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By Rituparna Kaushik Bhattacharyya

The morning of June 22, 2022, saw a crowd of journalists and reporters huddled outside a luxury hotel in Guwahati to ensure that not a single nitty-gritty of the horse-trading was missed. While #MaharastraCrisis trended, the entire Assam grappled to breathe out of overflowing rivers, landslides, and disconnected life and livelihood.

The tragedy that hit the State is unprecedented. The Brahmaputra and all its tributaries are overflowing; the flood has brought both human and animal life to a standstill with abysmal relief. Yet, what qualified national attention in the region was a bunch of legislative Assembly members from Maharashtra switching parties. The massive damage to the road, rail infrastructure and private property, and the displacement of millions of people did not get prime-time attention. The persistent failure of the nation in general concerning the Northeast is disappointingly not new.

On the Backburner

The region has been on the backburner since independence. While States in mainland India were experiencing growth and development in terms of industry, road, railways, etc, the prospects of development in the Northeastern States remained bleak. Despite being endowed with mineral resources, Assam was the only State with a few industries, mainly natural gas, oil and tea. The city of Digboi had the first-ever oil refinery established in Asia in 1901, yet Assam failed to capitalise on its probable growth perspective.

While the nation’s attention was riveted on the bunch of MLAs from Maharashtra plotting defection, Assam reeled under unprecedented floods 

In 1950-51, the State’s per capita income was 4%, above the national average. However, in 1998-99, it was 41%, below the national average at current prices and 45%, below the national average at constant prices (1980-81). Many blamed the Central government’s negligence and the shift in policy and focus. For instance, Assam yields more than 50% of India’s tea production and contributes equally to its exports, but there was no tea auction centre in the region until 1970! When it came to crude oil, revenue-sharing issues between the Centre and the State hampered financial capitalisation on this valuable resource.

Digboi had the first-ever oil refinery established in Asia in 1901, yet Assam failed to capitalise on its probable growth perspective 

In addition to underinvestment in industries, far low investment in physical infrastructure hindered the region’s economic progress. Given its rugged terrain and vulnerability to hostile neighbours, the region deserved significant investment in physical infrastructure not just from the point of integration but also from the point of defence and strategic policy interest.

Unattractive Bet

Take the case of Arunachal Pradesh. Surrounded and often ‘claimed’ by China, it is one of the most strategically important States in the country. However, the deficit in its physical infrastructure, such as roads or railways, will take everyone by surprise. It took 63 years since independence for Arunachal Pradesh to find a special mention in a package titled ‘Accelerated Road Development Programme for North Eastern Region’. As per the said package, the State was to get 1,472 km of National Highways and 847 km of State roads. The size of the package, when pitched against the region’s geopolitical importance, is actually minuscule. The State has only 3 railway stations, of which one is major, ie, Naharlagun, which was opened only in 2014. It is not surprising that it still does not have a major airport. Such apathy and ignorance over the years have accelerated the extent of alienation of the region and its culture from mainland India.

The saffron wave has awakened eyes hungry for communal flare, ignoring the region’s decades of AFSPA scar, insurgency, questions on citizenship

Why did the rebel MLAs choose Guwahati? The answer lies in the physical distance, which always worked as a disadvantage to the region and indeed the shift of political dynamics of the region. The saffronisation of the region has merged with the wave that is running overall in the nation. The saffron wave also awakens all the eyes hungry for communal flare, ignoring the region’s decades of scars of AFSPA, insurgency, questions on citizenships, and government negligence.

Unsettled Migration 

In this wave of switching ideologies, the nation forgot its unfulfilled promise made to the States of the region. Every election year, people of the region clutch on to the hope that it will reverse the decades-old neglect and foster development and further integrate the region with the rest of India. One such unfulfilled promise that would resonate with Tripura and Assam is tracking the problem of illegal and undocumented migration from the neighbouring nation and improving border security and trade.

Tripura shares an 856-km international border with Bangladesh, 67 km of which is still unfenced in different patches. Similarly, for Assam, of the 973.413 km of the India-Bangladesh border, 53 km is yet to be fenced. Election in these States, mainly in Assam, thrived on illegal immigration and fencing, and yet, despite independence and fiery election promises of 2014, full fencing is still a dream.

 Lost Look/Act East

On the front of trade, the ‘Look East’ policy, which never looked east, reinvented itself as ‘Act East’ in 2014. However, ‘Act East’ has remained only a slogan since 2014, with very few ‘acts’ being done. The policy has the potential to bring economic prosperity and stability to geographically distant and politically disturbed States like Nagaland and Manipur or to stable States such as Mizoram.

The Look/Act East policy also has the potential to deal with and facilitate a peaceful solution to the region’s decades-old insurgency problem by opening up the region to Southeast Asia. But considering the region’s troubled past and questions over citizenship and identity, caution should be taken in linearly equating peace with development, as some sections of society are apprehensive about connectivity and free labour mobility. Such anxiety among the civil society of States like Manipur resonates with their demand for Inner Line Permit (ILP), which forms the base for cooperation among the hill and valley communities, who otherwise disagree on land rights, indigenousness and citizenship.

Elections in these States, mainly in Assam, thrived on illegal immigration and fencing, and yet, despite independence and fiery election promises of 2014, full fencing is still a dream

Many also question the government’s willingness to develop and integrate the region and doubt that most of the things remain only on paper. Active participation at the grassroots level in the Look/Act East policy is nearly non-existent. For one of the crucial projects, ‘Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project’– linking Aizawl with the Sittwe port in Myanmar, the Central government has been criticised by the civil society of Mizoram for lack of transparency in its implementation. Local communities were neither consulted about the project nor informed about its impact. Despite being the main stakeholders, they were not included in the project’s benefits. Local labourers were discriminated against in every aspect, even in terms of wages.

Similarly, in any policy document concerning the Northeast, there is barely any mention of the region’s tourism sector, which holds great potential to add to the region’s prosperity. The psychological detachment of the Centre’s policymakers is highly visible in India’s widely promoted ‘Incredible India’ tourism ads. For instance, do you see any mention of Asia’s cleanest village Mawlynnong in Meghalaya,  Nagaland’s Dzukou valley or Manipur’s Loktak lake, India’s largest freshwater lake? All of them are conspicuously absent from the much-celebrated ‘Incredible India’ ads or even from the much-promoted Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

The Delhi-centric policymakers’ fringe treatment and attitude towards the region have failed to yield a sustainable and stable solution to the issues of the region. Mismatch of policies at the Central and State level only elongates this failure.

Mawlynnong in Meghalaya which is Asia’s cleanest village, Nagaland’s Dzukou valley and Manipur’s Loktak lake, India’s largest freshwater lake, are yet to be celebrated as Incredible India

Rampant Corruption

Many also argue that rampant corruption in the region stifled its potential growth prospects. The deep-rooted corruption in the local administration for a long time did not allow optimum utilisation of funds for the people of the region. The democratic process in the region is on a rather vicious cycle of elections within which citizens perpetuate corruption by compulsion. Instances of development funds being siphoned off by middlemen, or the nuisance of meaningless ‘bandhs’ have severely impacted the region’s economy.

For instance, as per the State Investment Potential Index, 2017, formulated by The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), Assam emerged as the 5th most corrupt State in the nation, and none of the States of the region is listed as least corrupt. In 2017, Assam also incurred a loss of over Rs 1,028 crore due to 17 State-wide bandhs, which caused a loss of Rs 1,028.50 crore of State Domestic Product. In the same year, Manipur lost around Rs 2,016.14 crore due to bandhs and blockades, severely impacting the already fragile economy.

The Ahom kingdom in Assam defeated the Mughals 17 times; they were the only dynasty not to fall to the Mughal Empire. Yet, the textbooks don’t highlight it 

The bottom line, however, is, does a commoner have sufficient channels to make herself heard? Probably no. But enough channels can be created at the policy level to make the rest of India aware that the Northeast exists and does so with a unique history, culture, and a set of problems native to the region.

Lessons Ignored

The education system and media hold a pivotal role here. Given the decades of negligence, it is not surprising that national-level school textbooks rarely mention northeastern States in their History and Geography lessons. The Ahom kingdom in Assam defeated the Mughals 17 times; they were the only dynasty not to fall to the Mughal Empire. Yet, how many outside of the region know this fact? Or that Bir Tikendrajit fought the British in 1891 with commendable valour? Such side-lining in education has only sowed the seed of poor understanding about this part of the country, which eventually grows into cultural stereotypes and ignorance.

Unfortunately, all the issues raised here do not have a clear pathway to being answered. These are battles fought every day and would require gradual and prolonged attitudinal modification. This decade-old narrative and stereotypes of the region are not the knowledge script people of the Northeast wish the nation buys. However, we keep holding on to hopes that there will be light at the end of this centuries-old tunnel.

(The author is a researcher in Economics from Assam, currently working at FLAME University, Pune, as Assistant Professor. Views are personal) 

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Author: Howard Caldwell