Northeast India in a new Asia

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WHEN we look back over the last four decades of government policies towards the Northeast and ask the question, ‘What is it that has driven India’s approach to the Northeast?’, there are four dominant paradigms that stand out – through policy statements, through actions of successive governments and indeed through the process of interaction between the states of Northeast and New Delhi.

1) The first of these paradigms is what I would call the ‘Culture Paradigm’: that the Northeast is a phenomenally diverse mosaic of cultures which have to be preserved and enriched; this paradigm was perhaps preponderant largely in the 1950s and the ’60s. Northeast cultures were seen as exotic, endangered; which needed to be kept in museums and protected from the big bad wolf called ‘economic development’. And, if one looks at the writings and the dominant discourse in government during those years, it was this that really animated much of our policies towards the Northeast.

2) Somewhere in the mid ’60s, the ‘Security Paradigm’ came into greater prominence. Probably after the Chinese invasion of 1962, the Northeast began to be seen as a strategically significant region not only in a geographical sense but in a larger geopolitical sense of India’s role in East Asia and Southeast Asia. And the enormous problems that the Indian state then began to face in this region led to a new thinking. The idea was that we now needed to buttress our fortress, but in the Northeast which represents the bulwark of India in this part of the world, this was not possible unless we enhanced our security presence. So the Security Paradigm – of thinking of the Northeast as a security frontier in a geostrategic sense – began to animate government thinking towards the region.

3) In the early ’70s, we made a transition to the ‘Politics Paradigm’: the region required political representation; the diverse tribal cultures and diverse sub-nationalities required participation in ‘mainstream’ democratic process. This was when new states began to be formed on the idea that people here required a voice – representation in the democratic process – and that once they have voice and representation through the instrument of representative, pluralistic parliamentary democracy, many of the problems associated with this region would tend to get nullified or minimised.

4) As we moved from a culture paradigm to representative politics, in the ’80s, we hit upon the new mantra, the fourth for the Northeast – the ‘Development Paradigm’: that if we build schools, bridges, internet centres, IITs and refineries, the people will be happy. Give them development and they will forget about problems of identity, problems of assertion, problems associated with creating a nation out of essentially tribal communities. Thus the 1980s was the period marked by a substantial increase in public expenditure in this region. This was no coincidence; it reflected the view that if somehow institutions of development were created and money poured into this region, problems of politics, of society, of ethnic strife, and of integration would somehow get minimised if not completely eliminated. And that would be development. People would then be homo economicus, not looking at aspects like what tribe they belong to, and so on.

There has been no prime minister1980s onwards, who has not announced a package for the Northeast. And if you look at all the packages announced by successive prime ministers – although it’s a different issue that the Gujral package was nothing but the Deve Gowda package, the Vajpayee package was nothing but the Gujral package and, no doubt Manmohan Singh will announce a package which will be no different from the Vajpayee package – they were all based on an assumption that if somehow we were to increase public expenditure in this region, all would be well. For example, the finance minister recently announced that 10% of all spending of every government department would be in the Northeast –revealing a mindset that has governed recent policy thinking towards this region.

It is important to give this background of my own reading of the situation of how India has tended to treat the Northeast. First, the word ‘Northeast’ is particularly unfortunate because it tends to evoke images of a homogeneous, undifferentiated mass, which it certainly is not. In fact, the repeated use of the phrase ‘Northeast’ creates more problems then it actually solves.

We need to ask why, after 40 or 50 years of playing around with different paradigms – the culture, security, politics and the development paradigms – the region is still in a crisis? Why is it that after looking at different models of development over many decades, we still have problems of ethnic strife and political representation? We still have problems of underdevelopment and the problem of a growing and expanding security apparatus in this region: one armed personnel for every ten northeasterners or thereabout. This is a troubling question for us to ask: Why is it that after so much of thinking and a great deal of flexibility in approach, we find ourselves in a crisis and why is it that we are debating the question we are today?

The second point I want to make relates to the approach that has governed development, the policy of the Government of India towards this region. While it has undergone many changes, it remains firmly embedded in the development paradigm, according to which we need to bring development into the region. We need to develop the natural resources of the region, increase public investment in physical and social infrastructure, and if we were to do this, many of the problems – for which we have such an all pervasive security apparatus here – would tend to fade away.

Let me give a few numbers that are interesting and telling and which often tend to get neglected in the debate, both in India as well as the Northeast. It’s my contention that public expenditure is the least of the problems as far as the Northeast is concerned. I would instead argue that public expenditure has become very much part of the problem that we face. What is the source, what is loosely associated with the leakages in this public expenditure? To summarise a long story, we are using corruption as a mode of cohesion and we are not able to completely recognise its dimensions. The Government of India contributes heavily towards the total expenditure of the eight states (the seven sisters and Sikkim). The total expenditure of these eight states is almost Rs 30,000 crore a year for a population of roughly 32 million or thereabout (depending on which Census Commissioner you believe) – Rs10,000 rupees per person per year is not a small sum.

Now, where is this money coming from? In Arunachal Pradesh 85% of this money comes from the Centre; in Assam 51% comes from the Centre; in Meghalaya it is 70%; in Manipur 80%; in Nagaland 80%; in Sikkim it is a very small proportion, only about 40% comes from the Centre; in Tripura 70% and in Mizoram 72% comes from the Centre. In short, of the Rs 30,000 crore that is spent in this region, year after year, close to Rs 20,000 crore comes as direct transfer from the central government.

Considering the poverty ratio in the Northeast, it would be better if the GOI opened a bank account in every bank in the Northeast and deposited a cheque of Rs10,000 for every poor family in the region. This way, in five years time, there would have been economic nirvana. You would have all the development, you would have abolished poverty – just with this simple measure of opening a bank account and making sure that the Rs 20,000 crore being transferred year after year actually goes to the people for whom it is intended.

Where is this money going? Who is utilizing it? It is my firm belief that this money is not going for development. Is this money going to ensure cohesiveness of this society with the rest of India through a series of interlocutors who happen to be politicians, expatriate contractors, extortionists, anybody but people working to deliver benefits to the people for whom these expenditures are intended? So I think that the foremost thing that requires to be done is to get out of this mindset that, ‘We need a new development package for the Northeast, we need more money for the Northeast.’

More money is not the issue. Mere ‘more’ will only compound our problems because the way money is being spent today, the way it is actually finding its way into uses not necessarily for which it was originally intended is, in my view, striking at the very base of the societies and fuelling many of the problems that we are trying to resolve.

What should we do? What is the new Northeast in the new Asia? A while back, in an interview to the Singapore Strait Times, I had argued that the future of the Northeast lies in political integration with India and economic integration with Southeast Asia. I think we need to really start becoming schizophrenic. I don’t think we are going to be reaping much dividends by political integration and economic integration with the rest of India with all the attendant problems that we face.

I do think that political integration with the rest of India and economic integration with the rest of Asia, with East and Southeast Asia particularly, is certainly one direction that this region must be looking to as a new way of development. Clearly the erstwhile model of economic integration with the rest of the country has not worked and is beset with a large number of logistic problems for which I don’t see a solution in the short term horizon of the next five to ten years in order to unleash the development potential, in order to bring about the genuine fulfilment of the aspirations of the people.

We need to think somewhat differently. The political integration model with India and the economic integration model with rest of Asia is one direction that certainly holds much promise. For this to happen, mindsets in India have to change as well, not just mindsets in the Northeast because we have traditionally been very suspicious of sub-regional cooperation. The word sub-regional is a ‘no, no’ in the lexicon of ‘mainstream’ India.

We look upon India as a single entity cooperating with other countries. But clearly a time has come when it is in the interest of individual units of this entity to develop economic cooperation with neighbouring countries in the interest of the larger entity. I would argue – and I have been arguing for a decade– for cooperation with Nepal and Bangladesh. It may not be in the interest of India to take the position of a downstream riparian in respect of Nepal and that of an upstream riparian in relation to Bangladesh. These are natural stances or natural positions that the Government of India would take. But that is not necessarily in the best interest of all the constituent units of this larger mass that we call India, as would be in the interest of UP. And in fact we will not be able to solve the recurring, annual problem of floods in North Bihar and eastern UP without ecological cooperation with Nepal and without a larger framework of water and land cooperation with Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

Similarly, I think in the Northeast, while India may naturally be suspicious of constituent units eking out their economic fortunes in some other larger entity, not necessarily in mother India, it is in the interest of the constituent units to pursue this approach and convince the rest of India that actually this is not weakening links with India, but paradoxically strengthening them. This is a tricky and delicate balance that needs to be worked out. Maybe the time has now come for the constituent units of the Indian Union, whether it is UP or Bihar in relation to water sharing with Nepal or the states of the Northeast in relation to economic cooperation with the western provinces of China and other countries of Southeast Asia to think afresh.

It is incumbent upon the constituent units of the Indian Union to create the climate of opinion in their own societies to begin with. And then, to put pressure on the larger mass of the Indian state and the GOI to ensure that this type of an arrangement– a very close political linkage with the Indian Union but an intimate economic association with a different political entity – is not going to undercut the viability of the Indian state but actually strengthen it. Because then, what one has is a region of the country whose economic aspirations will at least get fulfilled in a much more tangible manner than they are today.

On the one hand the Northeast itself has to look upon this whole standing on a two leg model so to speak, political integration with India and economic integration with rest of Asia. It is also incumbent upon the GOI in all its various forms and manifestations to recognise that the demand from individual units, the demand from individual states for economic cooperation may be in the best interest of those states and would demand different types of responses than have been forthcoming from it.

We need to make a new beginning in this regard, and I think we already have the building blocks. After many years, we have a water sharing treaty – the Mahakali Treaty with Nepal; we have a water sharing agreement with Bangladesh; we have now five years of dialogue on the BCIM initiative. Slowly the thinking is gaining ground that while India’s interest may be different, one must safeguard the interest of the individual units of the Indian Union for whom economic cooperation with their neighbours may be in the best interest. This of course means that the political model of India itself begins to undergo a change.

But as India begins to make the transition from being a centralised democracy to a much more federal form of democracy, the politics of India has also to change from being a highly centralised form of political management in which there is a premium on so called ‘nationalist parties’, while regional parties are what is called, in the language of finance, ‘deep discount bonds’. Recently, the Chief Election Commissioner said something that will warm the cockles of every Congressman and every BJP member. He said, ‘These regional parties are bad for governance’.

This is a dangerous mindset because if one starts with the assumption that regional parties are bad for governance, then much of what we have discussed – about redrawing the contours of economic and political cooperation between individual units of India – where India is a mythical idea but Assam is a reality, UP is a reality, Bihar is a reality – would require major changes not only in the constitution but the way our constitution operates, because our constitution, all said and done, is a unitary constitution based on the primacy of the Union government. This would require changes in Centre-state relations, in the way national political parties function, and a completely different approach towards the way we have looked at regional parties.

The new government, in the Common Minimum Programme, has announced a new (Sarkaria) commission. This is important because the last exercise in Centre-state relations was conducted 20 years ago. But in the last couple of decades, India has changed dramatically. The 73rd and 74th amendments on panchayats and nagarpalikas were enacted and we have moved on economic reforms which have completely redrawn the pattern of relationship between the Centre and the states. One of the most significant promises that this government has made is to reexamine the issue of Centre, state, local government relations. Let us hope this exercise begins sooner rather than later so that soon we would be in a situation where there is genuine autonomy for states, genuine power sharing between Centre and states and states and local governments. India must move from being a centralised democracy to a much more federal government in which a strong Centre, strong states and local governments contribute and coexist harmoniously with each other.

Much of what we say of the Northeast in a new Asia would not be possible without this fundamental change in the Indian political model. Because so long as the Indian political model remains unitary, centrist and statist the room for manoeuvre, for renovation, for implementation of suggestions of the kinds that come up, will not be possible. In so far as the evolution of political culture itself is concerned, what is needed is a movement away from this centralised unitary form – to which all so called nationalist parties adhere – to a genuinely federal form of political power sharing in which local governments, state governments and the central government all have a place.

It is not that state governments are heroes and the central government a villain, because state governments that demand autonomy from the Centre are unwilling to transfer that autonomy to local self government institutions. And that being the philosophy of most of our state governments, when we talk of autonomy from the Centre for the states, it would be incomplete without autonomy for local self-governing institutions like panchayats and municipalities from states. The evolution to a genuinely three-tier political system, an evolution to a genuinely multi-layered political system in which national parties, regional parties, central government, state governments and local governments, all have their niche roles to play, is an essential pre-requisite for redrawing the pattern of relationship of constituent units of the Indian union – like of the Northeast with the rest of Asia.

When we talk of a new Asia it is not as though there is a gold mine or an El Dorado waiting out there. Of course there are a large number of challenges and some serious problems that we will face. However, the sooner we come to grips with some of these problems the better it would be for us. I hope I am not being too undiplomatic in stating that one real problem that we are likely to face is Bangladesh. I mean how India structures its relationship with Bangladesh will be central to the economic future of the Northeast and here, I am afraid, the prospects don’t look too bright.

Recently, I suggested to a senior diplomat: ‘Why can’t we just pay two billion dollars to Bangladesh every year and build a toll bridge and have transit facilities across Bangladesh and build up an annual transit fee instead of going through this tortuous process of debate and discussion on whether or not Bangladesh will allow us transit facilities. Why don’t we just pay them?’

If it were the Chinese, they would have done a deal with Bangladesh by now. We have a trade deficit with Bangladesh: we export worth a 100 million dollars, we import a billion dollars, and we have a trade deficit of 900 million dollars. Why don’t we tell Bangladesh that we will pay three times the trade deficit that we have with them provided they give us transit facilities through Bangladesh? We must have the political courage to say that, ‘Look, enough is enough. We will go ahead. If it is not BCIM, if B is not willing, we will have CIM.’ Why wait for the B? I think the best can become the enemy of the good.

We need to understand that there are practical political problems towards realising the best and that if we can’t realize the best in the short run, we might as well look for a second best option in the hope that Bangladesh will come and be part of the solution in some years. I think Myanmar will also present a serious problem. If there is cross-border terrorism in relation to Jammu and Kashmir, it is happening in Nagaland and Manipur also. In relation to AIDS, it is a different form of cross-border terrorism. We cannot turn a blind eye towards the regional dimensions of this issue. We shouldn’t be squeamish about it but address these issues upfront and take necessary actions even as we realise the potential for cooperation.

What is happening in Nagaland and Manipur is truly horrendous and what could well happen in these two societies on account of AIDS could parallel what is happening in Sub-Saharan Africa. The decimation of the working age population in these two states is directly linked to a regional pattern of narco-traffic to which India has turned a blind eye. Perhaps because the Indian state is a willing participant in this process. Sometimes I do believe that we have a vested interest in creating these conditions of uncertainty that bring so much misery to our people.

Quite clearly the conventional wisdom on the Northeast – it only requires a heavy dose of development spending – has run its course. There is little if anything left in that model because if the Northeast has access to a heavy dose of development spending under the present system of public accountability, the problem is unlikely to be alleviated. It will only worsen.

What we need is a much more nuanced, difficult, and a tough problem, which is separating the politics and the economics. Work towards a political integration with the rest of India but economic integration with a region to which the Northeast is closely embedded geographically because ultimately economics is all about geography as well.We must overcome the constraints of geography to be able to reap the dividends of peace, or reap the dividends of economic expansion.

 I believe that thinking for the Northeast must now come from within the Northeast. There are too many experts on the Northeast floating around outside the Northeast. I think the voice of civil society, the voice of intellectual organisations, the voice of the Northeast doesn’t get heard. It is important to create a climate of opinion in this region itself rather than to depend on external thinking. For this, it is important to create a critical mass of people in civil society thinking along these lines, demanding from the Indian state answers to some of the questions that have bedevilled this region for so long. Above all, demanding from the Indian state innovative responses so that many of the objectives that we set for ourselves are actually fulfilled.