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Difficult balancing act

Any attempt to converge national vision with people’s voices in this contested region must be negotiated carefully

Rakhee Bhattacharya | New Delhi |

The General Election has fostered public debate and hit its democratic parlance mostly on split opinions pertaining to national security and economic development. The patriotic excitement of millions strongly adhere to India’s national security while many more believe that loyal nationalism lies in creating an egalitarian system with basic socio-economic and human rights to millions who are still on the margin. Interestingly, this binary existed in the North-east for a very long time from the post-Partition period.

As the colonial State carved out political boundaries on the geography of South Asia, this constructed space — the North-east of India — was mapped with a set of complex external orientations by dividing its contiguous geography and ruining its natural neighbouring relations. With natural neighbours turning into “strategic neighbouring nations”, this borderland became a subject of national security and geopolitics. The strokes of the political borders produced multi-layered deadlocks and isolation; and created economic underdevelopment and infrastructural asymmetry in the North-east. This precisely kept the region at the margin of the national economy but made it the focal point for national security with about 98 per cent of India’s international boundaries.

The narrative began to change in the post-1990s with liberalisation and introduction of policies on the economic development of the North-east. This focus grew manifold in the last five years of the BJP government at the Centre with an incessant push to “transform” it into an “aspirational” region of India. This is a reversal of the earlier narrative of the North-east.

Economic development is the core policy agenda for the region under India’s Act East Policy since 2014. In 2017, Niti Aayog — the government think tank — laid down a blue print for the region in its “Three Year Action Agenda” on sustainable development, infrastructure and transit connectivity, industry and global capital, and youth. It was to “augment national wealth” and provide first-hand livelihood and economic opportunities to its people.

This Action Agenda therefore proposed some special and region-friendly industries including sericulture, floriculture, tea plantations; silk and handicraft industries through centrally sponsored schemes. Henceforth development projects of the region became 100 per cent centrally funded against the 90:10 ratio earlier. That increased fund utilisation in the Northeast significantly, by 21 per cent in the last three years. Promotion of these specific sectors is linked with the idea of surplus economy, cash cropping and monetisation of indigenous knowledge, which can gradually transform the aspirations of the people and add higher economic values.

The Action Agenda also proposed modernising the existing and new vocational and industrial training institutions through skilling. This is to support them to integrate their local economies and traditional knowledge systems to the larger markets, to become selfreliant, and to “remove the economic challenges of the region by removing economic and physical barriers”.

In the backdrop of the Centre’s Act East Policy and its message of economic development for the region, the central budgetary allocation for the Northeast has increased by 21 per cent amounting to Rs 58,165 crores for the financial year 2019-20. The policy shift has also attempted to address the region’s geographical isolation by creating massive connectivity infrastructure. That is also to utilise the geography of the North-east for increasing trade volume, and ensuring mobility and a larger market in the long run.

This push with respect to infrastructure projects has a manifold purpose of generating future geo-economics of the region, boosting defence logistics across its bordering areas, and gaining people’s confidence at large to make robust political capital.

There has been a tremendous effort by the Centre to showcase the sincerity behind such moves and in the last five years, the completion of two strategic bridges — Dhola-Sadiya and Bogibeel over the River Brahmaputra —were to gain people’s trust and attain electoral benefits. Laying out such a clear vision for development in the region has helped the BJP form governments in six of the eight North-eastern states. The party expects to gain more in the current Lok Sabha election. After all there are 25 constituencies in the region with Assam alone accounting for 14. Leaving aside electoral politics, this development vision was imperative for the people of the North-east, who have been desperately in need of livelihood and other economic opportunities.

Other than infrastructure deficit, the region is trapped in various human security challenges, and poverty possibly tops the list. The poverty ratio in the North-east has shown an alarming increase in the post-liberalisation period. About 33.61 per cent of the people in the region were below the poverty line even in 2009-10 against 29.61 per cent in India (Planning Commission figures). This figure came down marginally to 28.39 per cent in 2011-12 with National Sample Survey Office data modification but remained much higher than the national average of 21.92 per cent.

There are about 13.2 million people in the region who are trapped in the vicious poverty circle. The situation is worst in conflict-ridden states like Manipur and Assam. Some regions of these states have poverty ratios ranging between 50 to 70 per cent (NSSO data).

Unlike India’s overall situation where economic growth could ensure redistribution policies in the post-liberalisation period and could address poverty issues substantially, its borderland states in the North-east sunk into an even greater poverty-trap despite the fact that its formal economy has also grown from Rs 96,855 lakh in 200405 to Rs 37,8221 lakh in 2015-16, which is about four times increase in volume (Central Statistics Office data). This increase, possibly, has not made any structural change in the economy of the region to uplift its people from such a severe poverty-trap. The data of the organised industries may reveal the truth partially.

Such industrial sectors, which can absorb increasing workforce, for example, have just doubled their units from 2,211 in 2004-05 to 5,096 in 2015-16. The number of people engaged in these industries has also just doubled from 142,633 in 2004-05 to 278,149 in 2015-16 (Annual Survey of Industries data). Thus most of the employment outside agriculture is in the low productivity unorganised sector.

The unemployment rate was highest in India in one of the states in the region, Tripura with 25 per cent followed by Nagaland at 23 per cent (NSSO data, 2011-12), adding substantially to India’s jobless growth and driving out a large number of youngsters from the region in search of livelihood and education to other parts of the country.

Economic under-performance, a high poverty ratio, lack of livelihood opportunities and infrastructural deficits have augmented conflicts in some states of the region, creating a very high intra-regional disparity with Manipur as the “poorest” and Sikkim as the “richest”. The current proactive Centre has a long-term vision to not only “transform” the narrative of marginality of the North-east, but also to integrate it into the dominant national economy with large scale development where free flow and economic mobility can help to empower its people.

This seems to be an exciting proposition to many, but given the sensitivity, complexity and diversity of the North-east, a section of people think that economics would override the ground realities and snatch various indigenous rights. Glimpses were already shown in the recent past when the region became a fresh site of resistance against the Citizenship Amendment Bill and said no to the ruling party at the Centre, proving once again that the issue of identity in this region “cannot be compromised for economic development alone”.

Therefore any attempt to converge national vision with people’s voices in this contested region must be negotiated carefully, which otherwise can easily make it volatile. However, the verdict of the General Election will soon let the nation know about the minds of the people of the North-east on such transformative developmental ideas of the Centre.

(The writer is on the faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)