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


India’s Eastern Neighbourhood, (IEN) Challenges in our Relationships and the Look East Policy


Toki Blah*



When one speaks of India’s Eastern Neighbourhood, the word that immediately comes to mind is the  North East or to be more exact the North East of India. To some, the region  continues to remain the land of mystery, eternally shrouded in the mist of Upland Tribal  legends and folklore. For many others it is the region that somehow always finds mention in the Front Page columns of Indian newspapers, usually for all the wrong reasons. For its  militant activities,  the  accompanying violence and  the inevitable human right violations that come with such violence ; its natural disasters and the perpetual  plight of its rural poor and its urban slums;  the rampant corruption abetted by a brazenfaced and opportunistic political class  or  for the seemingly irreconcilable attitude of most of the regions tribes to the concept of Indian nationalism . The territory also  most frequently  finds mention because of  the  tension it  manages to arouse between India and her Eastern neighbours. In recent times it’s the Chinese intrusions into or their  claim over Arunachal Pradesh  or perhaps its  the thorn- in- the- flesh  game played by the wily Bangladeshis vis a vis refuge and shelter given  to NE militants in that country. If the above factors  wax and wane with the fortunes of time there  however is  universal unanimity over the fact  that the region is   in desperate need for a major paradigm change. Its  Administrative setup  creaks and groans from burdens it was never designed to carry and bear.  Its Political system totally out of


*Shri Toki Blah , a former IAS Officer, a former member of the Meghalaya  State Planning Board and former Chairman of the Meghalaya Economic development Council Working Group, is prensently working as consultant to International Fund for Agricultural Development.


tune with the real prime needs of the people and the land. Its  governance tottering on the verge of total collapse. Its troubled and tormented populations in desperate search for a way out from the mess they find themselves in as the  North East rapidly symbolizes as no other region, the specter of failed states. These are symptoms  that do not bode well for the  general wellbeing  of the region. They definitely are signs that  call for an urgent review and reassessment  on how the region and its people are perceived and  how they are to be approached .                                                        

It is to the credit of New Delhi that efforts have never slumped in so far as attempts to find solutions to the regions ills are concerned . It is  somewhat ironic therefore  that the term North East was first coined  from such attempts. To be truthful , there is no such single homogenous  ethno-cultural entity as North East India. On the  contrary  the entire region is composed of  numerous tribes and communities some quite large in population others numbering only thousands. Each such composition different and unique in cultural identity from its  neighbours. There are more than 250 such distinct communities, each again with different aspirations and demands. To be fair to the Central Secretariat at New Delhi, who has the time; the patience; the knowledge and the skill to manage this ethnic chaos on a sustained  individual basis ? To simplify the problem and in typical babu style, a North East file  was opened and  none have ever seen the need to challenge this wisdom! Thus was  the word North East  born and with it the host of problems all of us are now  part of.                        

 There is an adage that says “ We hate people because we don’t know them , and we don’t know them because we hate them.” It is a apt description of relations between New Delhi and the different communities and tribes of the region . It would have been to Delhi’s advantage to have been able to deal with the problems of an identifiable and discernible North East People. A holistic approach to problems of a homogenous entity would have been preferred and would have made life that much more easier. This was however  not to be and attempts to implement  ambitious and much publicized development projects through inept and corrupt local state Governments never reached the intended benficiaries. To add insult to injury local politicians are the first to raise the cry of central indifference and apathy  when such a cry suits them. It is therefore not surprising  that the tag of ingratitude is never far below the surface whenever mainland India has dealings with  this region. On the other hand Government  failure to address individual community concerns is equally mystifying to the local tribes men who then react indignantly on  being reminded of benefits  they never received in the first place !                                                                           

This misunderstanding has led to a number of policy decisions, the results  of which we are still trying to either understand or undo. Till the mid nineties  New Delhi’s attempts to consolidate its influence in the region was actively pursued through a policy of containment. As a policy it failed in two crucial fronts. Firstly it only served to accentuate feelings of mistrust and suspicion between India and its neighbors. Instead of open friendly borders the entire NE was surrounded by elements deeply hostile to Indian interests. Secondly, integration of the region was attempted  by containment through force of arms. We perfected the art of double speak by saying “You are a  free citizen of Free India and the rifle is there just in case you forget”. This attitude managed to create more problems that the ones it sought to solve. Crude and ridiculous calls for mainstreaming the region  into the main stream of Indian culture was another stratagem tried. It added to the confusion and chaos as there was neither any such identifiable entity  as an Indian Culture and  the locals too never saw reason as to why they needed to change their own cultures or to consider them inferior in any way.  The policy of containment also attempted appeasement through  indiscriminate and liberal funding as a means of containing local frustrations. This was apparently based on the belief that if enough money was pumped into the region its troubles will fade away by themselves.   It only helped in fostering corruption and mal governance instead. The North East has a term for such infertile activities. We call them  attempts at wrapping a live monkey with banana leaves !  Political gimmicks is the last thing needed when one speaks of  NE development.. We have had enough of “outside expert interventions”. A Top Down approach for the development of  the region has failed. What the region really requires is a Paradigm change in developmental strategy. It now appears that the opportune  moment for the introduction of such a change s at hand.                                                                                      

If the advent of the  new millennium  will at all  impact on lifestyles, thinking and policy changes , then India and its North East  is where it will happen. The Look East Policy and India’s relook  at its relations with some of its neighbours and rethink on its strategic  sphere of influence will be  some of the fallouts of this impact. Some uncharitable soul has labeled the Look East Policy as “India’s attempt  to keep up with the joneses in its eastern neighborhood by opening up trans-boundary trade through its eastern borders”. This perhaps  is to simply see the negative aspect of a natural process called Change. Globalisation is change forced upon an International Community  because of that community’s acceptance of Knowledge Based Information ( KBI) as the prime resource / prime cause towards Global Economic development.  Technology to improve upon dissemination of Information,which we accept as IT, has now given rise to another process of change - the irrelevance of physical political  boundaries, as Electronic Highways  criss cross these barriers with impudent disregard for both  ideological and diplomatic niceties. I believe that IT has  begun the process of a Socio-political change that has just started to impact on mankind. The Look East Policy of India is just one tiny fraction of that process and the NE just another tiny portion of the Earth to be affected by such change.  Where it will lead to is totally unknown. A short term prediction is that political boundaries as we know them today will sooner than later become  functionally irrelevant and meaningless. In such a scenario, can the NE visualise where it stands ; what will happen to it or for that matter how does it react and interact with its neighbours  when such changes occur and take root?

       Historically, change for the NE and its people has not always been easy. As a matter of fact for most of the remote and isolated communities of the region, change , especially change imposed from above  or outside has always been most painful, traumatic and apprehensive in nature.  The only change that took place without any painful side effects  for the region and its people, was the surreptitious advancement of education, by itself,  a subject worth a PHD or two. At the  core however , is the question of Identity and how does change impinge on indigenous Identity. It is an intrinsic feature of the NE and its people which perhaps is never taken into consideration nor recognized  by Policy makers at New Delhi. Failure to do so is perhaps responsible for most of the strained  relations New Delhi has with the NE.  Identity is an issue that  affects most of the indigenous people of the region and ironically Central concern expressed through insensitive interventions has simply managed to heighten and aggravate the problem .  The fact is  that most of us in the region as still paying the price for our inability to  correlate Identity with  the nature and process of Change. It is a consideration that now more than ever requires  the sensitive consideration it demands.

      The positive side of the Look East Policy ( LEP) lies in the fact that we as a people, as communities of the NE, now have  the opportunity of deciding our destinies ourselves and thereby adapting to the process of change on our own terms. Bringing  in a Bottom Up, demand driven process of change, maybe with a bit of push from Delhi , might not be such a bad deal after all. No doubt the LEP is also India’s attempt to reach out to its Eastern neighbours but lets not forget that the LEP is simultaneously being implemented from other Eastern frontiers of the country, especially from the Eastern Sea coast of India. So change this time for the NE,  even if it can be on our own terms, has to take place within a fixed timeframe. Time  therefore is no longer a luxury .  One  recognises the fear of being left behind and its exactly what we should not allow to happen again , simply because we  already are the victims of past administrative negligence and political unconcern.  The problem of the LEP therefore lies not so much from mainland India’s overtures to its Eastern neighbours  or the so called presumptuous  “ keeping up with the joneses”, but from the apathy , ignorance and total indifference of the region’s political elite and intelligentsia  towards the  whole concept of change .  The regions  inept political leadership  is totally dependent on Delhi for interpretation of the LEP when actually they should be busy trying to  understand it; to comprehend it; spread awareness; rouse curiosity and establish local stakeholdership and ownership over the LEP. To me this is the crux of the problem. It is the pivot  on which the whole LEP should  revolve around. Of importance is that the LEP should not fly over  or simply pass through the region. It must be part and parcel of the region and we must own it! Only then can it be meaningful, sustainable and viable for the people of the NE.                     

The LEP is  a paradigm change that is fast catching up with us and change , as pointed aout above, has always been our Achilles Heel.  We need to be more serious on the LEP. “Buck up or Cop Out”, a nutshell expression of  the situation in its most stark reality. So lets not waste time trying to nitpick  the LEP but it will be to our advantage if we tried focusing instead , on how we can latch-on to it as best ,as fast as  we can and in our own terms. The region  in the interest of  its own development must  have assets to offer as its own stake and equity  in the venture. If the region is to transform  itself into a Trans Asian economic hub, then it is imperative  to showcase our potentials and the economic   rejuvenation  we are capable of. But first there is need to identify the foundation or infrastructure on which this NE enterprise is to base itself on. Of primary importance is to recognize the fact that in the North East for almost all NE Tribals, life revolves round their respective communities. Under these circumstances these tribal community institutions must be capacitated and empowered to take decisions on behalf of the community. This is an aspect of Social Capital that is so abundantly found in the region but which has been ignored so far. Training and Capacity building for these institutions then becomes mandatory so as to attain the free, prior and informed consent of the community, and if time and money is to be spend on doing so let it be so. In some countries even the private sector has learnt that supporting Tribal people constitutes good business principles and there is no reason why this cannot happen in the NE as we attempt to push the concept of  Globalisation in our look East Policy.                                                  

 Once social mobilization has taken place over the anticipated aspects of change from the LEP, the assets that the region can offer as its equity then need to be identified.  The first item that comes to mind is the  NE potential in  organic Agricultural production. Most of Upland NE follow  Agricultural and Horticultural practices that are organic in nature. The emergence of an increasing  Global demand for organic  products offers immense  potentials for the NE. It is an area we need to concentrate on and gain access to for our  Agricultural products. The process of Organic Certification  together with Market linkages for  organic  products  need to be seriously looked at and  discussed with other stakeholders   in this  Look East Enterprise we speak of today. There might even be need to review and reassess the conventional approach towards Jhum. Green Revolution technology has proved inappropriate for Up Land cultivation. Can we turn to the wisdom of our forefathers for guidance on how to exploit the new opportunities that  now come our way ? Can we start looking at the unique products of the region instead of ignorantly rejecting them as traditional and unscientific? More technological expertise and research is called for as we seek markets for rediscovered  skills and occupations.

      IT is another area where the NE can excel.  The region boasts of a computer literate, English speaking, educated youth cadre. Cyber Connectivity is no longer an issue now and it can easily and quickly be developed in any  part of the NE. BPO and IT enabled services are still nascent developments for an era already tagged as The Information Age. The NE can give   very competitive offers for the establishment of an International IT hub . Alternately the good English speaking assets of its youth can also be converted into competitive assets. The next  area where the NE offers attractive economic prospects  is in the development of its IT potentials. The region  has excellent  communication skills in English , the universal language of a Global computerized world. Educational tourism based on the regions ability to provide cheap but effective IT related English education is another area that can be looked at. There are quite a number of Non English speaking nations who would love to gain access to institutions that could impart capsuled English lessons compatible for IT related activities. Publicity of NE competence on this score can be made through the Public Diplomacy  wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs , since it has already shown keen interest in the LEP. 


Last but not the least the region has to make perspective planning for the effective management of its natural resources .  In this context the biggest   Natural  Resource  potential that the region has to offer to the World has to be identified.  This offer is based  on futuristic  projections  that  are backed up by both geographical and historical facts.  It has been said that  the 21st century will be known as the century for Fresh Water. Very few dispute this claim or doubt that fresh water will be the most sought after commodity of this century. As such people, communities, regions and states that  possess and hold propriety rights over this scarce resource will command the  commercial interest and political attention of the whole world. Led by Meghalaya ,the entire NE  enjoys the highest  precipitation in the world. 12,000 mm annually for Meghalaya alone. It translates into Billions , yes Billions of cusecs  of water falling  on the region  each year. Sooner than later there will be  people and nations who will be ready to pay for the fresh water that they need and we  should be ready  to gratify this need . After the discovery of the  Middle East oil fields, the rain soaked hills of the NE will definitely be the next  most sought after real estate  of the 21st century. It is obvious investments are in order  to put in place technologies to conserve, amass  and harvest  this manna from heaven. We must try to find partners who would be willing to join in with our tryst in what can turn out to be the most sought after commodity of the 21st Century.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

              Astha Bharati