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Looking “East” through India’s North East: Identifying Policy “Challenges” and Outlining the “Responses”

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  • November 07, 2008
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Sujit Dutta
    Discussants: Bhagat Oinam and Archana Upadhyay

    The “Look East” policy was envisioned by the Narasimha Rao government in 1991 to outline a focused foreign policy approach towards South East Asia, a region of high economic prosperity at that time. It was also propelled during a period of economic liberalization within India itself. Further, in the present context, the “Look East” policy is being utilized to forge deeper ties with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Pacific Island states.

    Unlike nearer home initiatives like South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), heavily influenced by an India-Pakistan historical distrust coupled with the insecurities of smaller neighbours, India enjoys an advantage with the South East Asian countries with regard to greater regional cooperation. Most of these countries view India as upholding a strong democratic ethos and a benign foreign policy of mutual co-existence based on the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru. As a result, India has benefited from the Look East policy as it has boosted defence cooperation with Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.

    It is but inevitable that India’s North Eastern region would be drawn into the overall “Look East” policy given its geographic proximity to South East Asia. Indeed, the North East shares borders with China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. According to Pranab Mukherjee, India’s External Affairs Minister, North East India is poised to benefit from India’s growing relations with South East Asia as the process of globalization has shown how cross-border market access can uplift people from poverty, economic backwardness and bring in prosperity.

    The idea of “cross border markets” put forth by Mukherjee in bringing about upliftment of people suffering from poverty, armed conflict, lack of employment opportunities, and insecurity is interesting. Indeed, it is all the more likely that statements such as these from top Indian policy makers indicates that the “Look East” market driven policy has been crafted within the framework of neo-liberalism wherein it is proposed that “human well being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade”. In this approach, the role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework attuned to such practices.

    The Look East policy presupposes that heightened trade relations and free markets with South East Asia will uplift the North East out of the shackles of insurgency, poverty, and economic backwardness as maximizing the reach and frequency of market economies will result in political, economic and social freedom. But is it really so?

    This paper is primarily geared towards filling this critical policy gap: to identify and list out the challenges as well as outline the plausibly best policy response.

    The paper is divided into three sections. The first section highlights the measures undertaken under the Look East policy for the North East. The second section highlights the policy challenges with regard to the implementation process of the “Look East” policy. The third section offers certain policy responses to these challenges.

    At present, the impediments to increased relations between South East Asia and North Eastern states are:-

    • Issues of Infrastructure and Lack of Local Support
    • The Crisis of Insurgency
    • Elite Consensus and the Social Disjuncture
    • The States’ Incapacities
    • The easy availability of arms and weapons from across the international border to utilze in armed movements and criminal activities.

    Policy suggestions to better prepare the North Eastern region for a smooth opening towards South East Asia include:

    • Build up the population skill base.
    • The literacy rate of most North Eastern states except Mizoram is below the national average of 65 per cent. In order to increase the literacy rate and ensure that the rate of college drop outs decrease, the education system must be made vocation centric. The level of English education must also be improved.
    • The roadways suffer due to precarious weather conditions. Given the nature of the terrain, roads are also hard to maintain on a monthly basis. What could be done is to set up small village level bodies, which utilize local labour to keep roads functioning.
    • State authorities need to crack down on parallel governments run by the insurgent groups by activating state institutions and ensuring basic security.
    • Border areas have to be made safe from violence, extortion, smuggling rackets, drugs and arms transfers.
    • The present trade between South East Asia and North East is on the decline. The Union government needs to do a realistic assessment of the goods to be traded, especially those that are required across the border like locally made textiles and woven tribal items.
    • In order to facilitate easy movement of people, the Inner Line Regulation of 1873 and the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) required for foreigners to gain entry to states like Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, etc, must be revoked.

    Points raised in the Discussion:

    • The North East region needs to be politically stabilised. The issue of migration from across the borders has become a cause of considerable concern.
    • Economic interests and security concerns are the drivers of the Look East Policy. Just becoming a gateway to South East Asia will not help the North East region.
    • The Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DONER) has a limited role in Look East Policy.
    • There is need for developing the region with dignity.
    • Small-time investments will be beneficial for the region; and hence development model must cater to the need of the region.
    • Inner Line Permit system applicable to some states of the region is becoming a barrier to local development.
    • The region’s problems need separate solutions.
    • Borders states must be encouraged to open trade with Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, Bhutan and Myanmar.

    Prepared by Dr. M. Amarjeet Singh, Research Assistant at IDSA.