Looking east

Print edition : October 08, 2004

Economic integration of the northeastern region with mainstream India and South-East Asia forms the key point of discussion at three public events in the region.

in Guwahati

Home Minister Shivraj Patil at the Chief Ministers' conference in Shillong.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

FOR several decades, people talked about the economic integration of the northeastern States with the rest of the country, often referred to as the national mainstream, in order to aid the development of this underdeveloped region. Policy-makers, bureaucrats and intellectuals attributed the numerous armed separatist struggles and the political instability in the northeastern States to the region's underdevelopment and weak economic integration with "mainstream" India. They argued that the situation would come to a pass when the region catches up with the rest of India in economic activities. As part of the efforts to integrate the region with the rest of India, emphasis was laid on improving rail, road and air connectivity. A 20-km-wide "chicken neck" corridor of land connects the region with the country's mainland.

The focus has now shifted to transnational and sub-regional cooperation between India and South-East Asian countries as it is seen as the only way to bail out the region from its state of underdevelopment and political crisis. This was evident when the region played host to three important events between September 4 and 11. A congregation of policy-makers, diplomats, bureaucrats, academics and scholars discussed issues relating to the region's underdevelopment at these meetings.

The first one was Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil's meeting with Chief Ministers and Members of Parliament from the region in Shillong on September 4 and 6 on the internal security situation of and development agendas for the region.

This was followed by two days of brainstorming sessions on September 10 and 11 in Guwahati at a forum called "Towards a New Asia: Transnationalism and the Northeast", which brought together the people engaged in the unfolding of this new Asia - diplomats, civil servants, academics, journalists, commentators, intellectuals and experts on the northeastern affairs. The forum was organised by the Centre for Northeast India, South and Southeast Asia Studies (CENISEAS) of the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Assam, in cooperation with the Institute of Chinese Studies, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

The forum coincided with a two-day visit to Assam by the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Veena Sikri, ahead of the Home Secretary-level meeting between India and Bangladesh in Dhaka and a formal press briefing on September 11 in Guwahati by Veena Sikri with Rajiv Sikri, Secretary (East), Ministry of External Affairs.

During their meeting with the Home Minister, which came in the backdrop of the present political unrest in Manipur and a fresh spurt of violence unleashed by the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in Assam, the Chief Ministers emphasised that New Delhi should exert diplomatic pressure on two of its neighbours, Bangladesh and Myanmar, to go the Bhutan way and demolish the militant camps on their soil. After the four-hour-long meeting, Patil issued an appeal to all the militant organisations of the region to come forward for unconditional talks and resolve their problems.

MPs from the region, particularly Urkhao Gwra Brahma from Assam and Robert Kharsing from Meghalaya, proposed that an all-party MPs' forum - on the lines of the panel headed by Ram Jethmalani to hold talks with Kashmiri militant groups - be constituted by the Home Ministry to open talks with the militant groups. Patil said that the Centre would provide all possible assistance for such efforts.

In his formal press briefing, Rajiv Sikri highlighted India's "Look East" policy vis-a-vis development of the region. He said that India and six other Asian countries - Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Thailand and Sri Lanka - have constituted a joint working group to curb terrorism in the region. The decision to set up a JWG to counter terrorism was taken at the first summit of the Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand-Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC) held in Bangkok in July. The participating countries had then pledged not to allow their territories to be used by terrorist groups for launching attacks on friendly countries. The officials highlighted the opportunities that the northeastern States can utilise in cross-border economic activities between India and member countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Rajiv Sikri said that the region would get a good opportunity to showcase itself during the proposed car rally from Guwahati to Singapore in November. He also said that the region's prospects would brighten once the Asian highway and railway-networking projects make headway.

Noted economist and Rajya Sabha member Jairam Ramesh kicked off the debate at the CENISEAS forum on whether the region can develop through its economic integration with South-East Asia or with the rest of India.

Jairam Ramesh, who is also the secretary of the Congress' Economic Affairs cell, underlined the need for adopting a new model of development for the region. He said that the region would have political integration with rest of the country and economic integration with South-East Asian countries. He argued that different models of development adopted in the past four to five decades in the region, the latest being the heavy doses of public expenditure, had failed to work. "If the initiatives to forge regional trading arrangements with East and South-East Asian countries through Myanmar bear fruit, that will integrate India and South Asia economically with the newly industrialised eastern bloc. But the share of benefits for the northeastern region from such integration will depend on how much of the trade traffic will move through the land routes via northeastern India," said Madan Prasad Bezbaruah, Banking Ombudsman, Government of India, and formerly Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, while deliberating on the forum. He cautioned that if most of the merchandise traffic between South and South-East Asia moved along the sea route, the region may end up being a mere dead-end market for goods coming from the newly industrialised countries.

Professor Sanjib Baruah, who heads the CENISEAS, said the forum aimed to break the notion that the northeastern region was landlocked and to discuss the opportunities and risks for the region from different kinds of transnational and sub-regional cooperation that are being forged at a time when Indian policy was "looking east".

But will the opening up of the border further encourage cross-border terrorism and lead to increased proliferation of small arms and drugs in the region? Is there any room for the region with its poor rural economy and slow pace of urbanisation to open its door for the growing South-East Asian market? What could be the possible impact of the South-East Asian connection on the ethnic scenario of the region? These are questions that will require further discussion and debate on the same mode as the recently concluded meeting in Guwahati.

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