Intro: A plank that catapulted Narendra Modi led—National Democratic Alliance (NDA) into power. The North-East now needs a hands-on approach with plans and policies on ground realities not just formulation in the National Capital.
Inter-State border clashes continue to disturb the peace in the North-East even four decades after its reorganisation. Except for the erstwhile princely States of Manipur and Tripura and the kingdom of Sikkim, the rest of the North-Eastern States have been carved out of Assam.
Assam is therefore, the worst affected as it is embroiled in border disputes with most of its neighbours who were once its constituents. How far the issues of ethnic identity and the socio-economic development of the hill tribes have been addressed by dismembering Assam is open to question. But without a doubt the division of Assam often ignoring ground realities has kept its borders in a constant state of conflict. Often the disturbances have been aggravated by administrative lapses or exploited by vested interests for dubious gains which illustrate the perfunctory and ad-hoc nature of governance and administration prevailing in the North-East for decades.
Perhaps the balkanisation of the North-East was inevitable given that it is inhabited by a variety of ethnicities and tribes who want to protect their identity from being swamped by India’s teeming millions. In foresight and to safeguard the North-East’s remarkable diversity the ‘Founding Fathers’ had incorporated the sixth schedule in the Constitution of India. Had the subsequent political leaders and administrators, particularly in the last three decades, been equally farsighted, patriotic and sincere then the North-East would not have become backward and bloody.
Pertinently, the North-East region lost its connectivity and market access after the partition of India which crippled its socio-economic structure. On the other hand the region’s international borders of 5000 kms contiguous with five countries, Myanmar, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal became closed and hostile. During the British Empire these borders were open and friendly. In 1951 Assam, which then included most of the North-Eastern states, had the second highest per capita income in the country. It was the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner and supplied 60 per cent of the nation’s energy needs. Yet today it has become underdeveloped and unsafe? The status-quo needs to change.
The North-East must be regionally integrated. Regional integration will ensure friendly inter-state borders, peace, cohesion, connectivity, inclusive development and economies of scale. Strategically it must be considered as one unit. Yet every effort must be made to preserve and build each State’s traditional skills and community institutions which are integral to the state’s identity and socio-economic progress but have been discarded in the name of national planning.
Peace, development and connectivity have to be concurrent and not sequential in the North-East. Connectivity means opening up the international borders to the wider neighbourhood beyond. With better border management and constructive diplomacy the borders can be opened up to encourage legitimate trade, travel and tourism creating a favourable environment for peace and stability. Moreover, globalisation requires open borders. By ignoring this fact and persisting with a policy of area domination in the North-East, the Government of India is mainly responsible for the instability and unrest in the region. The status-quo suits a corrupt nexus who for money and political power and helped by militant muscle resist change.
The North-East now needs a hands-on approach with plans and policies based on its ground realities and not formulated in New Delhi according to all India norms. The Ministry of External Affairs needs to focus on a policy that does not ignore the region’s immediate neighborhood that is more international than national. It needs policies to encourage investments that generate employment and income but that do not turn the region into a transit corridor and raw material hinterland only. It needs administrative reforms and an exclusive and dedicated administrative service with officers who consider their tenures here as a challenging mission and not as a punishment posting.
In short the status-quo will no longer work in the North-East. It needs good governance and development.
—Pranjit Agarwala from Guwahati