Mention the Northeast beyond North Bengal and it conjures up visions of red rivers and blue hills, tea gardens (in the uplands of the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys), terraced cultivation, vast forests and wildlife, exotic tribes, diverse cultures, ethnicity and languages; all overshadowed since 1947 by seemingly permanent internal conflicts, ethnic insurgencies and obstruction of development despite huge Central investments. It is summed up neatly in Sanjeev Baruah’s assessment of the region — a state of “durable disorder”.
That said, it is time to have a closer look at the basic facts about the region to test this longstanding hypothesis in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day call to the nation to resolve internal conflicts with a spirit of accommodation and goodwill. That calls for a new approach to the region. Perhaps a good beginning could be questioning the “hypothesis” itself. Is the region really so backward, socially and economically?
If we look at Gross State Domestic Product statistics, it seems that the North-east states have been doing reasonably well from the 10th Plan (2002-07). Against the national average per capita GSDP of Rs 1,12,432 at current prices, Sikkim , Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh are in the group of 24 states and Union Territories with incomes above the national average.
Sikkim holds the fourth rank with a per capita GSDP equivalent to $4,300, while Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh hold the 15th and 17th ranks with per capita GSDP of $2,500 and $2,400 respectively at current prices, as compared to the national GSDP average of $1,800. What might surprise one is the fact that Mizoram is ranked just above Punjab and Arunachal Pradesh, next to Punjab. Of course there could be no comparison in terms of the size, technology base or diversification between the economy of Punjab and the three North-east states but it demonstrates an important fact — market-led growth has been taking place there and in the process, modernising the incomes and lifestyle of people largely due to central funding for development efforts of the states.
Mizoram is indeed a success story as it has been among the fastest growing state economies — it achieved 11 per cent growth in the 12th Plan exceeding the national average of 7.9 per cent. Since the 10th Plan, Mizoram’s growth has been steady at 5.7 per cent, exceeding targets, and it has diversified the economy as its tertiary sector has been contributing 60 per cent GSDP during the last five years. As the tertiary sector is primarily trade-based it reflects integration into the national economy, which is the real foundation of the peace and stability of Mizoram. This carries a message for Manipur and Nagaland.
Of the remaining five states, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland and Manipur hold the 28th, 25th, 29th, 26th and 31st ranks respectively with per capita GSDP of Rs 98,556, Rs 80,625, Rs 77,351, Rs 89,607 and Rs 58,442, respectively.
Looking from a sub-regional perspective, in nominal dollar terms, Assam’s per capita GSDP of $1,300 is slightly less than the $1,368.78 of Bangladesh, calculated in 2016. The poor performance of Manipur has been mainly due to long spells of misgovernance — its society has been paying for a directionless insurgency and this holds true for Nagaland as well. Nonetheless, it cannot be anybody’s case that the region lacks economic dynamism as growth momentum has now picked up.
Again from the perspective of human development, the North-east deserves to be seen as a success story if we look at the progress achieved in literacy, education, especially female literacy, and sports. In literacy, Mizoram, Tripura, Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya have achieved rates well above the national average of 74.04 per cent — Assam with 73.18 per cent is a little below the national average and Arunachal with 66.95 per cent has to catch up with the rest of the country.
One fourth of the 24 states with literacy rates above the national average are in the North-east, and Mizoram and Tripura lead at the third and fourth places, having achieved 91.58 per cent and 87.75 per cent literacy, respectively, followed by Sikkim (13th) and Nagaland (15th) with 82.20 per cent and 80.11 per cent respectively. It is the base on which the region has built and sustained its higher education system — by far the most intensive in the country with 17 universities and one Central University in every state and deemed universities like IIT-Guwahati and management and medical institutions for a population of 40 million.
Further, a network of 9,151 high schools, 528 general degree colleges and 82 professional colleges in the region, which the Centre’s 2010-11 Economic Survey noted, has created a strong base for the growth of an aspiring middle class that has been rapidly expanding. This explains the significant presence of educated youngsters from the North-east in every metro.
In sports, what the region has achieved must be considered spectacular though sporting talents of the region were recognised even before Independence, as for example Dr T Ao of Nagaland, who led the Indian football team to the Olympic Games at Paris in 1948 when India reached the semi-finals and lost to France. However, those were successes of individuals exposed to the club facilities in Calcutta or elsewhere and not due to an organised effort in the region to promote a team game or athletics. This gap seems to have been breached with the initiatives of society and the states, mainly since the reorganisation of the North-east in 1971, as the state leadership positively responded to demands of the youth for improved sports facilities and incentives. Thus from the 1980s sportsmen and women of the Northeast appeared on the national scene in a big way — in team games, boxing and athletics and in hitherto uncharted fields like the Mizos taking to football, which was not popular till the 1980s for want of good playing fields and is now excelling in the same.
A vibrant sports culture with mass participation actually in the ground and not as “watchers” has grown in the region. This was well demonstrated in the 2015 National Games held in Kerala when Manipur took the 7th rank with 22 gold, 21 silver and 26 bronze medals (69 in total) and outperformed states with much older traditions of sports and better infrastructure like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Jharkhand and with much larger populations.
Together the North-east collected 112 medals out of 1,334 in the Games, which considering the region’s population is a remarkable achievement and reflects a vibrant sports culture. Equally remarkable has been the performance of the North-east states in the inter-state football championship for the Santosh Trophy. Manipur won it in 2002 and Mizoram in 2014 and in every year from the 1980s, teams from the region have been among the main contenders for the trophy. Scores of footballers from the region don the national colour and those of top teams in the ISL and other prestigious tournaments.
These are by no means small achievements and indicate the innate capacity of the diverse people of the region to realise their goals of progress with dignity. It is time, therefore, to rediscover the North-east and develop a partnership for progress on the proven capability of her people in building institutions like the way the Naga Mothers’ Association has been struggling against patriarchy and a culture of excellence in sports it has established rather than trying to impose a “model of development” betraying an unproductive patronising attitude.
The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the government of India