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Of Look East policy, barter trade & border haats

Debananda S Medak

The year 1991 is significant for two obvious reasons in India – rolling out of the red carpet to multinational private giants through economic liberalization and the introduction of Look East Policy (LEP). The latter opened a new vista of hope for people of the north-eastern region. The idea was that it would prompt stronger trade and business ties with other South East Asian countries and also boost development opportunities to the North East States of the country.

Ever since its introduction, particularly the LEP project created substantial debate among the academics, policy makers and journalists of this region focusing on its future implications. Subsequently, for more than two decades, public and private funds were spent in organizing seminars, workshops, symposia and field-based studies followed by volumes of scholarly publications on the implications of LEP. However, scrapping all these efforts and speculations, the emerging NDA regime led by the BJP at the Centre had re-branded the erstwhile LEP into the ‘Act East Policy’ (AEP) in 2014, though the very essence and priority of the project remained the same. As such, the LEP — a Congress’s brainchild — encountered a premature death.
As a part of its first economic reformation, the NDA regime has popularized the slogan, ‘One nation, one tax’ while introducing the GST across the nation. Within a few days after the enforcement of the GST, Zokhawthar Land Customs Station (LCS) near Mizoram’s border with Myanmar faced the most adverse downfall, as the GST outlawed the traditional barter system.

Notably, Zokhawthar was the only LCS in the entire north-eastern region that was running through the barter trade. The aftermath of the GST at Zokhawthar was so devastating that the multi-crore turnover through cross border trade fell down to hardly a few lakhs in a month. Moreover, as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar was not adhering to the GST, lots of conflict arose in dealing with the cross-border trade. As a result, trade almost collapsed. As a result, the traders have started ferrying their goods through informal routes, which we popularly term as smuggling.

The enforcement of GST across the international border points in North East was so early that the lack of infrastructure like banking institutions, cold storages, warehouses, accommodation facilities for staff, parking spaces, internet and proper mobile phone networks have altogether contributed to the collapse of most of the LCSs.

Except Agartala Land Port, Srinagar LCS and Muhuri Ghat LCS, most of the LCSs in Tripura are in a defunct state. Apart from the Dawki LCS in Meghalaya, the other LCSs in Mahendraganj, Shella, Dalu and Gasuapara have long been almost defunct. Although the Dawki LCS is somehow sustaining itself, the NGT ban on coal, limestone, and boulder stone has drastically reduced the volume of business there too. Presently, only plastic items from Bangladesh are being primarily imported through Dawki and that too in a meager volume.
Moreover, the International Trade Centres (ITCs) located at Nampong, Arunachal Pradesh, Avangku and Pangsa in Nagaland have been remaining mere monumental. These ITCs have never been operational ever since their inception.

Interestingly, several border haats were introduced in many States of the region to boost the economy of the borderlands and improve the livelihood of its people. According to Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), these border haats were aimed at accommodating the vendors and their small farm produces within the five kilometer radius from the location of border haat.

However, leaving the borderland farmers and producers high and dry, these border haats have now become the main transit points for the mainland corporate-made products. Through these border haats, the Government India is now fulfilling the needs of its Bangladesh counterpart to reduce the aggression of Chinese products. Under this given situation, the Kamalasagar and Srinagar border haats in Tripura do not serve the needs of the farmers or the people dwelling on their periphery on the Indian side. Similar is the case with the Kalaichar and Balat border haats in Meghalaya.

Despite the existence of an Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Moreh, the cross-border trade in Manipur is not serving the desired needs. On the contrary, red tapism is intensifying informal trade across the borders of Manipur with Myanmar. The villagers of New Somtal, in the south of Moreh in Chandel district, where a border haat has been proposed, are facing the consequences. Similarly, the people at Kangkan Thana (Huimine Thana) under Kamjong district, in the east of Moreh are facing a similar situation. Notably, there is another border haat proposed at Kangkan Thana. Due to the lack of proper road communication and government establishments, these two places have been vulnerably open to the smuggling of illicit drugs and arms besides being a hub of insurgent activities. Illegal felling of timber despite ban has been quite alarming here. Significantly, even the Assam Rifles is yet to expand their outposts in these two crucial points.

There are more than 20 border haats proposed by the State governments of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Assam and Nagaland which are waiting for approval. However, the question remains: Will they at all achieve the objectives?

Significantly, a senior official from the Agartala Land Port has ironically pointed out that a sort of growth and development of connectivity as well as trade in the name of Act East Policy is concentrated only in Guwahati city. Nothing has expanded to the borderlands of North East.