N-E States can transform India

| | in Oped

The North-East is an emerging market and has the potential to become a hub for our neighbouring nations such as Bangladesh Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar

The North-East is said to be  transforming and wants to catch the eyes. India needs a stronger N-E for faster development and addition to GDP. But why is it flailing? Or is it making impacts and the nation cannot see it?  Yes, the N-E is buffering. It held a meet in Delhi on its transformation and awareness. It wants to be national and just not regional hub. It is coming up with infrastructure like the longest Dhola-Sadia, Bhupen Hazarika, bridge. Still it looks for eyeballs. Its people though spread all over find the acceptance not that easy.

Its contribution to the nation’s GDP today at 2.5 per cent is almost half of what it was in 1947. The partition had its impact in accessibility through a 27 km wide chickens neck, causing detour in terms of distance and time.

It has yet to become an investment destination despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated visits, stress to ameliorate the conditions and proposed Rs 45,000 crore Government investments. One aspect that planners need to understand is that over 70 percent of the people in N-E are dependent on agriculture. The perspective has to veer around farming to give the region a boost.

The SAMPADA — Scheme for Agro Marine Produce Processing and Development of Agro-Processing Clusters — will be Rs 6,000 crore umbrella project for seamless transfer of food products to consuming areas. The changes are happening. Guwahati traders are becoming less dependent on Delhi. They have started their manufacturing in many areas including garment. They now import less from central India. The traders find that this has helped give their buyers better quality and at less cost.

It looks for connectivity proposals floated by sub-regional or regional groupings, such as BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal), BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). A recent study mapped a total of 476 freight-carrying routes in the region. The development is being noticed in the better connected parts of Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Tripura is developing in a different way. It is becoming a rubber hub with high rubber cultivation in one lakh hectare area. It is adding to the state GDP but jobs are not growing in proportion. Tripura is, however, becoming a gateway and is building a rail head to Chittagong port in Bangaldesh.

The N-E is an emerging market and has the potential to becoming a hub for neighbouring nations like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar. Unofficially it is happening. There are many supposedly illicit channels that open in all these countries. Officially, it is dubbed as smuggling. There are some ingenious Indian traders too. They export their goods say from Punjab to Bangladesh and then re-export these to N-E. The channels are legal. The traders save in terms of export duty drawback, transportation cost as also time.

Assam has set up 'Act East' department and an international firm is drawing up the policy. Bangladesh has opened a consulate in Guwahati and is planning to open one in Bhutan.

The N-E has a concern why it remains cut off. Would it end with the proposed rail and road linkages through Bangladesh? Will it come closer to Kolkata? There are still some reservations in Bangladesh and the Indian economic corridor is becoming a political issue. India instead of investing in a bullet train may think of an elevated road-cum-rail corridor to link it with West Bengal and Bihar. Estimates are yet to be made. But it may cost around Rs 40,000 crore.

 It would boost the economy of North-East and eastern India. The plan is to take N-E out of its closet. The N-E cannot grow with this plan alone. It has to develop an inner strength. Till 1960s, persons from Assam, then it were undivided, used to go to Allahabad University and other institutions in northern India for education. It has changed today. The region, however, has not become a magnate to invite people from rest of the country.

The new N-E has yet to emerge. It still is in a receiving mode. The NHAI is building roads in Mynamar to create the southeast Asian highway. The Ministry of External Affairs funded first Rs 1177 crore is to be built by a private sector Indian joint venture; Punj Lloyd and Varaha Infrastructure. India is investing another over Rs  4,000 crore on Myanmar roads.

The plan to connect the region with Myanmarese seaport at Sittwe is also on. This would in the long run help north-eastern exports. The inner power of the region has to be built on industry, manufacturing and agriculture. Somehow, investments are mostly from the public sector. The government and public sector is to invest Rs  45,000 crore in all the eight States. 

About Rs  300 crore private sector investment is coming in education. New universities like Himlayan University in far off Itanagar in Aruanachal or Don Bosco in Guwahati have come up. Dimapur is also developing as education hubs. This is somewhat akin to Bengaluru developing as such a hub in the mid 1980s.

North-East yet has to become such a rich zone. Over five lakh students from the region go to south and northern India for education. Bengaluru and its adjacent region draws about a lakh young men from Bangladesh for higher education and higher IT-based training. This emigration has to stop.

The region cannot long sustain on Government investments. This model despite best efforts has a large fund leakage and under-utilisation owing to red tape. The region has developed a medium-level corporate sector. It has to do more to increase the non-government investments and make the region lucrative not only for its own people but also for others. Why should a Bangaldeshi go so far as Bengaluru if he could get a better facility near his home in Assam or Meghalaya?

With relations improving with Myanmar and also better economic standards there, the region should design itself to draw talent from these regions including many parts of south-east Asia. Today it looks difficult. With perspective planning this could be possible.


(The writer is a senior journalist.)

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