Growth of our nation must be inclusive of the North-East; protecting our citizens and our borders is a top priority, says Kiren Rijiju in conversation with Durbar Ganguly.
Challenges of integration and border protection have long plagued the Indian economy. Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, discusses the future of India's North-East and deliberates on the critical issue of territorial security.
The question of integration has remained central to any discussion of the North-East. Since the formation of a new government, what are the major initiatives that you have undertaken to harmoniously include the North-East with the rest of India while also attempting to increase the average Indian's awareness of the North-East?
People have made a blunder in the past by placing the North-East at the fringe of any developmental initiative. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has massively altered ways by bringing the North-East of India into the immediate focus of the Government's programmes and policies. For instance, in any cabinet meeting or review meeting organised by the Prime Minister, he ensures that every agency, every ministry and every department details the special steps that they have undertaken to ensure that the developmental progress reaches out to the northeastern states by directly benefitting its populace. This was previously completely amiss. During Mr Vajpayee's time, the DONOR was created, but it did not take full shape. Now, under Mr Modi's governance, the role of the Ministry of Doner has been greatly amplified. At the same time, each ministry and department has been assigned a certain role and a specific target which has to be accomplished within a stipulated time.
Despite there being eight states and a population of approximately 4.5 crores, the North-East doesn't receive prominence in the minds of the average citizen. For instance, the issues in Jammu and Kashmir are widely discussed on media channels; yet, for the North-East, the deliberations are far more muted. There is an impending need to place more conscious effort to understand the problems plaguing the North-East. Many, on visiting the states, realise the need for special care and effort. To know the problem of the North-East is one thing and to feel the problem is another; here, knowing is not enough. Our leadership and governance in the past have also failed to improve prevailing conditions. For instance, when I was appointed as a Member of Parliament in 2004, I started participating in parliamentary proceedings and activities. I began projecting the interest of the North-East while also trying to integrate myself into the issues that are of national interest. I may be a Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, but I am an MP first for the country. Some of my predecessors had only confined themselves to the local issues without involving themselves with national concerns. This was primarily because they felt a need to emphasise the North-East which was escaping everyone's careful eye. I tried to integrate conversations of the North-East with the rest of the country; the North-East is very much an aspect of the mainstream. Every national leader belongs to some state, but that doesn't confine him/her to their regional issues only. If I represent a regional party, then I can be considered as a regional leader, but since I represent a national party I never confine myself only to regional issues and regional interests. My take is very simple, I think for my nation and the people of my entire nation must train their minds to include the North-East. The North-East should not be on the fringe of your thinking. Even today, you go to any street or locality; the northeastern people have to take extra effort to make their presence felt. This pains me. When I look at India, I feel like it belongs to me.
Tell us some major avenues where government initiatives have been actively undertaken.
The Prime Minister has unequivocally said that eastern and northeastern India, which is lacking in comparison to west India, needs to be cared and nurtured with special effort and impetus. There is a prevailing problem of inheritance. The different organisations and agencies that are supposed to execute the projects face several hurdles. The processes which control the implementation of schemes and roles have to be better integrated to match the requirements of the northeastern people. Suppose one wants to implement the health policy, they will face several impediments as many of the national guidelines are not applicable in the northeastern region, especially in the far-off difficult terrains. For smooth operation, certain guidelines have to be tweaked. The rules are applicable for all but guidelines have to be modified depending on the ground situation. For instance, the Government of India fences a policy for housing or to build a bridge or to construct a road. There are some locations in my constituency, where cement which usually costs between Rs 200 and Rs 300, can cost up to Rs 5000, as there is no road to facilitate the transportation of cement, which then depends entirely on manual relocation. You cannot build a house in such locations where expense on cement is skyrocketing. Thus, normal rules and guidelines do not work in these difficult, uphill, topographical regions of the North-East. Our PM has been very particular in promoting these cases. But down the line, many of the ground level staff and officers are unable to implement things on time as they lack an understanding of the local problem. While rules and regulations should be followed there must be some relaxation to ensure that certain programmes are implemented successfully.
This has been your prime suggestion in uplifting the North-East?
In every meeting that I have attended, I have suggested that the national guidelines will not be successful if certain modifications are not permitted when analysing the ground situation. Roads are getting built, infrastructure projects have begun operating, things are moving in a smooth motion, but to make it successful you have to relax some of the norms.
What do you have to say about communication which has been a major hindrance in integrating the North-East with the rest of the country?
That's true. In the North-East, it is difficult to travel from one city to another city because of limited air connectivity within the region. There is a dearth if intra-state air facilities. The air service is very poor. For instance, in Itanagar, there is no airport. Mizoram has one airport only. Nagaland has one at Dimapur but not in its capital, Kohima. In Arunachal Pradesh, we have two airports as some advance landing grounds have come up. There is one at Tezu and one at Pasighat which belongs to the Air Force and we are trying to develop for civilians to provide a sufficient support for eastern Arunachal.
Internal security and law and order have also been perplexing issues of concern. How is the Ministry battling these problems?
Several initiatives have been undertaken in the last three-and-a-half years. The internal security system has become very reliable and robust. I am not saying that the earlier government had completely failed, but we have made it more robust. Now, our security forces are more confident in tackling terror, threat or any kind of operation because the government has been very supportive of the forces. They brim with confidence when political leadership provides them with enough space and freedom to operate effectively. That had not been the case with the earlier government. Now, there is far better synergy between the various law enforcement agencies. The improved synergy and cooperation has been the hallmark of our tenure. The CCTNS (Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System) that we have launched recently has been a major achievement for India. Complete police stations of the country and other law enforcing offices, courts and prisons have been connected to a single portal. It will become easier and swifter to share information among the different agencies. It will speed up the entire process of criminal jurisdiction. Unless we link the entire country into one network system it is difficult for law enforcement agencies to operate efficiently. The Home Ministry manages the entire data.
What are the key initiatives you have undertaken for the Border Management System?
Border management has been a major concern for our country because our territorial border is more than 15000 km long and our coastal boundary is also spread across 7500 km. To protect a 15000 km border is not an easy task. For coastal region security, we have created various coastal systems, the modernisation process is underway and the coastal security has been improved by manifolds in the last three years. Our latest umbrella modernisation of the police force scheme, which has been approved by the cabinet, will take care of many more aspects. For our land border, we have introduced smart border fencing which is going to be implemented soon, as it is physically and humanly impossible to guard a 15000 km long border. For this crisis, we have opted for a technological solution. The first phase is almost done and we will be covering our entire land border by 2018, except the China border.
India, under our PM's guidance, has also become a frontrunner in dealing with national disaster as we are conducting the South Asian Disaster Management exercise, and now we are also conducting the Vimstech Exercise of Bay of Bengal rims countries. Our armed forces and paramilitary forces are now well equipped to face any kind of natural disaster. I was also happy to be declared as the Disaster Risk Reduction Champion for the United Nations.
I don't celebrate Diwali with my family, I celebrate Diwali with the jawans in the border areas. This Diwali also I was in a remote area with our jawans. We have also started marine police stations in the country, similar to land police stations. To counter criminal activities occurring in the sea, all coastal areas now have marine police stations. We provide them requisite funding, jetties, water boats and miscellaneous equipment for constructing the police stations. In all the nine coastal states we now have assigned marine police stations.