Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9 No. 2
India’s Eastern Neighbourhood, (IEN) Challenges in our Relationships and the Look East Policy
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.
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