Any discerning analyst of development in the North-east after Partition and especially, after the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict, must have noted two thoughts always dominating the political and economic mindscape and actions of its diverse people.

First, awareness about the region’s remoteness and second, fears of being turned into a landlocked area, which would inhibit access to its market, and hence capital and technology. It results in a much lower return on capital invested in the North-east as compared to the rest of the country; and births a vicious cycle of slow development and growing signs of “economic retardation” and not just under development. While this puts the onus on the Centre to push additional investment in all sectors to modernise the physical and social infrastructure for growth, the political class of the region seems to also resent the “central dependency” syndrome while at the same time, demanding larger central support, direct investment and flow of private capital — domestic and foreign — to the region.

As if to counter the dependency syndrome, the other response that emerged in all states of the region was “identity politics”, which often takes a violent form against the “other within”, “foreigner” or outsider. The liberal use of terms like “non-Bodo” in Assam or non-Mizo in Mizoram conceptually puts all people on the “other” side without realising that every person has “multiple identities” as Amartya Sen argued brilliantly in his seminal work, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Every individual is at once a consumer, saver, investor and a taxpayer and hence, part of the market economy.

The economic consequences of the identity politics of the North-east, in whatever form, are a steady fall in the return on capital invested and it worsens when it turns violent generating a vicious cycle of low investment-low return- low income and effective demand leading to a shrinking market, which perpetuates poverty and backwardness. The development experience of sub-Saharan Africa, where the situation is somewhat similar to what is prevailing in the North-east, suggests that it is the rural economy that suffers most, which might be a major reason for the failure of the “North Eastern Region Vision 2020” document of the North Eastern Council. It was formulated to raise the per capita income of the North-east states and bring it at par with the national average.

The market economy model that we have adopted since Independence, with some trappings of Nehruvian socialism at times, made rural production function totally subservient to the larger urban economy. This point was stressed by the late Nanaji Deshmukh, who was posthumously conferred the Bharat Ratna this year, when he forcefully argued that rural people are “the custodians of natural resources and hence the life support system”. What he meant was emphatic — rural areas and its people are not just coefficients in the calculus of wealth generation and their contribution to the economy cannot be measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product share.

Deshmukh’s efforts to restructure rural economy took the shape of the ongoing “Swabalamban”, which is a rural self reliance project in Chitrakoot, covering parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Its object is raising productivity and income of small farm holdings through the Deendayal Research Institute, a multi-disciplinary rural development organisation that Deshmukh founded and located in Chitrakoot. It entails a comprehensive package of technology, capital and marketing support to promote watershed and irrigation, crop diversification, household “non-farm” activities like cultivation of medicinal plants, food processing, dairy and poultry farming. They are supported by the DRI’s health, education and character building activities especially among the youth.

Presently, the DRI’s holistic “Swabalamban” project is going on in UP and MP covering 522 villages in 108 clusters in about a 50km radius of Chitrakoot — a process that began in 2002 with 80 villages and had 432 villages in the second phase in 2010. The project activities have been designed to achieve the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. It works primarily through the DRI’s specialist field staff in health, agriculture, animal husbandry, irrigation and watershed management, afforestation and medicinal plants, livestock and poultry rearing with special efforts to convert homesteads, especially in tribal villages, into “micro economic” units by promoting scientific kitchen gardens, production of bio fertilisers, food processing and crafts for domestic use and sale.

What distinguishes the DRI project from usual governmental rural development projects is its core “multi-purpose” extension staff, especially the “samaj shilpi dampatis”. A married couple is selected and trained by the DRI. They are thereafter posted in a village to live and work as part of the village community towards all round social development or “samaj shilpa”. Their tasks include transfer of a wide range of skills and technology, and motivating people, especially women to form self help groups and effectively participate in the state development schemes.

In addition, “Uddamita”, which is the DRI’s rural entrepreneurship development institute, provides training to rural youth and women to take up businesses in micro and small scale manufacturing and arranges institutional financial support and market access. The DRI-managed “Krishi Vigyan Kendras” or rural science centres, hospitals and mobile health clinics support development efforts in a way that has created a sense of ownership among the people — a rarely observed aspect in usual government schemes. The results on the ground are impressive. As of now, 32,613 households have been covered benefiting 202,607 persons in multiple ways such as expanded irrigation to 4,345 hectares of land, 17 watershed management projects through construction of check dams, contour trenches, farm ponds and such other water holding structures, provisioning of eight seed banks and development of eight seed villages. Increased participation of women in the SHG-led activities, fall in school dropout rates and improved health status of women and children are signs of progress. More importantly, villagers have become stakeholders and are no longer just “beneficiaries”. They seem to feel that all activities and achievements are really their own.

It is this force of “integration” that is missing in development efforts across the North-east at all levels as everything boils down to assessment of gains and losses for special groups and in the process, the goal of common good is ignored. The formation of a number of autonomous councils in the region only contributed to the rise of “localism”, thereby obstructing the growth of a comprehensive development strategy.

One feels here that the DRI could consider taking up its rural self reliance project in the North-east. They may start in Assam and develop a model, which would be replicable in the region with local modifications to demonstrate how a “divisive economic model” actually obstructs development. Under DRI schemes, development assistance is provided on assessment of the response of individual poor to the incentives already extended to help them to get out of poverty.

Such facts suggest the need for early extension of the DRI project approach to the North-east for building a new “cohesive economy”.

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.