The Seven Lonely Sisters

The Seven Lonely Sisters

Over the next five years, the region can be transformed. The key areas: infrastructure, cracking down on corruption and the recognition that the North East is vital to our economic and strategic relations with the rest of Asia 

Peace, as is well known, is a pre-requisite for development. And with peace having eluded vast swathes of North East India for the past few decades, the entire region suffers from underdevelopment that has, in turn, further fuelled insurgency, disaffection, a sense of alienation and abject poverty. Despite the Central government pouring in thousands of crores of rupees, little has happened on the ground in terms of development and, along with insurgency, widespread corruption has eaten into the vitals of the region. But with the Narendra Modi-led NDA government coming to power at the Centre, fresh hopes have been kindled.

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The North East, comprising Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura, is now facing the exciting prospect of not only catching up with the rest of the country, but also becoming a hub of economic activities that will usher in a new era of development and peace.

By 2020, the slew of infrastructure projects already initiated or announced for the region should be completed. Apart from the new rail link to Arunachal Pradesh, a good network of all-weather roads have to be built, especially along the borders with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. For the ambitious Delhi-Hanoi rail link to become a reality, Manipur has to be included in the rail map of the country.

The Asian Trilateral Highway that will connect Moreh on the Manipur-Myanmar border with Thailand should be completed within the next five years. The highway from Mizoram and Assam to the Sittwe port in Myanmar also ought to be ready by then. The long-talked-about bilateral agreements with Bangladesh to gain access to sea ports in that country and also to facilitate movement of goods and people on road, rail and waterways from the North East through that country to West Bengal need to be in place by 2020.

Once this is done, the Union government has to initiate measures to promote Indian and foreign investments in the North East, which hardly has any industries now. With all the road and rail links to South and South East Asia and China, investors will find the North East an attractive region to set up manufacturing bases due to easy and fast access to the huge markets in China, SE Asia and Bangladesh.

By 2020, NE India ought to be on its way to becoming industrialised and a hub of economic activities, including trade with these neighbouring countries and beyond. By 2020, North East India should emerge as the pivot for realization of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) and Kolkata-Kunming processes of greater economic integration and cultural exchanges in the neighbourhood.

By 2020, the festering insurgencies in various parts of the region should have been resolved through a combination of strong measures and negotiations. This is not an easy task, but by no means an impossible one. The resolution of the Mizo insurgency should serve as the template for bringing peace to Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and parts of Meghalaya.

A fair amount of empathy, understanding and innovation while dealing with insurgent leaders across the negotiating table can work wonders. Since it is poverty and the sense of neglect (misplaced or otherwise) of the region that provides foot-soldiers to the militant groups, accelerated development that will improve the economy of the region is an assured means of achieving peace.

Another area that needs immediate tackling is corruption that has become endemic and acquired deep roots. Successive regimes in New Delhi have never been parsimonious with sanctioning funds for development of this region, but a shockingly major portion of this central aid is pocketed by a small minority of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen in all the states of this region. This has created alarming inequities and abject poverty.

Over the next five years, concerted and widespread drives have to be launched to book the corrupt. Simply pouring in funds to the region is not enough—the Union government is duty-bound to ensure that the funds are properly utilized and not siphoned off. Incidentally, a substantial part of this central aid that is siphoned off is paid to insurgents as ‘protection money’ by corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. Thus, New Delhi ends up funding insurgency in the region, albeit indirectly, and also spending huge sums of money on the police, para-military and armed forces to fight this insurgency! The way out of this mess is to prevent the large scale leakage of funds meant for development and by 2020, the region ought to be rid of corruption and various accompanying malpractices.

Young men and women from the North East now travel outside the region to study and work. But they face a lot of discrimination and are often the subjects of abuse, violence and crime, including rape and molestation. The Narendra Modi government has already put in place some measures to prevent such discrimination and abuse. But by 2020, these measures need to be broadened and strengthened and genuine efforts need to be made for the emotional integration of the North East with the rest of the country. A lot of this abuse stems from ignorance of the abusers and the best way to correct this is to encourage more intensive links between north easterners and people of the rest of the country.

For this, travel to the North East needs to be encouraged and by 2020, the region, which is vastly unexplored and has a lot to offer to tourists, should emerge as one of the prime tourist destinations in the country. Tourism, of course, will also boost the local economy.

By 2020, illegal influx from Bangladesh that has already altered the demography of many pockets in the North East, has to stop completely. The porous border ought to be sealed and more manpower should be deployed to guard the border with Bangladesh to prevent this immigration. The process of identifying these immigrants should be hastened and by 2020, a protocol with Bangladesh needs to be in place for deportation of these immigrants to their country of origin.

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Jayant Chowdhury is an avid observer of and commentator on politics and society in Bengal and eastern, including north-eastern, India.
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