A region, that was considered to be shrouded in mystery and inaccessible, is turning into a hot destination for business and leisure, writes Saimi Sattar, as she explores the reasons behind it
In 2013-14 racial attacks on North Easterners were common. We were more often than not referred to as Chinki or Chinese. In 2014, a boy, Nido Taniam, was killed for his hairstyle in Delhi. This shook the conscience of the entire community, recalls Shyam Kanu Mahanta
It was this incident that made Mahanta sit up and take notice, egged on by other youngsters from the North Eastern states to do something to bring about a positive change. After careful thought, Mahanta, who after having worked across the country had turned entrepreneur, decided to start a festival that would represent the distinct culture, food and more of the place. Over the years his brainchild, the North East Festival, has become a must-visit event on the capital’s social calendar and in many ways representative of the changes that are gradually enveloping the perception about a region which for the longest of time was considered distant, different and inaccessible.
Powering this perception are several reasons which lie within the region as well as in the larger ecosystem of the country and the world.
FOCUS OF THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT
Mahanta believes that while the new government has undertaken several measures, it was former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who kick-started the effort of connecting North East to the rest of the country. “He travelled to the region and then Manmohan Singh carried this integration forward when he became a Member of Parliament from Assam. Though he was not very vocal, this choice registered in the mind space of people,” says Mahanta who runs MMS Advisory Pvt Ltd, a consultancy for road construction, besides the festival which he is better known for.
Ranjit Das, President of the Tour Operators Association of Assam (TOAA), while talking about his industry pins the beginning of the rise in tourist numbers to one particular decision. He says, “In 2009-10 the DoNER Minister Mani Shanker Aiyer promoted tourism by persuading government officials to use their Leave Travel Concession to visit the region which led to a huge surge of tourists in the North East.”
The changed political thought process, where there was focus on the region, meant that connectivity improved and development accelerated. Mahanta believes that the present government and especially the Prime Minister and the DoNER Minister Jitendra Singh’s attention has been important in creating a positive impression among people and has put the region on the highway to development.
Riniki Bhuyan Sharma, Chairman and Managing Director, Pride East Entertainments Pvt Ltd, a regional media house, agrees when she says, “With Modiji’s emphasis on development, investment has poured in and new avenues have opened up.” This naturally meant a positive impression all around.
Earlier the perception within the region of being neglected, and often times exploited, by the Centre gave rise to insurgency. “People felt that in order to get even something as simple as a bridge or a refinery meant that they had to struggle for it. The distance from Indian mainland and mindset didn’t help resulting in insurgency movements in 80s or 90s against the perceived discrimination of the region by the Centre,” says Mahanta who believes that the increased attention was instrumental in bringing peace to the area.
Dr Parveez Ubed, CEO & Founder, ERC Eye Care (P) Limited which works towards democratising digital health (eye) care for the people in India & South-East Asia points out that insurgency affected business in different ways. “It meant that the offices were not operational every day which naturally led to erratic work conditions,” he says.
Mahanta says that with more peace having prevailed, the conditions in Guwahati are almost similar to Delhi. “In fact, it is much safer for women. It has good restaurants, discotheques, all the major brands and a lot of people are coming to work here. It’s very cosmopolitan. During insurgency people were scared of flaunting their wealth. Now they are buying expensive cars and splurging money which naturally helps the economy,” says Mahanta.
STATE GOVERNMENT CHIPPING IN
Smitakshi B Goswami, Director, Pratidin Group which owns Asomiya Pratidin (the largest circulated Assamese daily) and Pratidin Time (a 24-hour Assamese news channel) says that the efforts of the state governments shored up the remaining gap. “When Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal conducted Khelo India in January last year, sports tourism got a fillip and people who came here saw the development as well as the future potential of the place. The international level stadiums were important in changing the thought process of the people who came from outside,” she says.
ROLE OF TRADITIONAL AND SOCIAL MEDIA
So, rather than the news of a flood or insurgency activities, there was positivity emanating from the region which grabbed eyeballs. While the ones who had visited the area saw the change for themselves, there were still others who were prompted to plan a trip because of the positive impression in the media. Das says, “During the TOAA’s annual convention, we discussed the changing perception and dynamics due to the print and electronic media coverage. The international audience became more aware of the different kinds of experiences that the region held out thanks to programmes on channels like National Geographic.” Road shows and participation in travel fairs by tour operators created awareness among domestic and international tourists about the scenic beauty of the region.
Moreover, the growth of social media meant that potential travellers often got the information from people in their own circle who had been to the region. “Live streaming of a destination creates an impact like no other. The travel industry too tapped into the potential of the new media,” says Das.
YOUTH POWERING CHANGE
Designer Jenjum Gadi, who calls Delhi home, believes that the change has been brought about primarily by the youngsters. “We have faced a lot of racism in metros and the youngsters worked on countering it by engaging in discussions, both online and offline, about the people, food and culture. This created awareness and dispelled myths.” He has noticed a marked shift in the number of people wanting to travel to the region and being more tolerant of the food habits than they were when he came from a remote village in Arunachal Pradesh to the capital to study 16 years back.
The fashion world was the one of the first industries to integrate people from the North East since they have an inherent sense of style. “There are stylists, designers, graphic designers and more in the industry which, to begin with, was always open,” feels Gadi.
Sharma believes that the new crop of youngsters has done their bit in bridging the gap which existed on both sides. “Slowly we are trying to assimilate ourselves in the mainstream. Earlier, people found a million reasons not to return to Guwahati after having studied or worked outside. It could be low salaries, standard of living or opportunities,” she says and adds that media, like her channel, bring together all the eight states which, in turn, fuels newer ideas for cooperation and development. “We often hear of stories of a boy from some remote area developing software or something equally amazing. There is no dearth of talent here. With the availability of internet, there is an exchange of ideas and more exposure for the younger generation. The basic education system has been strengthened. The economically independent young minds are applying their knowledge everywhere,” she says.
STARTUPS REVV UP
The entry of youngsters in tourism has transformed the way even this industry operates. Das says, “About 20 colleges and universities in Assam offering a course on tourism came up in the last four-five years. There are thousands of students pursuing these courses and, when they graduate, they are getting into different kinds of activities, exploring new destinations and looking at giving an authentic experience to tourist. People are now looking at tourism as an avenue of income and employment.”
Dr Ubed, who faced an uphill task while setting up his company in 2013, recalls, “People were surprised as they felt I was giving up a great career as a doctor. Start-ups were not a badge of honour. It was very difficult to get mentors to structure the business properly. I had to reach out to some friends in the US on Facebook who helped me. When I started in Jorhat, the local chartered accountants were not sure about how to register a local company as they hadn’t done it before. Investors liked me, my idea and the opportunity it held out but did not want to come down to Assam to meet me.”
He feels that the transformation in the eco system where there is a change in attitude as well as money and mentorship being easily available are the reasons why start-ups are thriving.
Gadi believes that a lot of youngsters have decided to head back home after getting an education in the metros as they no longer want a government job. “Home delivery for medicines, grocery and more are run by start-ups by youngsters. These developments are at par with what is happening in the country. Earlier, they did not think that this kind of thing can happen here as well.”
However, Smitakshi says that it is the companies which are working with unique products like Eri Silk, organic farming and ingredients like Bhut Jolokia, the hottest chilli in the world, have created a unique footprint.
The change in the attitude towards start-ups, says Dr Ubed, is evident in the way he can now have the pick of people he employs. “Earlier they asked a lot of questions and would want to work for two-three days to see if the environment was good and whether I could pay or not. There is an attitudinal shift and the start-ups are now considered cool,” he says.
COMMUNICATION, CONNECTIVITY AND AWARENESS
The connectivity has improved dramatically. According to the Ministry for Road Transport & Highways, 4484.9 km of National Highways were built in between 2014-2018 in the region. Guwahati, which was the first airport in the North East, is now the eighth busiest in the country. The Lokapriya Gopinath Bardoloi International Airport, which till three decades ago was handling only two or three flights a day, has over 120 commercial flights — both arrival and departure — in addition to chartered flights and aircrafts of the Indian Air Force. It registered over six million footfalls during 2018-19, which is a whopping 27.46 per cent increase from 2017-18. According to Airports Authority of India the airport handled 55,066 aircraft movements during 2018-19 which is a 20.99 per cent increase of aircraft movement over the previous 12 months.
Gadi’s home state does not have an airport but Arunachal Pradesh would be getting one in another three-four years which, he says, would naturally make it more accessible. Sharma says that there is a flurry of activity, “Airports are coming up, there are investment summits taking place as the CMs take initiatives to improve connectivity.”
This naturally has had a positive impact. Das says, “The perception has changed because of the development of communications network and also connectivity. Guwahati, for instance, has direct flights to all the metros.”
Gadi feels that a lot of festivals like the Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, Hornbill in Nagaland have also become must-visit events for travellers. “People who have gone to these festivals return with beautiful memories. That has naturally helped create a positive impression about the people and the place,” he says.
Mahanta offers a different take when he says, “The North East festival has united the states of the region. It is a meeting point where disagreements have been sorted out and barriers been broken. There is a common agenda for infrastructure, tourism, industry and more. The festival in Guwahati this year had just 100 visitors but saw three lakh digital footfalls worldwide.”
As Sharma puts it, “Earlier, the odds seemed to be insurmountable but now the dots are being joined and everything is coming together.” This is certainly not the last we have heard of the North East success story.