the East-West Corridor project, Trans-Asian railways, expansion of railways network etc. are aimed at improving connectivity and development of infrastructure in the region. This would also serve the twin objectives of providing better security and facilitating overall development. Since development activities cannot be undertaken without proper infrastructure installations and this in turn requires investment and security coverage, the need for security coverage remains primarily significant. Better connectivity, which will also enhance movement of information and materials, is expected to improve market accessibility, health care and education etc. It would eventually help win over the locals on development issues and restrain them from joining insurgency movements. Development of infrastructure in the region is considered as the necessary pre-condition for the realisation of the objectives of the LEP, and the Asian Highway Project is one of the most important components of this grand vision. Therefore, violence associated with insurgency and easy money can only delay and deny the peace, progress and prosperity that are the aspirations of every individual. The argument is that connectivity assured by global transportation projects like the Asian Highway, which is multimodal, has the potential to open up the landlocked regions like India’s North East and end isolation in both physical and psychological sense, to provide intra-regional as well as inter-regional integration, and to promote development which is crucial to conflict transformation.
Lack of infrastructure, economic disparity and ever increasing number of educated unemployed youths has fuelled social unrest in the region. In most of the North Eastern states except Assam, public sector employment has been the only means of employment as there are no private industries or firms in the region. It has become a vicious cycle, wherein underdevelopment and lack of infrastructure fuel insurgency, and insurgency prevents investment from private sectors, and lack of investment in turn undermines development process. The Asian Highway project is one of the first major steps in breaking this vicious cycle of poverty-underdevelopment-insurgency-investment. The project aims to connect and integrate the isolated regions of the NER, not only in terms of physical connectivity but also in terms of economic activities, through an integrated network of roads and provide them opportunities to participate in the larger development process.
In the face of globalisation, the Government of India changed its perception of the North East and pursued its Act East Policy (AEP). The new approach, as manifested in the pursuit of physical connectivity to South East Asia, also has the implication of establishing the critical link between development and security. India has moved away from an exclusive focus on economic development to a broader agenda of regional security cooperation. Apparently, the challenges of integrating the region politically convinced the Government of India of the need to follow the path of economic development to restore stability in the North East as evident in the extension of the Border Area Development Programme (BADP) to the North East. In short, development of infrastructure and integration of NER — economic and psychological — with the rest of India as well as the neighbouring countries would be critical to peace and development in the conflict ridden NER. The evolving convergence of services representing various critical sectors like transport, tourism and trade & commerce in the State of Manipur, which occupies a strategic position in NER, will go a long way in transforming the Region.
Dr Shristi Pukhrem is Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation. She focusses on India-ASEAN Relations and Act East Policy of India.