Look East, but through the Northeast

Photo: Reuters

WHILE HOSTILITIES mar the northern borders of India, the eastern borders, geographically cut off from the mainland, lie decrepit in neglect. The much talked about Look East Policy (LEP) unveiled by the Narasimha Rao government, as part of India’s foreign policy in 1991, has achieved very little 22 years later. As successive governments looked east, the Northeast was overlooked.

The idea envisaged under the LEP was to interact and build relationships with our immediate strategic neighbourhood in the east, namely Myanmar, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. It was believed that trade with the neighbouring countries would resurrect the economies of the border states in the region, bringing peace and stability.

“If we want to build the Northeast as the launching pad for trade into South East Asia, we first have to build infrastructure on our side of the border. You can build a magnificent road connecting Manipur to Mandalay, but if there is no cold storage or basic infrastructure developed on our side of the border, what will you trade? Where will the benefits go?” suggests Pradyot Bikram Manikya DebBarma, a Congress leader from Tripura.

In spite of the government’s emphasis on developing roads in the region, the roads are in a dismal condition. So much so that Armstrong Pame, a 28-year-old subdivisional magistrate from Manipur’s Tamenglong district, organised locals to collect money and subsequently build a 100 km road. “This is a one-off example, but it reflects the frustration and poor levels of development in the region,” explains Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Centre for Northeast Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia.

Add to that the power deficit and lack of power infrastructure, which ensure that many areas have no power for days on end. While many point fingers at the Centre, it is interesting to note that the seven states of the Northeast have the highest per capita investment by the Centre, averaging Rs 2,574.98 against the all-India average of Rs 683.94. And while a lion’s share of the state budgets is allocated for development, according to a Finance Commission report, the region has the lowest levels of infrastructure in the country.

Trade. What trade?
The Northeast of India finds itself nestled between Bangladesh, China, Bhutan and Myanmar, making it land-locked but ideally positioned for trans-border trade. However, out of India’s export volume of about $254.4 billion, the Northeast’s share is only about $0.01 billion. Coal and tea make up 95 percent of the region’s exports. Of the 40 Land Customs Stations in the region, only 20 are functional — 18 of the 33 along the Bangladesh border and one each along the Bhutan and the Myanmar border out of the three and four, respectively. While the government has tried to open up trade with Myanmar, very little has been achieved on this front.

“If you are building roads, it is important to identify, what will be transported on those roads,” says Hazarika. “The Northeast by itself is not a producer of mass consumer goods or finished products that are in high demand; it is a net importer and most of the natural resources such as oil, gas and coal are used internally. If you are looking at bilateral trade, it will not take us very far.”

The Northeast offers South East Asia very little. While the LEP and the Northeast Vision 2020 document stress on industry and trade, presently, the region has no real industry to talk of. Most of what it exports are minerals and agro-products; hence, there is no value addition or jobs created.

Pradyot feels that rather than parachuting industry into the region, the key is to build upon the region’s potential. “The milk revolution in Gujarat is a model that we can adopt. If we make the Northeast a rice bowl of India, the food industry can be developed as a big agro-based initiative. That in turn will create a spin-off — cold storage, export and trade. The same can be done with the pulp of pineapples and oranges. But for that domestic infrastructure needs to be created.”

Developing Skills
“There are not enough skilled people in the Northeast to be able to meet the demand of the trade that the government is looking at, and while people of the region will become small traders, the companies that will come in will take control of everything,” explains Hasina Kharbhih, managing director of Impulse Social Enterprises.

The region faces a peculiar problem. The main sources of employment are agriculture and the government services. Studies show that while the percentage of population engaged in the two has continued to rise, their net profit share has gone down, revealing large-scale disguised unemployment. While education among the youth is high, so is unemployment.

Dr Tint Swe, a member of the former Burmese government-in-exile, feels that one of the possibilities for India in Myanmar is English education, but there are hardly any language schools in the region to train the youth.

Changing a Mindset
Sanjoy feels there isn’t enough potential in the region, it is about building a brand. “All we do is talk of potential and opportunity, but potential matters only if you use it. Assam has the largest number of holidays and bandhs in the country. How will anyone take you seriously when half the time you are on strike and the other half on holiday, forget the three months lost due to floods? Businessmen go by image. Singapore has an image, Thailand has a brand name, what is the image and the brand name of the Northeast?”

As of now, there is a major disconnect between the LEP’s vision and the ground realities. While infrastructure needs to be developed, it also needs to be kept in mind that for four months every year the Northeast is inaccessible due to rains. What will happen to the cross border trade during that period? The Northeast falls into a different time zone and every year thousands of man-hours are lost as the sun rises and sets earlier in the region, but the working hours remain the same.

As industry is eventually paradropped into the region, there will definitely be a disconnect between the people of the region and growth. This will create a situation similar to the 1970s and ’80s that saw the rise of the insurgency in different states, where outsiders and a handful of locals controlled the finances.

The LEP isn’t empowering the Northeast and making its residents stake holders in the process. There needs to be a concerted effort to develop and involve the region before we push east, otherwise the Northeast will remain just a corridor. “The LEP is a litmus test that will either prove or disprove the perception that people in the region have about the Indian government. Does the government really respect the people of the Northeast? Only time will tell,” suggests a researcher from Nagaland.



  1. North-East is the main issue from times known ,even for the pre-independence era.A land full of surprises and the opportunities,I am not much into the economic side to actually talk about the ‘opportunities’ but yes I feel this land and beautiful people from the region can do wonders for India in this era.Where the problem lies I really don’t know but yes we need to look deeper into the system with a ‘will’ to build. Recently,I heard about China making dam over the mighty Brahmaputra, and I guess it flows from a great part in the region ,why not build something like Bakhra-Nangal or even better(that could meet the dam aspirations and also not make the fellow local people cry for the indifference and injustice,as is the case with most dam projects in India).

    Well ,this could be naive but not I guess you need to start from somewhere!!


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