Understanding The North East: Time for a New Approach?

Manoj Pant Manoj Pant
Professor, Centre for International Trade and Development
School of International Studies, JNU

It took some rather unfortunate incidents of unprovoked violence  on kids from the North East in cities like Delhi and Bangalore for the North East Region (NER) to become the focus of national media attention. It is often forgotten that there are almost as many kids from the NER outside the region as within. Yet what is more worrying is the tendency of most media to treat the states of the NER as if they are a homogenous set with similar economic problems. Or that the main importance of the NER centers around the issue of national security. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Technically the NER consists of the eight states of Sikkim, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura. The only common feature the states share is that they are connected to the rest of the country by a slender piece of land called “ the chicken’s neck”. But barring this there is tremendous cultural and economic diversity.

Consider size and demographics. The NER has a population of about 40 million of which about 33 million reside in Assam alone and 7 million in the remaining states. Again, barring Assam , the others are largely hill states . Here too, the three states of Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura have some plains area as part of the state though this area is only reasonably large in the case of Tripura. Again, the largest state in terms of geographical area is Arunachal which also has the smallest population. Nor are the other states heavily populated. With the possible exception of Assam and to a lesser extent Tripura and Meghalaya, the population densities are very low compared to the national average. This, of course, is typical of most of the hill states of the country.

What about religion? Again, contrary to popular belief the only states where  Christianity dominates are Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. Similarly the Hindus would dominate in Assam followed by a large muslim minority.  In Arunachal and Manipur the use of the national language, Hindi, is widespread probably due to impact of the Vaishnavite movement of earlier centuries. In Arunachal, as per the 2001 Census, 35 percent of the population comprises Hindus and 30 percent are tribals who follow animism: traditional customs.  However, the missionary movement in Arunachal has probably led to a significant conversion of the tribals to Christianity. This same dominance of Hindi is also seen in Manipur except for the hill areas where the Naga tribes dominate. Hindi again remains the main lingua franca in Sikkim and Tripura with Hinduism/Buddhism the main religions. Finally, Assam, the state from which all the other states were carved, is largely a Hindu state with now a large migrant Muslim population. The impact of the Vaishnavite movement in the non-Christian parts of the region and the effect of Christianity elsewhere has led to one important commonality: the absence of the caste system found in the rest of the country and the much higher levels of education and worker participation among women.

This short history is mainly intended to argue that the NER has probably as  diverse as  the rest of the country and that an “NER” identity has little meaning in economic , sociological or political terms, This has important  implications particularly in economic issues. For one, the model of development would vary considerably among the states. Thus, states like Nagaland, Sikkim, Mizoram and Meghalaya are best characterized as high wage low labor surplus states where Lewis like models of development with unlimited supplies of labor are unlikely to work. In these states, high technology development models with focus on high end labor are most likely to succeed. Again, there are differences as  only Mizoram has  a relatively homogenous labour force and has progressed quite remarkably in the last decade or so. On the other hand, the seventeen tribal identities in Nagaland have become a  cultural hurdle to development in much the same way as the three hill regions of Meghalaya. This has shown up in the growing income inequalities between the Eastern parts of Nagaland and the rest. Similarly, while the khasi dominated hills of  Meghalaya have seen considerable economic  progress there is growing disquiet in the Jaintia and Garo hills where similar fruits of growth are not perceived.

The impact of political unrest on economic development has also been varied. Sikkim is clearly an outlier state: it has little baggage of political unrest, a per capita income far above the national average and more than twice that of the next richest state of the NER,  and is now prosperous  hill state managed better than any other in the country. The impact of political unrest has had a clear impact on a state like Manipur which was , in 1991, the richest and is today probably the poorest state of the region. Political unrest has also impacted growth in Assam and, to a lesser extent, in Nagaland. On the other hand, Mizoram is today the fastest growing of the NER states and has really taken off after the  end of insurgency following the 1985 Accord. What is worrying is that this lack of growth in some of the states is creating pressures for further sub-divisions. The growing demand for district level separatism is clear in  Assam.

NER and the Act East Policy

The ‘Act East’ (AE) policy is a continuation of India’s  ‘Look East’ (LE)  policy of 1992 or so. However, while the LE policy was to change India’s pattern of trade towards the East and South East Asian countries, the AE brings the NER into focus. About 98 percent of the borders of the NER states are shared  with five countries: China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal while only the 2 percent ‘chicken’s neck’ links it to the rest of the country. This implies that the overland trade links of the NER to the rest of the country are extremely tenuous and easily  disrupted. Even more important, the northern  border  in Arunachal remains a politically contentious issue between India and China. On the other hand, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh have created serious political issues in states like Assam while insurgents with a base in Bhutan and Myanamar have disrupted peace in the NER for decades. Controlling this insurgency has required concerted diplomatic efforts with the neighbouring countries and the problem is now on the wane. However, it has implied stationing of a strong contingent of the Indian army in these states to maintain the internal peace.

The decades after  independence were largely spent in controlling this insurgency with an obvious toll on economic development. It must be remembered that it was only in the 1980s that internal insurgency was controlled in Assam and Mizoram while internal peace came to Nagaland only around 1998 or so. Hence, in evaluating the economic development  in the hill states in particular, it must be realized that for states like Meghalaya and Mizoram the starting point would be only around the mid-1980s and for Nagaland around 1998. However, the region is largely peaceful today and economic development does seem to be now in focus in most of the states.

What the Act East policy must  do is to link this economic development to India’s cultural and economic links with South and South East Asia. This becomes particularly important with Myanmar now part of the set of democratic countries. The Myanmarese have close ethnic links to the people of Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram.  With Myanmar now part of the important ASEAN trading bloc, India’s AE policy can now begin from the NER. An important part of this is the establishment of land routes to Myanmar and Bangladesh and access of the NER countries to the important ports of Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe in Myanmar. Even more important, the establishment of road connectivity will also enable connectivity between the NER states themselves. Today, given the state of the internal roads, it is almost impossible to move directly from one state to the other by the shortest route. While Guwahati is the natural hub for inter-state  connectivity  this has not worked given the insurgency especially along  Assam’s border areas. Today, air links are still via Kolkata which is somewhat unnatural.

Yet, no  economic development can take place in the NER without this internal connectivity, and road connectivity in particular. To take one example, the prospects of the NER hill states becoming a strong supply source  for fruits and vegetables is limited by the lack on internal connectivity so that the states cannot coordinate their marketing efforts. By itself, no state has sufficient supply possibilities to make external marketing economically meaningful. Yet, without coordinated marketing, price crashes are likely. This happened in the case of the famous ginger crop of the region in 2005. Lack of coordination also militates against the  economies of scale necessary to develop  industries like food processing . Clearly, both internal and external connectivity are crucial if economic development is to take off in the NER.

The location of the NER makes it important for the country from a security point of view. However, from the point of view of the NER states the primary issue today is economic development. Today it might well be argued that lack of economic development is the primary constraint to ending political disturbance. For many years the approach of  Central governments has been peace for development. Maybe it’s now time to reverse the approach. Maybe it’s now time to focus on development and create a constituency for peace.  This could well be the focus of the latest Act East policy.

For long politicians have  harped on ‘peace for trade’. It hasn’t worked too well. Why not try ‘trade for peace’?