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Northeast India: The development versus identity conundrum

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  7 May 2016 12:00 AM GMT

DATELINE Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain

The other day, one of the country’s top economists seemed to say that the northeastern region could continue to remain an ‘enclave’, meaning stay away from the Indian mainstream, as long as Article 371 of the Constitution, in its various manifestations, continue to be in force in the states in the region, providing it special ‘safeguards’. This Constitutiol provision gives extra powers to the State legislatures, makes it legal to bar sale and transfer of land to non-tives of the state concerned, recognises tribal customary laws and so on. He also observed that autonomy conferred to certain areas under the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule was something the Centre devised to uplift these areas when they were not full-fledged states and were parts of a larger state, like Khasi & Jaintia Hills, Lushai Hills (present-day Mizoram) etc. There is a hint in the economist’s observations that the Sixth Schedule has now become irrelevant because most of these areas have got statehood.

The key question now is this: what is actually retarding development in the North-east? While there has been a frightening flight of intellectual capital from the region to the rest of India (by way of students going out for higher education and not returning for lack of adequate business or job opportunities), there is hardly any inflow of capital, both human or otherwise, into the region for various reasons. The prime reason for this is the prevailing xenophobia in several parts of the region or the disturbing law and order situation. Although the number of fatalities out of insurgency-related incidents has come down in the past few years, the figures are quite high to give an outsider a sense of comfort. Several countries, for example, still puts out advisories to its tiols asking them to either refrain from visiting Northeast India or be careful while making such a trip. A poor law and order situation or the perception of a disturbed law and order situation is one major reason for the region being economically stagnt.

We have seen local leaders of different hues (politicians, student leaders or insurgent bosses) shouting from rooftops about lack of development in the region. But we have hardly seen anyone taking a hard look at the reasons for this scerio—one of which is the unwelcoming attitude to investors who are seen as ‘outsiders.’ The states need to address critical issues like land issues, whether land can be transferred to those setting up industries and so on. The migration issue needs to be resolved because there are several types of migration: illegal migration from Bangladesh, migrants from erstwhile East Bengal who had migrated and settled down decades ago, and migrants from outside the Northeast, meaning from other parts of India. These are issues the state governments in the region must address and not brush aside.

State governments in states like Assam must achieve a breakthrough in so far as building hydro power stations to generate power, attract industries that require electricity, and sell the surplus generation. A status quo on the Subansiri hydel project will not do. The state cannot simply stay without doing anything just because some people are opposed to the project on various grounds. A big dam may not be a good idea but what is preventing Assam to look for setting up small hydel plants? Or what is preventing Assam from investing in power generation projects elsewhere in the country and then draw the power in while selling the surplus, if any, outright?

I am not going to talk about infrastructure because we all know the infra gap is huge and the government must work really hard to raise it to some level. I am also not going to be euphoric about the Act East Policy because once the road and rail connectivity are in place and the northeastern states are connected to ASEAN, we don’t know what to do! We need to gear up, prepare a class of entrepreneurs by giving them training in foreign trade, come up with value-addition ideas to our local products, mainly handloom and handicraft items, carry out market surveys in Thailand, Myanmar and beyond to see in what shape they may be buying our items (I mean the finished products). Yes, it is always good to hope for the best!

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