Coming in from the cold
Despite being endowed with demographic and natural resources, the fruits of progress and economic growth, have evaded the Northeast. But not anymore. The government, together with all proactive entities, has accelerated its efforts to propel the socio-economic development in the region. The government’s initiative also seek to allay the political isolation and aloofness tagged with the region. The Prime Minister has emphatically expressed that his government will leave no stone unturned for the all-round development there.
The region comprises Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim. These states make up eight percent of India’s total geographical area and 4 percent of its population. Despite distinct ethnic identities, the States bear similarities in the political, social, and economic spheres. The contribution of the region to the national GDP is around 2 percent. A narrow stretch of land known as Siliguri Corridor running across West Bengal connects the region with the rest of India. And the region shares 98 percent of its border with China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.
The region has been subject to political and psychological aloofness from the rest of the country because of factors like poor connectivity, barbarous topography, and disastrous natural calamities that make connectivity difficult. Insurgency, separatist movements, and porous borders have also taken their toll on the region. The economic development has suffered a massive setback.
Why the spotlight?
Notwithstanding all the impositions whatsoever, natural or political the region has huge potential for growth. And well-deliberated economic mechanism can salvage the region. Vision and leadership can accelerate growth. The region is strategically located with linkages with South Asian markets. Combine these elements and you have a potential international hub for economic activities; talent pool for global markets and a supplier of goods and services. With so much in question, the socio-economic development and integration of the region into the mainstream has become one of the top priorities of the national leadership.
Brimming with potential
Around 65 percent of the population is under the age of 35. Commercially, the region holds immense untapped possibilities in intra-regional waterways, hydel power, tourism, horticulture, organic farming, tea plantations, food processing industry and bamboo products. The Centre’s Look East Policy can unfold wonders, given the natural resources, human capital and the vantage location of the region.
Sikkim has already earned the distinction of being the first fully organic state with around 75,000 hectares of its agricultural land under organic farming. Accruing benefits include sustainable farming, commercial gains and ecological pay-offs along with a boost to tourism. The biggest achievement -the state becomes an example for others to follow. Mizoram is also known to be working on similar lines.
In the space of e-commerce, the region holds fair potential - both in terms of growing markets and career avenues - a recent news article in one of the financials mentioned that 12 percent of the total sale receipts at Snapdeal is generated from the region. Most e-companies in the region want to scale up their operations. The region has given the nation players like Mary Kom, Baichung Bhutia. Hospitality is another industry which seems endemic to the region.
The key areas
Broadly the economic apparatus needs to be expanded and revamped topped with effective governance. Training and skill development must be done with a futuristic approach. Hospitality, IT, e-commerce, sports, SMEs are some promising areas. The recent launch of the Electronics and ICT Academy in IIT Guwahati can be a significant move in that direction. As of now, the trend has the youth from the region travelling to far off places like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru for higher education. This exodus can be checked with the setting up of quality educational institutions combined with good intraregional connectivity.
Connectivity - intraregional, interregional, and international needs major interventions with a better network of roads, railways, and airports. Also, the inland waterways need to be improved and leveraged better. Entrepreneurship, research lab, science and innovation, small scale industries are other crucial elements that will spur growth.
Policy reforms to incentivise private investment in the region will also help bring the region to the centre stage. Considering the similarities among the states, establishing clusters of successful companies working in tandem and getting skilled workforce can be a good way forward. Improved connectivity - physical and cyber - will attract more companies. Student exchange and training pro grams, cultural exchanges will spread the culture of the region across geographies.
Political issues and stalemates like the much controversial Armed Forces Special Power Act or the President’s rule in Arunachal Pradesh that create acrimony and rift should be resolved with transparency in strict adherence to the laid down Constitutional procedures. Good governance has to be ensured at all costs. Media must play a non-partisan role.
An independent Ministry for Development of North Eastern Region, DoNER is already working on the greater political and cultural integration along with its socio-economic development. The “DoNER at Doorstep” initiative has ministers and bureaucrats visiting each state of the region to assess the ground realities. North-East Road Sector Development Scheme (NERSDS) is working on an inter-state network of roads under the National Highway Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (NHIDCL).
A 15-km India-Bangladesh railway link between Agartala in Manipur with Bangladesh’s Akhaura will soon reduce the present 1,650-km distance between Agartala and Kolkata to 515 distance, strengthening the socio-economic ties between the two neighbours.
Foreign players like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have funded the Imphal-Moreh project. Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the World Bank have extended their support in the development of the region.
The social discomfiture
At times stray instances of jingoism vitiate the atmosphere, broadening the chasm between the region and mainland India. Anything escalating emotional and social discomfiture and tensions should be duly looked into and curbed.
Media can be a very effective contributor. Media not only draws attention to the issues of the land but also shapes and sways public opinion and has the power to soften rigid and intolerant attitudes. A source recently claimed that media coverage of the region has been less than one percent.
Also we should not forget the fact that even the best known and well-behaved democracies have thrown up challenges triggered by certain fringe elements that have embarrassed the government. It is our moral and national responsibility to promote and propagate an evolved way of social behavior wherein our thought process is more tolerant.The youth segment of the region forms a precious share in the country’s talent pie. Culturally they might seem to be little different; but then so are all of us - different and unique. And the beauty lies in how well we grow together as a functional and progressive a society.
Connect, integrate, and facilitate
In the above growth script academia has a major role to play. Of connecting, integrating, and facilitating. Delhi University along with the Jawaharlal Nehru University capital have announced hostels for the students from the region. Similarly, a few private institutes have been forthcoming in their support in the shape of overseas internships of the youth from the region.
Academia can conjure smart mechanisms for enhanced interaction, representation, and academic connectivity with the region. The region has around 36 B-schools. Contextually we can work on faculty development, student exchange, training, and mentoring and scholarships for the students from the region. Live projects relating to the region can also be encouraged.
As academics, we need to welcome them (the youth from the region) into an ecosystem where they not only experience and share the immense opportunities of growth and learning in terms of career pursuits and feel loved, secure and welcome as they pursue their dreams turning them into reality.
(The writer is Group Director- Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research. Views expressed are strictly personal)