Restrictive travel regime in India's Northeast region is a paradox of the country's 'Act East' and 'Neighbourhood First Policy.' Under these two foreign affairs policies, the country is gradually softening the international borders and is pushing for Northeast to be at the centre of bilateral and multilateral engagements with ASEAN, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Within the Northeast region, however, the inter-State borders are hardening with new restrictive travel regimes. Meghalaya has joined the club of restrictive regimes by introducing mandatory registration of visitors to the 'Abode of Clouds' -- a favourite destination of backpack travellers and tourists. The Meghalaya government has made it mandatory for any visitor either to pre-register online with identification documents or register at a 'Facilitation Centre' set up at the entry-exit point in Umling before proceeding with the journey into the State. Those who register online are to be screened at this centre. Meghalaya plans to set up 18 such 'Facilitation Centres' along the Assam-Meghalaya boundary for implementation of the restrictive regime which is akin to the 'Inner Line Permit' (ILP) system.The ILP regime is currently in force in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Manipur.
The Central government introduced the ILP in Manipur following vigorous protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act-2019. The Rs. 2.70 crore pre-fabrication 'Facilitation Centre' at Umling has been set up under the Meghalaya Residents' Safety and Security (Amendment) Act-2016. In March, the Meghalaya Cabinet approved an amendment to the Act passed by the State Assembly to provide more teeth to it. The amended Act requires registration of non-residents including visitors. It came up after the clamour for ILP grew over the apprehension that those excluded from the updated list of the 'National Register of Citizens' (NRC) in Assam might try to enter and settle in Meghalaya. In March this year, the Meghalaya Cabinet also approved the 'Meghalaya Identification Registration Safety & Security of Workers Bill-2020' which seeks mandatory registration of all types of migrant workers, maintaining proper records and issuing of identify cards to each migrant worker in the State. In December 2019, the Meghalaya Assembly -- in a special daylong session -- unanimously adopted the resolution urging the Government of India to implement the ILP in the State after both Houses of the Parliament passed the CAA. The demand for introduction of ILP again grew following easing of the pandemic restriction. The pressure groups have been urging the State government and all legislators to impress upon the Central government to implement the ILP in the State. While the pressure groups have welcomed the inauguration of the registration centre at the Umling entry-exit point, there are indications that the clamour for ILP will only grow in the State to sustain pressure on the government for setting up all the 'Facilitation Centres' at the proposed 18 entry-exit points. Even though the Meghalaya government has assured that the registration process will not be time consuming but smooth to facilitate easy and safe travel of the visitors, long queue of vehicles waiting for registration at the Umling Facilitation Centre on the inaugural day on Monday have brought new realities before the hill State.
Tourism has been the primary revenue earning sector for the State after the ban on coal mining by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The hard reality, however, is that even though the State is not able to earn revenue from coal, illegal mining and trade is still on despite the NGT ban. There will be economic ramifications in the Tourism sector if the tourists, mostly from Assam, who travel to the State frequently, find the new travel regime cumbersome. There is lack of clarity as to how the non-tribal permanent residents of the State will be segregated at the entry-exit point from the visitors from outside. Meghalaya's travel restrictions may fuel the demand for ILP in Assam or introduction of a restrictive regime akin to the one introduced by Meghalaya. A similar system in Assam may lead to the imposition of travel restriction on Meghalaya residents to this neigbouring State. There will be adverse impact on trade, commerce, tourism, hospitality, and other industries in both the States, if it happens. The High Level Committee on Clause 6 of the Assam Accord recommended introduction of ILP in Assam as a measure to control the movement of people from outside. The clamour for ILP -- the colonial era restrictive regime -- has grown in the north-eastern States as the areas under ILP and Sixth Schedule are exempted from the purview of the CAA. Meghalaya's system of mandatory registration of visitors is a response to genuine fear and apprehension over influx of illegal migrants posing existential threat to the indigenous people of the State. This fear echoes in the entire region. The Central government must address such apprehension urgently so that the Northeast region does not remain a prisoner of the restrictive travel regime forever.