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Always only a corner of India

Print edition : Oct 21, 2005 T+T-
The Elephant Falls near Shillong. The area, known as the "Scotland of the East", is a tourist attraction.-JOHN MCCONNICO/AP

The Elephant Falls near Shillong. The area, known as the "Scotland of the East", is a tourist attraction.-JOHN MCCONNICO/AP

The term `northeast', which stereotypes the seven States in the region, has become a metaphor for their neglect by policymakers.

THE seven States in the northeastern region of India have one basic and very grave infirmity: they have never been looked at as individual States but as "the northeast". True, there are those who talk of "the south", but the term has been going out of fashion, as Bangalore and Chennai emerge as metropolitan centres in which a good part of the economic development of the country takes place, and as Kerala, thanks to a very imaginative publicity campaign, becomes a major national and international tourist destination.

Hardly anyone refers to the eastern States as "the east" and even fewer to the northern States as "the north". This has to do with the fact that, until not so long ago, public perceptions in India tended to be north-centric. That perception has had to change; Uttar Pradesh that is Bharat that is India, to use the late D.F. Karaka's phrase, has long ceased to exist, and the image of India is becoming more the image of Mumbai and Bangalore, the beautiful forests and hills of Kerala and the beaches of Goa.

Besides, as the perception of the individual States and metropolitan cities increases, thanks in very large measure to the media, it is increasingly difficult to put them together into a regional identity. In fact, the one regional appellation that is becoming current in some media units is "the BIMARU States" - Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh. Rajasthan is included by some, but its international perception as a tourist destination tends to make it a little difficult to put it into this rather miserable grouping.

But the term BIMARU is nowhere as current as "the northeast". A sweeping, unjust term that implies that the States in the northeastern region are somehow similar. They are not. Each has its own distinct identity, and it is time that the rest of the country saw them as such. The term speaks eloquently of the combination of ignorance and indifference that very many - far too many - of us have when it comes to these States. And the term has, tragically, become a metaphor for the neglect of the States in that region, which is the major feature they share. I visited the region almost ten years ago, and from what one gathers from those who have been there since, the condition of the people in these States has not really changed. If one needs statistical backup, then the following figures can be considered: the per capita income in Nagaland was Rs.9,129 in 1993-94 and actually declined to Rs.9,118 in 1998-99 - a very small drop, but a drop, nonetheless. This, when the per capita income for the country as a whole went up from Rs.7,690 in 1993-94 to Rs.9,647 in 1998-99. These are the figures at constant prices, available from the Institute for Conflict Management. The per capita incomes for Assam, Maghalaya and Manipur for the year 2000-2001 on the same basis are Rs.6,157, Rs.8,480 and Rs.7,451 respectively; the per capita income for India as a whole in that year was reported as Rs.10,254.

One major policy issue that the Central government would seem to have got wrong was its great concern with the insurgency in these States, which overshadowed the concern for development, which ought to have been given far more importance, or at least equal importance. It was not as if money was not spent; but, as is generally known, a huge portion of that was siphoned off by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, and that vital problem was never seriously addressed. So there are, for example, few new roads, no significant increase in power generation and no attempts to create some local industrial base.

One may well ask what industrial development is possible given the extent of violence in the region. The answer is a great deal, precisely because it is grossly unfair to assume that areas of all these States are controlled by insurgents. It is as untrue of these States as it is of Jammu and Kashmir. And the one industry that is beginning to grow again in Jammu and Kashmir is one that can flourish in these States - tourism.

The trouble is the excessive concern with security. It is, when one looks at it dispassionately, a policy that is more colonial than any that the country has with regard to its internal development. There is, for instance, something called the "inner line" which is something the British had devised. It means everyone has to take a permit to go into areas considered `sensitive' - in Arunachal Pradesh, in Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram, to name some of the States. To think that in the 21st century, when there are satellites not just mapping the earth but capable of taking photographs of streets and by-lanes, of buildings and cottages, there is this obsession with a piece of paper would be amusing had it not been so terribly damaging to the tourist industry that could revolutionise these States.

Those concerned with potential dangers to the country tend, often, to cling to colonial rules and orders as the little boy Linus does to his security blanket in Schulz' comic strip Peanuts. Many years ago, when the Ford Foundation was involved with the planning of the city then called Calcutta, they sought some large-scale maps of the city from the State government. This was, to nobody's surprise, firmly turned down. The maps were restricted, the government said severely, as did the Survey of India (a rather sad office today, totally overtaken by technology). Within a few days, the planning body took a set of the same large-scale maps of the city to the government for them to see; they had been bought abroad from a bookshop. They were satellite maps, which are now easily available all over the world. One is not aware of the government's reaction - a file was, doubtless, opened on the subject, marked `Secret'.

This is, sadly, an approach that still governs the attitude to these States. As long as that persists, no real development will take place. And if it is changed, and, let us say, an international airport comes up in Imphal, if wide, dual carriageway highways replace the present pitted, narrow roads, if modern hotels and lodges can come up, and there is power and water - Manipur will change within a few years beyond recognition. A large number of people will be gainfully employed; other economic activities such as handicrafts of various kinds will thrive and bring many villages considerable prosperity, and, almost inevitably, terrorism will fade away.

The key is to develop an inclusive policy, not a paternalistic one disguised in various ways. A policy that includes all these States into the web of the country's activities, that envisages not only the spending of money but investing in the States, in their human resources and their socio-economic potential. It is not that nothing whatsoever of this kind has been done; but what has been done has been too little. I mentioned tourism, but that is only one area of economic activity; much more is possible in floriculture, fruit cultivation, in the establishment of industrial units - it only needs to be taken up shorn of the colonial baggage that bedevils the approach to these States.

Recently, the Central government announced a large fund allocation for highways and roads in these States: that represents a good beginning, but needs to be taken vigorously forward, with a similar initiative in other fields as well. The inhabitants of these States are used to referring to the rest of the country as `India', something that one noticed many years ago in Kashmir as well. The true challenge now will be to bring about an awareness that India means these States, in a real, primary sense, and also those other States that lie to the west and south.