Book Review: 'Social Sector Development in North-East India' delves into the ‘social’ in the region

Print edition : September 24, 2021

The Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam’s Morigaon district flooded, on August 17. Heavy rainfall in Arunachal Pradesh led to inundation of low-lying areas in parts of Assam. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The way the region has been governed since colonial times shapes the narratives of underdevelopment of the social sector in the present time.

This edited volume on the social sector in north-eastern India goes beyond development and offers an introduction to the nuances of researching the region on the basis of rigorous quantitative analysis, fieldwork and experienced commentary. With the introduction by editors Ashok Pankaj, Atul Sarma and Antora Borah, the book comprises seven sections covering 15 chapters around the thematic areas of education, health, poverty, unemployment, food security and governance. The volume focusses on some urgent areas of policy intervention and encapsulates the challenges to human capital formation towards the development of the social sector in the north-eastern region.

The region comprises eight States—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. The region was popularly referred to as the “Seven Sisters” until 1975, when Sikkim became a State of the Indian Union and became the ‘brother’ to the region.

Most of these eight States were part of Assam when India achieved Independence. Shillong was the capital of Assam until 1971. It is now the capital of Meghalaya, which attained Statehood in 1972. Manipur and Tripura were princely States until 1972. Arunachal Pradesh was part of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) until it turned into a Union Territory in 1972 and then a State in 1987.

At a time when the region continues to yearn for a correct representation, writing about the geographically vast and ethnically diverse north-eastern region is challenging. It requires both in-depth knowledge of historical facts and sensitivity towards local knowledge, in oral histories or archives. In this sense, this edited volume enormously contributes towards locating the current socio-political and economic anxieties prevailing in the region.

The region’s strategic location is such that while it connects to the rest of India through the Chicken’s Neck of just 22 kilometres through Siliguri, it shares vast international boundaries with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. As India’s gateway to South East Asia, and rich in natural resources, the region’s significance to the country’s economy is immense. For instance, the Look East Policy of 1991 launched by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao or the Act East Policy of 2014 led by Narendra Modi have been among the attempts of successive Union governments at international diplomacy through north-eastern India. Yet, ironically, the people of the region continue to face racial attacks in mainland India for their Mongoloid features, food habits, and cultural ethos that are allegedly ‘different’ from what Jelle J.P. Wouters and Tanka B. Subba called the “Indian face”.1

In fact, there have been attempts since colonial times at civilising the “primitive”, “uncivilised” or the “savage” communities from north-eastern India. Part of this project consisted in demarcating administrative territories between the hills and the plains. For instance, under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873, Inner Line Permit (ILP) was introduced, which is still required for Indians and foreigners to enter Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.2 The purpose of the ILP was “to protect the tribal people from economic and political exploitation and cultural dilution”.3

Under the Government of India Act of 1935, the tribal areas of Assam were classified into Excluded Areas and Partially Excluded Areas. The British not only pushed the tribal communities into isolation from the mainland by categorising them as different, but also found new economic and market-driven interests in the region with its suitability for introducing tea plantation and with the discovery of oil in Assam. The British mindset of “disciplining” workers on the tea plantations in the Naga Hills and Upper Assam made the Naga and the Assamese people unsuitable for their needs, whom they branded as “lazy natives”.4

The way the region has been governed since colonial times also shapes the narratives of underdevelopment of the social sector in the present time. A host of factors have favoured the inflow of migration from Bangladesh—Partition, flow of climate refugees caused by the geographical proximity between the nations, porous borders and vote bank politics. The problem of illegal immigration cannot be oversimplified to ideological or religious clashes. The issue of illegal immigration directly connected to questions of citizenship has an even more complex history of territorial demarcations at the convenience of the British. While the British brought migrant workers from central India to meet their demands of labour, particularly in the Brahmaputra valley, the demarcation of geographies at different points of time has drawn unprecedented migrants, refugees, and illegal immigrants. The challenges for development of the social sector in the north-eastern region against this backdrop are well articulated in the book.

Importance of human capital

In section II, Chandan Kumar Sharma has emphasised immigration and illiteracy as detrimental to the region’s social-sector development. He stresses the development of two communities, the Adivasis and the Muslim migrants from East Bengal, who constitute a major workforce in the region. Going beyond the security-centric approach of the Indian state, Sharma emphasises the need for the Indian state to expand in every part of the region either “by creating physical infrastructure or by pushing its political or cultural symbols, often at the expense of autonomy of the tribal communities” (page 51). For Bimal Kumar Kar and Suli Yohana Avemi, migration, unequal fertility behaviour and tribal resurgence have drastically changed the demography of the region. In order to meet the challenges of poverty, unemployment and food security posed by a growing population, it is vital to improve education and health conditions. Section III of the book examines the status of education in the region with respect to factors like age, sex, gender and ethnic identities. In chapter 4, Saket Kushwaha, Sushanta Kumar Nayak and Jumi Kalita have attributed high dropout rates after the higher secondary stage to the poor quality of school education. The writers call for greater integration and coordination across institutions and across all stages of education, stressing the importance of quality early childhood care and education (page 125). Mizoram remains one of the top three States with highest literacy rate in the country. But the quality and the rate of educational attainment across the region has never been uniform.

Gender, class, caste, ethnicity and religion are crucial parameters in understanding the overall educational attainment and health of the greater population in the region. In chapter 5, Nirmali Goswami traces the inception of formal education in the region and examines the intersections of gender and caste in defining educational statistics. She stresses the importance of examining data on educational enrolment and attainment along with social processes like discrimination, exclusion and segregation (page 146). Jayashree Doley’s narrative on the education and modernity of the Mising youth of Assam is noteworthy. She writes about the concept of “venture schools” in rural Assam initiated by graduates from the villages, built on land donated by local residents and run by volunteer teachers (page 155). However, uncertainties loom large about the sustainability of these schools. This pushes a large number of educated youth to migrate to metropolitan cities in search of higher education or to be absorbed in the cheap labour force.

Taking the conversation further, Kalyan Das points out the failure of the state in developing the market as an institution in the hill economy and generating remunerative livelihoods (page 261). It has resulted in out-migration where the migrants are compelled to work under precarious conditions. It is important to draw attention to these things at a time when the pandemic has given rise to reverse migration and driven many labourers to death across the country.

Health, poverty and unemployment

The two chapters in section IV examine the health conditions of the people from the region. The section explains the challenges of accessibility of health services and dwells on malnourishment in children. Sushanta Kumar Nayak and Geling Modi write about the crude birth rate and crude death rate and how these are important health parameters in measuring economic performance and social well-being. Institutional deliveries, immunisation and child malnourishment continue to be important concerns. As mentioned by Surajit Deb in chapter 8, marginalised groups from the region, mostly comprising Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, continue to record high nutritional deficiencies.

Section V deals at length with poverty, unemployment and food security. Joydeep Baruah holds the view that it is not sufficient to introduce employment generation schemes in order to curb poverty. He concludes: “Overcoming the geographical and institutional constraints in agriculture, expanding public investment in the social sector, improving the scope of quality employment and addressing inequalities could form an effective strategy for the eradication of poverty in the region” (page 247).

Rajshree Bedamatta and Mahsina Rahman’s chapter examines the role of the public distribution system in fulfilling the cereal consumption needs of the people in Assam’s riverine villages. They point out the administrative weaknesses in the implementation of such schemes, which limit their reach, and call for urgent policy intervention in pricing mechanism and food management.

Section VI and VII deal with governance and the emerging challenges to social-sector development in the region. While Bhupen Sarmah and Joseph K. Lalfakzuala write about autonomous councils as crucial instruments of inclusion, Vanlalchhawna focusses on the financial powers of the district councils (page 337) and talks about fiscal decentralisation. Lack of financial autonomy, political corruption and inefficient administration are said to be the major impediments to the smooth functioning of the district councils.

In chapter 14, Thongkholal Haokip offers an interesting account on the formation of regional councils for minorities within autonomous councils for better conflict management.

He focusses on microscopic minority groups and the scope for their self-governance through regional councils. In the last chapter, Patricia Mukhim elaborates on the drug menace in the region and demolishes myths relating to gender-based equality in the region.

This volume is indeed one of a kind that has primarily focussed on the social sector and its problems in the region. In the face of underdevelopment, the editors have argued that the “prospect for service sector development is much higher compared to that of the primary and secondary sectors”. Agriculture continues to be a dominant source of livelihood (page 28).

Most of the thematic areas covered in the book are also crucial with respect to sustainable development goals (SDGs), be it eradicating poverty, promoting gender equality, ensuring health care or education to all. The data in the chapters offer a grim picture of development. This is also borne out by the SDG India Index released by NITI Ayog in 2021 that places Assam as one of the worst performing States. Along with Assam, the rural population of Tripura is also unable to access safe drinking water. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram are far behind the national average in establishing sustainable cities and communities.

Strategic geographical location, ineffective decentralisation, rampant corruption, gender inequalities, and the challenges of caste, class, and emerging communal tensions in the region continue to affect human capital formation. While some of the chapters generously offer solutions, emphasis on factors like innovation, management skills, and capacity-building employed in the service sector could be crucial in understanding future prospects.

Finally, there is enough scope to add to the significant work done by the non-profit and civil society organisations along with the region’s religious institutions, and also focus on the ever-booming information and communication technology in developing the social sector.


1. Wouters, Jelle J.P. and Tanka B. Subba. 2013. “The ‘Indian Face’, India’s Northeast, and ‘The Idea of India’”, Asian Anthropology, 12(2): 126-140.

2. Following the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in 2019, the ILP was extended to Manipur and Dimapur city of Nagaland.

3. Dutta, Akhil Ranjan. 2013. “Politics in India: Issues, Institutions”, Processes. Guwahati, Arun Prakashan.

4. Sharma, Jayeeta. 2009. “‘Lazy’ Natives, Coolie Labour, and the Assam Tea Industry,” Modern Asian Studies, 43(6): 1287-1324,