Thinking is not one of the natural activities of man; it is the product of a disease, like high temperature in illness. In France, before the Revolution and in England in the early 19th century, the disease in the body politic led some men to think important thoughts, which developed into the science of political economy”. This Chapter in Bertrand Russell’s Legitimacy versus Industrialism, is relevant for the North-east today, as it is nearing the completion of the second decade of the 21st century and for two reasons.
First, development of the regional economy requires appreciation of hard lessons of economic history of the North-east since 1947. Second, the development strategy will make practical sense only when prepared on these lessons. Unfortunately, economic history, as a discipline, appears to have been relegated to a lower position of the region’s development studies, which tend to emphasise on sectoral is-sues like agricultural or industrial development, investment credit and banking, without a holistic look at the economy and from a historical perspective of the region, it being a part of the larger economy of Eastern India and South Asia.
It is thus appropriate to recall our rich tradition of economic history writing as a part of national awakening. RC Dutt’s classic Economic History of India in two volumes, was a pioneering work, which exposed the East India Company’s perfidy and loot in many ways. For instance, its imposition of heavy duty on Indian exports and an exchange rate of Rs 10 to one pound soon after the acquisition of the Dewani of Mughal subah of Bengal in 1765 when India had no demand for British products. Dutt referred to what he called “slave laws” in Assam to promote tea plantation under which “ignorant men and women, once induced to sign a contract, are forced to work in gardens of Assam during the term indicated in the contract and were tied to their work under penal laws”. The colonial government, Dutt pointed out, was “constituting itself as agents of tea planters” by agreeing to the planters demand to impose a cess on sale of tea proceeds, which were to be used for promotion of the sale of tea.
These were strong nationalist sentiments based on hard economic evidence. This culture of economic history writing was also carried in recording District Gazetteers. These were the outcomes of field work and painstaking collection of primary data and its interpretation, covering all aspects of economic and social life and ecology, forests and wildlife, rivers, land and water use systems, crafts and rural industry, livestock and poultry.
The practice has regrettably ceased in most states. This might be due to the introduction of th Five Year Plan that entailed a mid-term appraisal of each one and annual economic survey and evaluation of plan schemes that created a mindset favourable to sectoral and project specific studies, rather than looking at the whole economic scene.
It thus ignored the reality that these sectoral studies didn’t add up to economic history, as it might have missed technological, social and some local issues of much importance, such as gaps in hum-an development, leakage of funds, shortfall in local capital formation and private investment, migration and out-migration of labour, sluggish transfer of technology and the resultant imbalance in development within even a small area like Meghalaya’s Garo Hills.
More specifically, the official studies tend to avoid sensitive issues like the impact of Central policies on regional economy, growing inequality in tribal states of the region and continuation of grant of exemption from payment of income tax to tribal people for income earned from modern business and profession, and disaffection among a large section of the people of the region.
Considering these shortcomings, the Planning Commission in the late 1990s initiated the preparation of state development reports, inv-olving states, to set a kind of historical benchmark for development. These reports, barring Sikkim and Tripura, were disheartening, as for instance, the Assam report noted that “extortion had emerged as a viable industry in the state”.
Logically, these reports should be updated periodically and it is all the more necessary now, because of the new participatory approach to development that the Niti Ayog has adopted.
From this perspective, the North Eastern Council’s 2020 document is largely a catalogue of aspirations, and at the most, a base paper for regional planning. Economic history goes bey-ond interpretation of data to address strategic issues like the reasons for failure of small compact states inhabited by ethnic groups, following a tribal way of life created by the Centre to meet the aspirations of the region’s tribal people. That failed not only to deliver economic progress but also maintain political unity, as is evident from the demand for a separate state by a section of the Garo tribe.
Next, the impact of conversion of “commonly-owned tribal land” into private land and the incidences of landlessness that it caused among the tribes lead to a type of land relations — found in the plains of Assam and elsewhere — and mining for profit by the few who acquired the right, created a new rich class in tribal society.
In this background, out migration of labour from the region while illegal migration is continuing might appear puzzling. But this is to be seen from the perspective of labour economics and demands of market from a historical viewpoint, based on analysis of labour movement, skills shortage and wage pattern to construct a reasoned approach to the issue of migrant labour.
The economic history of urbanisation, growth of the network of higher educational institutions and middle class in the region make a fascinating study, as these developments took place in periods of slow growth of the economy and without any real demand from the industry. And why, despite a regional network of 17 universities, the region is unable to create science and technology for industrial growth, is a matter for serious thinking.
Thus following Russell’s thinking there is indeed a “disease in the body politic” of the North-east that would make people think “important thoughts”, which could as well begin with a renewed interest in the study of history of the region’s economic interaction with the rest of the country and countries in its neighbourhood.
Frankly speaking, the absence of a rational historical approach has been responsible for building up of myths and disinformation, such as neglect of the region and exploitation of its resources for the benefit of other parts of the country, though the facts suggest otherwise. For instance, the total expenditure incurred in the North-east is well over a lakh of crores of rupees in the 11th Plan for development, was almost entirely funded by the Centre. There is, indeed an imperative need to begin a serious study of economic history of the region to build a strategic approach to its development.