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Look N-E, Act East Policies: CENTERED ON CONNECTIVITIES, By Dr S Saraswathi, 1 June 2017 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 1 June 2017

Look N-E, Act East Policies


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


India’s longest bridge over Lohit River in Assam – Dhola-Sadiya Bridge, opened by the Prime Minister on 26th May is the latest in a series of Government efforts to strengthen ties among States through various modes of connectivities. Christened as Bhupen Hazarika Bridge after the great singer and composer by that name born in Sadiya, the event is a landmark in the era of Look North-East and Act East Policies.

The bridge is conceived as an attempt to bring the North-East to the centre stage vis-à-vis the mainland. It is expected to promote integration within the country and serve as a gateway to East and South-East Asia. It connects Assam with Arunachal Pradesh.

En route to the Eastern world, India’s North-East has a special place in our foreign relations and trade combining political and economic interests. Prime Minister Modi has made a timely statement that: “North-East will play an important role in India’s Act East Policy”. The bridge is a major project in building infrastructure in the region envisioned to emerge as an important hub in India’s engagement with South-East Asian countries.  

It is one of the “connectivity” projects undertaken by the Government in line with the present motto of “Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas” to take all territories and the entire population along the road of development. By its launch after over 10 years of construction delay, the North-East Region has reached a new height in the race for   “connectivities” to match China’s ambitious Silk Road projects.

The land-locked North-East consists of Eight States (earlier seven) nick named “Seven Sisters” -  Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura plus Sikkim. The States together cover 7.98 per cent of the total area of the country, but has only 3.91 per cent of the total population.

The Region has more proximity with other countries than with the rest of India as every State has an international border. This frontier region has just 37 km link with the rest of the country, but has about 5,500 km border with other nations.

A narrow and long corridor running to about 21 kms called Siliguri Neck or “Chicken’s Neck” connects this region with the rest of the country and gives an appearance of being a separate region. It touches China in the north, Myanmar in the east, Bangladesh in the south-west, and Bhutan in the north-west. This very geographic situation is sufficient for its extraordinary strategic importance. It was officially recognised as a distinct region in 1971 when the North-Eastern Council was constituted as the agency for development of the eight States. The North-Eastern Finance Development Corporation was incorporated in 1995.

A new initiative was taken in 1996 when a high-level commission was established in the Planning Commission to assess the backlog in the development of basic minimum services in the region and find out the inadequacies in infrastructure development.

The Department of Development of North-Eastern Region was created in 2001 and was raised to the status of a Ministry in 2004. It marked the recognition of all-round importance of this region for internal progress and national security. The heightened awareness of the people of the region and their expressions of needs and aspirations were the driving forces behind the Ministry. 

The North-East has been included in the special launch of the National Rural Health Mission and was a region of special concern for the Youth Commission constituted in 2006 to identify, encourage, and build up the capacities of youth population.  The Commission made some exclusive recommendations for the youth of this region like promoting employment and employability and expanding technical and vocational education.

The North-East is endowed with rich natural resources like uranium, forest wealth, coal, hydro-power, oil and gas, and tea plantations. It has perennial water resource from Brahmaputra. Such advantages are offset by a number of natural and man-made problems not found in such proportions in the rest of India.

Challenges of environmental degradation mainly due to deforestation for trade, rough terrain making development difficult but helping militant activities, drug trafficking by its situation, ethnic tensions arising from a curious mixture of tribal and non-tribal people of different racial origin, and social backwardness caused by gross underdevelopment have to be encountered if the region is to serve as the crucial link between India and East and South-East Asia.

The North-East is plagued by identity-inspired insurgencies and also democratic demands for separate ethnicity-based States within India.

Look East Policy was framed in the 1990s in the wake of economic liberalisation to promote trade relations with the ASEAN. Investment links and institutional linkages with regional organisations were established. India also became an important player in the emerging balance of power in Asia. 

From the beginning Look East Policy had a component of development of the North-East in which linking the region with South-East Asia by various transport systems was undertaken. This policy has been followed by the Congress, the United Front and the BJP Governments at the Centre and has presently advanced to the next stage of Act East Policy in foreign affairs. This has brought into focus the North-East Region of the country – a region anthropologically complex, diverse by demography, economically vulnerable, and politically sensitive.

Government of India has implemented nearly 200 on-going road development projects and about 20 railway projects, and comprehensive telecom network under the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme for North-East (SARDP-NE. The National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation is set up for development and maintenance of national highways in the region.   

The promise of “poribartan” (change) which brought about regime change in Assam in May 2016 has to be extended and vigorously implemented in the entire region to improve internal and external relations.

India’s North-East Policy has to react to political-economic changes in East Asian countries. Myanmar’s return to international mainstream, for instance, has opened a new gate for India’s North-East Policy. China’s moves in the Indian Ocean Region and its initiatives with South and South-Asian countries have a bearing on India’s Act East Policy.

The Master Plan on Asian Connectivity adopted at the 17th ASEAN Summit aims at building physical infrastructure to bring closer India and ASEAN States for economic development. India-Myanmar Friendship Road links part of the greater India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway. Mekong-India Corridor is an initiative to connect with CMLV (Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam) with Sittwe port in south-west Myanmar.

India is keen on implementing the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal) Motor Vehicles Agreement which is part of SAARC Masterplan on regional connectivity.  However, Bhutan is hesitating due to its overwhelming consideration for environmental purity likely to suffer under increased transport. Defence of North-East has to go along with economic development. India’s naval rights in the Indian Ocean increasingly threatened by China are to be safeguarded.

Above all, special efforts are needed to integrate people of the North-East Region and rest of India. Incidents of ethnic animosities faced by students and workers from the region in other States of India will undo the benefits of North-East Policy to India and transfer them to neighbouring countries. The policy of connectivities must first bind people of India emotionally with a national spirit as Indians first. --- INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

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