Developing Northeast India as a gateway to Southeast Asia

(Act East Policy and Northeast India by Sreeradha Datta, publisher Vitasta Publishing, pages 315; cost Rs. 850)

Prof M Amarjeet Singh Feb 09, 2021

The security establishment had dominated policy-making in the country’s northeast region for several decades in which the focus was over the issue of governance, stability, and political order. But, the emerging geopolitical landscape caused by globalisation, regionalism, and economic liberalization has compelled the central government to adopt path-breaking measures for enhancing development activities of the northeastern states and their integration with the rest of the country. The book Act East Policy and Northeast India rightly maintained that it took over fifty years for the central government to re-examine its policies towards the region. 

The book comprises six well-written and well-argued chapters including an introductory chapter.  The first chapter starts with an analysis of the potential of the economy of the region focusing on agriculture, horticulture, industrial growth, and identifying the gaps. Here, the author rightly noted that the present economy of the region does not support any significant scope for it to become a producer and exporter of any substantial quality of goods. This slow growth of the economy has often been cited as the main cause for many of the socio-political problems that are peculiar to the region. Although there are numerous government-initiated efforts for developing physical infrastructure and other corresponding facilities, the private investment remains negligible.

The chapter emphasizes how the northeastern states can actively engage with the Act East Policy if the region is to become the “bridgehead” between South Asia and Southeast Asia. The book again rightly argued that much more need to be done to tap the potential that exists and the challenges are manifold.

The second chapter on transport connectivity within the northeast region discusses major factors that impeded development and prolonged isolation of the region. The chapter gives an interesting overview of transport infrastructure and the several government-initiated roads, air, rail, and inland waterway projects, including those undertaken or planned with loan assistance from multilateral institutions like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency. The book also discusses the corresponding difficulties in creating a viable transport infrastructure. The book rightly noted that “once the cobweb of transport network falls in place, it will certainly get the region closer to other parts of India and vice versa”.

The third chapter discusses the region’s energy potential estimation. In terms of hydropower, the northeast region has the potential of about 58971 MW i.e. almost 40 percent of the country's total hydro potential. But, only about two percent of the total hydro potential could be harnessed. Also, there are abundant coal, oil, and gas for thermal power generation. Despite this potential the per capita energy consumption is low. It examines that the development of the energy sector can also help integrate the northeastern states with the “economic centres” of immediate and extended neighbours. Thus, this chapter examines the energy potential and the steps for harnessing energy including the possibility of an energy grip. However, the building of big dams as the book rightly pointed out has increasingly been opposed by the local people and the environmentalists. Considering the opposition, the development of small hydro-power is gaining traction.

The fourth chapter started with the argument that the northeast region is not new to political turmoil and economic backwardness. However, the book is right in saying that significant progress has been achieved in establishing a stable political order, although there are some areas of concern. The chapter discusses the issues of ethnicity and migration in the present context of the debate over the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The fifth chapter discusses the cross-border linkages including the economic engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. India is determined to enhance physical connectivity with not only Bangladesh and Myanmar but also with Nepal and Bhutan. It rightly stated that bilateral cross-border linkages with Bangladesh and Myanmar are critical in making the Act East policy effective through the northeast states. Thus the focus has been on the development of new trade routes, inland waterways, railways, roadways, and exchange of energy. Most importantly, for full optimization of the potentials of the region, the aspirations of the northeast region and the central government must ‘coincide.’

The sixth chapter dwells upon transforming the “border economy” that engages with the local population to tap the unexplored potentials. Since the northeast region shares 90 percent of its border with Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and Bhutan, invariably any development in this region have implications, especially in Bangladesh and Myanmar and vice versa. Thus the borders have a special significance for this region. The book rightly pointed out that economic integration should start “small” at the borders. This chapter draws extensively on the changing nature of India’s ties with its eastern neighbours, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The manifold problems in realising the full potential of the cross-border land trade with Bangladesh and Myanmar are also extensively discussed. It also makes an interesting argument in favour of building border community zones and establishing common standards to protect the rights of the migrant population.  Furthermore, it rightly argued that the economic momentum in the region “has to begin small” because its geography and the environment cannot support overnight transformation. 

We are aware that there is a wide disparity in the development of this region and other parts of the country. The disparity is growing. Development of the northeastern states ought to be accelerated to catch up with other parts of the country. The central government has given increased attention to the development of northeastern states. Despite having the advantage of sharing borders with several countries, there are still limited cross-border economic activities.

Now there is an increasing realisation of enhancing cross-border economic activities for faster development of the border region. Thus better road connectivity is necessary. The book discusses various transport projects and the progress of such projects and identified the barriers. It discusses the road of international significance in the region and also dwelt upon the importance of Bangladesh, Northeast India, and Myanmar in connecting South Asia and Southeast Asia.

It makes an interesting observation about the northeastern states receiving “greater attention” not only from the country’s central government but also from immediate neighbours (perhaps internationally). Having said so, it is equally necessary to examine the relevance of the Act East policy from the local perspectives. It will be interesting to know the concerns of the local communities affected by the policy framework. They have silently listened to the promises of the agencies involved in designing and executing various projects. What are their immediate requirements and priorities? How has Myanmar responded to various connectivity projects? Are the executing agencies been able to comply with the environmental impact assessments prepared by the financial agencies?

No doubt, the book is empirically strong and informative and hopes to bridge the knowledge deficit that exists in our understanding of the Northeast region of India vis-à-vis the Act East Policy. It will be useful to anyone interested in the study of the development, international relations and Northeast India and its immediate and extended neighbours. 

(The writer is Honorary Director, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi) 

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