Essay on New Development Approach in India’s North-East

North-East India is the easternmost regions of India. It comprises eight states, the contiguous ‘Seven Sisters’ (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura) and the Himalayan state of Sikkim. The 4500 kilometre long international boundary that this region shares with India’s North-Eastern neighbours, i.e. Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Nepal, transform it into a region of extreme geo-strategic and political significance. Further, the geographical, emotional and cultural integration of North-East India’s tribal groups with mainland India is very slender, especially after 1947, when the region remained linked to the rest of India only through a narrow corridor 22 kilometres wide in West Bengal. Due to partition, the region became landlocked, as East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) controlled its access to the sea.

The total population of North-East India is 46 million, with 68% of people living in Assam alone. The region’s current population has resulted from ancient and continuous migrations from present Bangladesh (most migrants), Tibet, Indo-Gangetic India, the Himalayas and Myanmar. The region has a large tribal population of over 2000 indigenous tribes, comprising 26.9% of the total population of the region, according to the 2011 Census. The three states in the region, i.e. Mizoram (94.5%), Nagaland (89.5%) and Arunachal Pradesh (64.2%) have more than half of their population classified as Scheduled Tribes (STs). The literacy rates in the states of the North-East, except those in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, are higher than the national average of 74%. Guwahati in Assam is the only urban agglomeration (i.e. city) in the region having a population of over 1 million.

The North-Eastern Region (NER) of India has had a chequered history. The states of the region were established during the British rule, when they became relatively isolated from traditional trading partners such as Bhutan and Myanmar. Many of the people in present day Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland converted to Christianity under the influence of British missionaries. After independence and partition, the region became somewhat isolated from the rest of India.

The region has a predominantly humid sub-tropical climate with hot, humid summers, severe monsoons and mild winters. It is covered by the Brahmaputra-Barak river systems and their tributaries. Geographically, apart from the Brahmaputra, Barak and Imphal valleys, as well as some flatlands in between the hills of Meghalaya and Tripura, the remaining two- thirds of the area is hilly terrain interspersed with valleys and plains. The region’s high rainfall creates problems in the ecosystem, high seismic activity and floods. Consequently, its development has suffered in past, as any development required a massive amount of funds, which India did not have for many years after independence. In addition, as the region had a small local market and there were difficulties in transporting goods to the rest of India, the region did not develop as fast as the rest of India.

The isolation and poor development caused a number of insurgent groups to spring up. Some groups favoured separation from India while others sought regional autonomy. Others wanted religious law. Over a period of a number of years, the number of such groups has reduced as development has progressed.

Another problem which remains is due to the unbridled infiltration of people into the region from the porous Bangladesh border in the past. Although the Assam Accord of 1985 stated that the government has all along been most anxious to find a satisfactory resolution to the problem of foreigners in Assam, the accord has not yet been implemented. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) has been stated as the solution to implement this accord, but its final draft falls short of what the accord mandated.

However, the situation has improved with the establishment of the Ministry of Development of North-Eastern Region (MDoNER) in 2001. This ministry is responsible for matters relating to the planning, execution and monitoring of development schemes and projects in the North-East region including those in the sectors of power, irrigation, roads and communications. Its vision is to accelerate the pace of socio-economic development of the region so that it may enjoy growth parity with the rest of the country. After many deliberations and discussions with other ministries and government departments, the ministry released in 2008 a vision document for the year 2020 called ‘NE vision 2020’. This included the following targets to be achieved by this time.

  • Ushering in peace and prosperity for the people
  • Catching up with the rest of the country with regard to development
  • Structural transformation to improve efficiency
  • Poverty eradication in the region
  • Maximising self-governance
  • Harnessing resources for the benefit of the people
  • Building capacity in people and institutions
  • Strengthening infrastructure.
  • Creating a center for trade and commerce

Much work has been done from 2008 onwards to achieve these goals. For instance, the Bogibeel rail-cum-road bridge, the longest such bridge in India, on the Brahmaputra between Dhemaji and Dibrugarh districts of Assam, was inaugurated in December 2018. It is almost 5 kilometres in length and shortens significantly the distance to destinations in Arunachal Pradesh such as Pasighat. It forms part of the strategic plan to solve logistical issues faced by the armed forces stationed in the area, adjacent to the sensitive border with China.

In May 2047, the country’s longest road bridge, the Bhupen Hazarika Bridge having a length of 9.15 kilometres, has been built over the river Lohit, a tributary of River Brahmputra. It links Dhola in Assam to Sadiya in Arunachal Pradesh. Other initiatives include a trans-Arunachal highway on the North bank of the Brahmaputra and other road and rail links over the river and its tributaries such as the Dibang, Lohit, Subansiri and Kameng. Besides these, during the last three years, the MDoNER has initiated North-East Special Infrastructure Development Scheme (NESIDS), North-East Venture Fund (NEVF) and schemes of the North-Eastern Council (NEC) and North-East Road Sector Development Scheme (NERSDS).

These initiatives have been speeded up after 2015, when India’s ‘Act East Policy’ (AEP) was implemented. The objective of AEP is to promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop strategic relationships with countries in the Asia- Pacific region through continuous engagement at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels, thereby providing enhanced connectivity to the states of NER with other countries in our neighbourhood. The AEP is projected as the new economic development strategy for the NER. This assertion is based on the fact that economic integration with South-East Asia in terms of increased trade, investment, tourism and connectivity is through the NER, as it is the gateway to countries in the Asia-Pacific region such as Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and so on. The AEP has already started showing results with improved connectivity of the region and improvement in infrastructure. New railway lines have started functioning, a number of new airports are operational, roads are being upgraded and new roads built.

The flow of development funds for the NER has increased by over 51% during the last three years. A feasibility study has been initiated for the establishment of an industrial corridor in the region stretching from Dawki (Indo-Bangladesh Border) near Shillong via Guwahati to Nagaon and from Golaghat via Dimapur and Imphal to Moreh (Indo-Myanmar Border). The North-East Special Infrastructure Development Scheme (NERSDS) has been started in 2017 with construction of important bridges over rivers in the region. A number of other infrastructure development projects have been taken up or completed.

The ASEAN-India plan of Action for the period 2016-20 has been adopted in August 2015. It has identified concrete initiatives and cooperation to be taken up in the areas of political-security, economic and socio-cultural. India continues with stepped up efforts to forge closer partnership with concerned regional and multilateral organisation such as ASEAN, BIMSTEC and others.

However, there are some limitations and challenges which India faces for implementing the plans envisaged. One is the overpowering economic presence of China over this region of Asia. A large number of countries here are dependent on Chinese aid for their development. Thus, they are afraid of taking any steps which may invite the wrath of China by an open embrace of India’s Indo-Pacific concept. The next problem is regarding India’s poor track record in implementing what it says. For instance, the concept of the trilateral highway with Myanmar and Thailand is still not implemented from the Indian side of the border with Myanmar, whereas Thailand has completed its part of highway.

Overall we can understand that future of the region is very bright as the government is committed to develop it. However, the speed of development must increase so that the region can catch up with the rest of India within the next few years. This requires a peaceful atmosphere in which all pending issues are settled amicably. For instance, the government has stated its sincere intention to implement the Assam Accord made more than 30 years ago. However, the solution suggested by the government has not been accepted by the majority of the people who were residents of the region prior to 1971. Thus it remains a festering issue.