Look East, Act East

Source: By Achintya Kumar Dutta: The Statesman

North-east India, consisting of eight states ~ Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim ~ was a neglected and insignificant area during colonial rule. Unlike the north-west frontier, it was never a gateway of invasions into the heartland of India. However, after Independence the country became vigilant in the north-east not least because of the Chinese threat. The region acquired a military importance in the 1950s and Sixties. During the Cold War era, the Government of India lacked a definite North-East India policy.

This made the region totally isolated in terms of the country’s economic and foreign policy. Rather new barriers were created to the free movement of the region’s people, who historically have interacted with China, South-east Asia and the Indian core, and in turn had influenced their respective cultural traditions. Under such circumstances, their prolonged discontent combined with neglect and under-development resulted in political unrest and a movement for autonomy, resulting in the creation of new Union Territories and states (Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya) in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, the Centre was anxious to bring the people of this region within the fold of Indian society and economy. The government thought it was imperative to make this region an integral part of India by creating more economic opportunities and thus buttress economic activities in this region so that the majority could be associated with trade, commerce and related economic activities. The best praxis was to establish links between this region and India’s neighbours.

Thereafter, the Government of India gradually looked towards the north-east as a gateway to strengthen its politico-economic and cultural connectivity with the South-east Asian countries and ASEAN. This region was considered important for pursuing what is known as the Look East Policy (LEP) from the 1990s, i.e., an outward looking India to improve connectivity with South-east Asian nations.

Apart from being rich in natural resources, this region was thought to be an important zone for international trade. More importantly, the region is strategically very important because it shares the international border with China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh. At the international level, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a huge blow for India at the economic, security and political levels. Other factors like the Gulf crisis, the obsolete policy of non-alignment, the growing Chinese influence in South-east Asia, a trend towards regionalisation and the economic success of South-east Asian and East Asian nations compelled India to engage these countries under the rubric of the LEP. At the same time, the Shukla Commission (1996) recommended that the northeast be transformed through infrastructure development and eventually bring this region within the purview of LEP.

The post Cold War period has created a congenial environment for India to consolidate connection with the South-east Asian countries. The ASEAN countries, on the other hand, also started realising India’s potential in shaping the future political and security environment in Asia. Moreover, the economic liberalisation initiated by the then Government of India has paved the way for adopting a new economic diplomacy. This encouraging environment gave birth to the LEP to facilitate India to foster closer economic ties with its South and South-east Asian neighbours with emphasis on renewing political and economic contacts with the Asian nations.

Consequently, India became a Full Dialogue Partner of ASEAN in the fifth summit in Bangkok in December 1995 and in 1996 the country became a Member of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which deals with strategic and political issues in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the government was acutely aware that India could not enter the South-east Asian market without the development of the infrastructure of the north-eastern states. While emphasising regional integration, reform and liberalisation, LEP also emphasised rapid economic growth and development of the north-eastern region.

Therefore, engaging the region in various connectivity projects and regional and subregional cooperative initiatives became one of the important features of India’s LEP. Subregional organisations, such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for MultiSectoral Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) Forum emerged. Thus India’s north-east was viewed as a ‘gateway of opportunities of international trade and commerce’. Besides border trade, educational, medical and tourism facilities of the north-east were also planned to meet the needs and expectations of South-east Asia.

Encouraging such ventures will provide ample opportunities for north-east India as a stakeholder in the booming economic and other related activities of South-east and East Asia. Surprisingly, India’s north-east still bears witness to the symptoms of underdevelopment and civil unrest. New attempts are therefore often undertaken to tackle the situation. The proposed Asian Highway is an attempt to develop the region by opening it up to the global order. This transborder road connectivity is expected to play an important role in the economic development of the region through cheaper transportation of goods and people, increased exports, industrial development, development of tourism, and employment generation.

However, there is a growing suspicion that the absence of industrial infrastructure and industrialisation in the region may reduce India’s northeast to a mere transit point of human and commercial traffic. Moreover, unless the insurgency problem in the region is addressed and peace and tranquillity are ensured, mere construction of a trans-national highway will not facilitate the flow of expected benefits. Of the possible negative effects, there are fears of an increase in drug and small arms trafficking due to quick and easy movement of people because of the Asian Highway.

Another factor is that in the absence of local entrepreneurs, people from other parts of the country will reap the benefits that will emerge from the Asian Highway. This project may also lead to haphazard urbanisation of the region, which could pose other problems. The government has to be careful of these possible threats and should plan how to tackle them.