India’s Northeast: A region grows in electoral importance (News Analysis) (Election Special)

The dominant narrative about India’s Northeast looks in for a change. A rare coalescing of domestic politics and foreign policy interests is making this happen. Increasing connectivity and growing trade, tourism and movement of people are helping the region’s makeover, a new growth pole and of increasing importance electorally.

For long, the region, otherwise rich in culture and biodiversity, has been in the public domain for all the wrong reasons: ethnic conflicts, separatist violence, cross-border terrorism, refugee infiltration and low economic development, which is often cited as one of the main reasons for the insurgencies. But all that could be things of the past.

With relative peace, the region is in fact emerging as a new hub of economic growth. During the 11th Plan period, the northeastern states – Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland and Sikkim – recorded an average 9.95 percent growth compared to eight percent for the country as a whole, underscoring success of recent development initiatives, especially on the infrastructure front, and future possibilities.

The country’s strategic interests has led to a more proactive approach to the region, which shares borders with five of India’s neighbours — Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Nepal. The government’s evolved Look East Policy (LEP) is unlocking the huge potential and enlarging the developmental scope for the region. Before LEP, there never really was a concrete strategy to create an economic hub in the Northeast by exploring the trade and commerce betwen India and its Southeast Asian neighbours.

“Just weeks back I was in Guwahati, along with the secretaries of all line ministries, to look at how we can work together to focus our attention on developing the Northeast, because the entire area is opening up,” says Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh. “Whether it is the Look East Policy (LEP) or the BIMSTEC, the idea is to bring connectivity, trade, tourism and linkages to all the states in the Northeast.”

The overwhelmingly agrarian economies of the Northeast are dependent on exports of raw commodities and dominated by small and medium enterprises. A full play of the LEP is going to facilitate the process by which these economies will gain scale and access a larger market. The building of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, the Kaladan multimodal Transit Transport Project and an optic fibre network would help develop connectivity, trade and commerce and tourism between the region and neighbouring Southeast Asia.

Progress could have been faster, say officials. However, roads are being built, the railway network is coming up. “It is happening, but slowly,” says one.

Significantly, the developments coicide with political reforms in Myanmar. The government has also invited Japan, which has invested heavily in Myanmar, to fund infrastructure projects in the region. “There are changes taking place across the border, it is in our interest to make sure that the Northeast does not fall behind,” says Singh.

States like Assam and Manipur have modern medical facilities that could aid medical needs of people coming from neigbouring countries. Reports say people from Myanmar have been coming in for healthcare and education.

“Northeast India holds great potential for Southeast Asian tourists,” says Charit Tingsabadh, professor at Thailand’s Chulalongkom University. “Tourism can be a game changer.”

Ranjit Barthakur, chairman, FICCI Northeast Advisory Council, says the focus should be on linkages. The region lacks an institutional mechanism and he suggests formation of nodal Northeast frontier agency.

Interestingly, the upcoming general elections and compulsion of coalition politics in the country is giving a fillip to the process. The scramble to win as many seats in view of a probable fractured mandate has forced parties to focus on the region.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is seeing the region as a business hub. For the first time, the party is preparing separate vision documents for each of the northeastern states. For example, the document on Manipur stresses on building of arterial roads in the state. The one on Meghalaya focuses on areas like skill development.

“It was the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government that gave the region the DONER (Development of North Eastern Region) ministry,” reminds Ravi Shankar Prasad, deputy leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

Of the 25 seats in the region (14 in Assam, two each in Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and one each in Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim), the Congress secured 13 in the 2009 polls, while the BJP got four seats.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) won Tripura’s two seats, while one seat each was bagged by regional parties Asom Gana Parishad and All India United Democratic Front and the Bodo People’s Front in Assam. The Naga People’s Front and the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) secured the lone parliamentary seats from Nagaland and Sikkim respectively.

The Congress party, especially Vice President Rahul Gandhi, has been consulting various stakeholders to improve the economic and business climate in the region, especially in the tourism, horticulture and hydro-power sectors. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been representing Assam, has asked the Planning Commission to monitor the projects in the region.

Earlier, lack of political will was said to be one of the main reasons for the underdevelopment of the region. What has changed then? “It’s quite simple. Spread of education, media and migration are forcing parties to commit to development; it’s pressure from below,” says an official.

By 2021, the region will have close to 17 million job seekers but only 2.6 million jobs, half of which will be in Assam alone, according to a 2013 report by the Indian Chamber of Commerce and consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers.

(Saroj Mohanty can be contacted at saroj.m@ians.in)

– Indo-Asian News Service

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IANS