Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9  No. 2


Looking East Through India's North East


Patricia Mukhim*



India’s North East, homeland to the Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman natives,  has suddenly come of age. In recent times several Union Ministers are flying in and out of the region. We have a surfeit of schemes and blueprints for development, so much so,  there is a real danger of drowning in them unless the ‘stakeholders’ learn to navigate purposefully. Since interested parties include the neighbouring countries of Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia et al, whose interests in the region have been perked up, it is important to ensure that hard economic sense transforms the tenuous political positions of different ethnic groups looking for a political space to articulate their economic imperatives. 

      On June 23, this year Union Minister for DONER, Mani Shanker Aiyar accompanied by his colleague, Union Minister of State for Commerce, Jairam Ramesh hosted the Thai Minister for Commerce, Krirk Krai Jirapaet in three state capitals of  Agartala, Guwahati and Shillong. This is a maiden visit by a serving minister of a foreign country to this region. Jirapaet was accompanied by officials and an eclectic group of Thai business lobby. They came, they saw and they promised to return, to play golf in Shillong, maybe sign a joint venture memo to upscale the rubber trade, in Agartala, and then put the seal on an MOU for world class road and bridge construction at Guwahati. These are just some of the delicacies on the menu. ‘If the North East Governments are serious and the Union Government grants us the right concessions, we are ready to tango and together we can go places’, said Jirapaet at a press conference.

       Assam’s Industries minister, revealed the business plans of his state in a power point presentation. His presentation focused on possible areas of co-operation between the two countries. He earmarked power  production, tourism infrastructure, the silk industry, food processing and making the Brahmaputra an all weather navigable waterway as being important enough to require the invaluable expertise of the Thais.

     Other states left much of the work of briefing the visitors to their bureaucrats as if Government were to launch into full scale business. We all know what happens when Governments decide to do business? There are enough examples of failed projects, court cases, loss making public sector undertakings? At this juncture it is the public private partnership (PPP) which needs to be put in place as we look at trade co-operation with South East Asia. At Guwahati, entrepreneurs from both countries hobnobbed and showed keen interest in learning about each other. This makes sense because future business tie-ups will have to fit the PPP paradigm where governments will only play a facilitating role.

     For the Thai people, looking West for investments means good road connectivity through Myanmar to North East India. On more than one occasion Jirapaet stressed on this vital aspect. Responding to these concerns, his counterpart, Jairam Ramesh explained that India has signed a build, transfer, use (BTU) agreement with Myanmar to make the Kaladan river a viable waterway linking it with Mizoram. India has also made a formal offer to Myanmar to rebuild the old Akyab port, now called Sitwe. Ramesh further stated that the free trade agreements (FTA) currently under consideration, could act as the trigger for intensifying Indo-Thai relations.  North East India, according to Ramesh is a natural zone for organic cultivation of spices and other horticultural products. The region, he said needed to leverage on its strengths. Currently, rubber from Tripura has the potential to become the major element for transforming the economy of that state. A novel initiative taken by the Ministry of Commerce is to replace barbed wire fences with rubber plants along the 856 Km boundary between Bangladesh and Tripura. This social fencing aims at providing livelihood security to people along the border.

      Minister DoNER, Mani Shanker Aiyar termed Tripura as the Qatar of India, floating as it does on natural gas. Evacuating the gas, however, is a problem since the transit route is through Bangladesh. To right the decades of neglect, Aiyar announced that Rs 50,000 crores has been earmarked for infrastructure development. Roads and rail links and waterways would form the core of that infrastructure. This astounding allocation however requires absorption capacity which the states lack. Thailand built its roads with foreign collaboration and Thais have imbibed that expertise. This experience is what North East should tap. Aiyar offered to make his ministry and the North Eastern Council (NEC) as the single window to promote trade and investments.

    In a preliminary tie-up, North East-Thai collaboration could bring synergy in tourism, food processing, the hotel industry and bamboo technology all of which are Thailand’s forte. Jirapaet said Thailand gets 11 million tourists a year. All of North East India gets only about 3 million annually. With a dynamic tourism and Thai collaboration, a good number of tourists visiting Thailand could be enticed to visit North East India.

      Aiyar, the only DoNER minister who has given a respectable profile to this ministry is a man in a hurry to make things happen. This human dynamo is all set to do the long distance sprint. But whether the state governments of the North East have his adrenaline to be co-runners in this marathon relay race is the moot point. Yet unless North East India pulls up its socks it could well miss the bus.  

     Meanwhile the Ministry of External Affairs new initiative to set up public diplomacy (PD) division in North East India is another attempt to recalibrate a proper balance between national security and the soft power of diplomacy. Soft power according to Joseph Nye is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from the ‘hard power’ of coercion and military action. In a tumultuous North East both hard and soft power are essential elements of statecraft but persuasion is certainly a less expensive and less abrasive option.  

     India’s economic and geo-political imperative to align with the All South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has forced it to look east. This shift happened as far back as 1992 with economic liberalization. In trying to look eastwards, India is forced to take cognizance of the fact that its North Eastern periphery must become the strategic connection, the bridge, as it were, that connects it to South East Asia. Suddenly, what is now hyped as the Look East Policy (LEP) is becoming important to the people of this region. As active stakeholders they want to know what’s in it for them. And rightly so. This region does not want to be an over-bridge between South East Asia and the rest of India. Overbridges tend to become neglected and easily slip into decadence. People from this region are well aware of their own need to engage with elements of the Look East Policy which directly and indirectly impinge on the region. They want to have a controlling interest and bargaining power in negotiating the best prices for some of their niche products and minerals. It is with this aim that people of the North East are asking for a tangible Look East Policy. But for whatever compulsions, Government of India has chosen to let the LEP be only an approach and not something crafted indelibly.

      In an article titled, Look East Policy, Abhaya Kashyap ( South Asia Politics, 2006) argues that the ASEAN region has an abundance of natural resources, manufacturing abilities and technological skills that can provide a natural base for the growth of synergies in trade and investment between ASEAN and India. Several summits have been held from time to time to promote these synergies. India shares extensive land and maritime boundaries with Myanmar. Yet this country’s military junta and its stiff-necked resistance to democracy could pose the biggest road block to what is an emerging geo-political alignment.

   Despite the roadblocks however, India has signed a number of agreements with Myanmar.  India’s technological expertise is being utilized by Myanmar in its oil and gas exploration. Proposals are on for a rail link between India and Myanmar besides and ongoing project for constructing a tri-lateral highway connecting Moreh in the India-Myanmar border to Mae-Sot in Thailand and Bagan in Myanmar. This highway would provide the crucial trade links in the future.

      As a growing economic power, India’s links not just with the countries in the various diplomatic groupings but also with those outside the fold is important. China exerts tremendous control over the region. It’s rapid economic growth and political clout creates a climate of insecurity among the ASEAN as well as other smaller unconnected entities who tend to view this expansionist strategy as detrimental to the peaceful development of the region. India’s belated entry into this alignment, therefore, can be seen as a check and balance within the region. 

    These developments in South East Asia are of interest to India’s North East because of the geographical proximity of the area with those countries. Myanmar’s thick jungles have been home and hearth to insurgent groups of Nagaland, Manipur and Assam. For that reason alone co-operation with Myanmar is vital. A conflict torn region can be a handicap to trade and commerce. It can hamper investments. But perhaps one of the reasons for conflict is the stark neglect that this region has suffered for decades. By the time development funds were pumped in things had gone out of control. Besides, those funds became sops to contain insurgency rather than real attempts to connect the region through vital infrastructure. Even today many of the North Eastern states are disconnected or badly connected. During the monsoons when flights within the region are frequently cancelled, road transport becomes the only option. But the condition of the roads as Mr Pranab Mukherjee, has himself experienced, are appalling. Think of the back-breaking road journeys to Imphal, Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Aizawl and beyond and you begin to have nightmares. Landslides make driving that much more precarious. How such a geographically fractured region can build trade linkages is a dilemma that the Centre has not bothered to engage with.

     Despite the many heartburns, some initiatives from the Ministry of Commerce which has identified land customs stations in the region for border trade, will hopefully propel some meaningful trade. What is extremely important however is for the Governments of the North Eastern States to converge and have a common road map for economic development. Although, DoNER and the North Eastern Council (NEC) are meant to provide a focused sense of direction, very often they tend to become mere implementing agencies instead of lobbyists for the region which is what is needed.

     In fact, the amount of money claimed to be spent on India’s North East sound highly exaggerated. Every ministry of the Government of India that spends money in the region must necessarily ensure that those projects are physically monitored and the money spent is commensurate to the work produced. Corruption is not a one-way traffic. Very often the journey of corruption begins in New Delhi where ready-made schemes are available a dime a dozen. If you can pay a bribe you get the scheme. But whether the scheme is implementable on the ground is a different matter. When the money is spent a utilization certificate is produced for a project that does not even exist. Everyone knows this yet no one is keen to streamline matters.

     The Look East Policy will also bring with it a host of demands and foreign investors who will also include fly by night operators wanting to make hay while the going is good. Hence the imperative for intellectuals, civil society and developmental strategists within the region to engage their governments and demand transparency at all levels.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

              Astha Bharati