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Looking South Makes Sense

LOOKING south from the North-east region of India does not in any way imply that we look at the states of South India, one of which is the homeland of Union home minister P Chidambaram. Indeed, going by what was Wikileaked, Chidambaram would just as well have nothing to do with North India, much less a troubled frontier like ours in the North-east, which presumably takes up much of his quality time.

In India, we are prisoners of geography. Chidambaram might find it interesting that a huge chunk of people living in these frontiers feel equally imprisoned by India, and that includes South India. When we introduce ourselves to a foreign audience in international locales we make sure to say we are “indigenous peoples” from the North-eastern province of India and that we happen to be a part of India by an accident of history. There is an innate hesitation to identify ourselves as “Indians” of the mainstream variety. Don’t ask me why. This problem about identity construction — where clan and community come first and the nation last — has plagued us for decades and is unlikely to be subsumed into the larger national identity, even if India becomes a global superpower.

Many see no problem with this. They say you can be a hardcore Naga, Mizo or Khasi and yet be a proud Indian. That’s easier said than believed. Identity is second nature to every human being. It is something we internalize at birth. With the people of the North-east, Indianness as understood by the rest of Indians is still something they struggle with every day.

Being Indian is simply utilitarian. It is important only because I need a passport and an identity card of sorts to get by with my day-to-day requirements as a citizen (?), because without those documents I can neither travel nor get a mobile phone or an electricity connection.

I am not propagating secessionism here. I am only stating a fact. And it is a fact that rankles with the average Indian living in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. Many tell us, “Why don’t you then opt out? Haven’t we spent enough of our rupees pampering you guys who do not even contribute an iota to the national exchequer because you do not pay Income Tax? All the seven states get 90 per cent of funds, if not more from a patron called New Delhi. Where would you be if the funding stopped? Have you ever thought about it? And who would lead the confederation of seven North-eastern states?” Very good and incisive questions indeed! Questions that need to be seriously considered by the people of this region! At the end of the day, we really need to ask ourselves what we really want and who we really are. But these are existential dilemmas. They are the basis of our ambivalence.

Having said all the above, let me come to some of the major economic models that Delhi has proposed for the North-east to ostensibly help it jump-start into an economic trajectory that would enable some amount of internal revenue generation and sustenance. For policy-makers, this was important because while the rest of India grew at eight or nine per cent, the North-east was chugging along with a growth rate of just two per cent.

Naturally there is a huge backlog of unemployment since employment creation was not an agenda of the political class. So the new economic agenda for the North-east came in the form of the Look East Policy. Like every new jargon constructed by Delhi this, too, sounded like an attractive template. I have lost count of the number of seminars we have had on the topic.

Then came the diplomat extraordinaire who donned the political gown and took on the role of the ambassador of the North-east. Mani Shankar Aiyar as minister for development of the North-east tried unsuccessfully to project the region as a viable investment destination. At some point in the last tenure of the UPA, Manmohan Singh, our economist Prime Minister, suddenly had a flash of genius. He said the North-east must have a 20-year vision. Aiyar sought to give this prime ministerial angst flesh and blood, although the project had begun during the tenure of his predecessor, PR Kyndiah, a tribal from the region who turned the DoNER ministry into a personal fiefdom. Vision 2020 tried to encapsulate the finer points of the Look East Policy so that the two converge.

Vision 2020 was launched amidst great fanfare three years ago but the scooter that drives the North-east is only sputtering and refuses to take off.

Great visions of rebuilding the Stillwel Road connecting Assam with Myanmar and beyond became the talking point among the suave lot in academia and politics. But a paranoid Union home ministry shot down the vision. More precisely, the Intelligence Bureau put a spanner in the works, saying that the North-east is not yet ready for this major venture. After all, many of our rebel groups, the IB bigwigs argued, are incubating in the jungles of Myanmar. Were the IB not consulted when the Vision 2020 document was prepared? If Stillwell is out then what are the alternatives?

Now that the inscrutable Chinese are playing cat and mouse in the North and North-eastern borders of India, trade with China is out. It never really worked out anyway.

Trade through Nathu-La was more a strategy for India’s assertion of complete ownership over Sikkim than a trade policy. The Stillwell Road remains a delusion of grandeur. I wonder what the Thai, Myanmarese and Malaysian ambassadors who heard us make presentations about the Stillwell Road six years ago have to say about this non-starter.

The only alternative trade route for the North-east is through Bangladesh. This is what I meant by looking South. Yes, looking South towards Bangladesh is, for the North-east, the only viable trade route. Moving raw materials, perishables and processed goods is faster through Bangladesh than moving them through thousands of kilometers to the rest of India. Fruits and vegetables from Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Assam can be transported faster through Chittagong port.

There are at present 17 Land Customs Stations in the North-east, of which eight alone are in Meghalaya. In 2008-09, the quantum of coal sent from Meghalaya to Bangladesh was 924,000 tonnes, costing approximately Rs 180 crores. And 12.04 million tonnes of limestone worth Rs 12 crores were sent from the different LCSs in Meghalaya. In 2008-09, Meghalaya produced a bumper crop of horticulture products with pineapples (83,333 tonnes) being the highest, followed by bananas (65,638 tonnes), ginger (46,371 tonnes) and citrus (33,006 tonnes). It is ironic that the state does not have enough processing units to convert the raw materials into value-added products. Much of the citrus, banana, arecanut and betel leaves are smuggled across to Bangladesh through the porous borders.

In fact, a study informs us that the informal trade (smuggling) is almost equal to the formal trade. But these are matters that can be sorted out. India needs to consolidate its gains from the current friendly government of Sheikh Hasina. This is imperative for the North-eastern states. But the counter-question is whether Delhi really wants an economically vibrant North-east. Delhi’s paranoia about the direction in which the region progresses is too well known. We will be given only enough rope to be kept under a tight leash. Yet our problem is that production of horticulture products in the region are growing every year. Tamenglong district in Manipur produces a huge quantum of oranges, but evacuating them from this land-locked district is problematic. Arunachal Pradesh produces oranges and exotic kiwi. Meghalaya grows strawberries that need a market. But after years of planning, strategizing and coming up with fantastic plans, schemes and vision documents we are still nowhere near achieving self-sufficiency in the region. The Look East Policy is a cliché that no longer means anything.

It’s time the North-eastern states sat together and did a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats analysis. Let them take a hard look at their own strengths and become more entrepreneurial in their outlook. Entrepreneurship, as Peter Drucker, the management wizard, says, is not just about risk-taking. It is about analyzing the risks and minimizing them. The Delhi-dependency syndrome has weakened an enterprising people and made them lousy dependents of dole. It is time to gird our loins and do some clear thinking and straight talking!

*The article is written by Patricia Mukhim

*The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at patricias17@rediffmail.com

(Courtesy: The Statesman, India)

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