At a recent televised panel discussion with Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma, the BJP’s Hemanta Biswa Sarma smiled in disbelief as the former made a principled but feeble stand to break away from the BJP if the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) is passed under its watch. The moderator cheekily drew attention to the smile and asked if the National People’s Party chief really had a choice.
The moderator’s insinuation is correct and this is a symptom of a larger malaise, a deeply-rooted dependency between New Delhi and the Northeastern states. It is at the heart of the region’s under development.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Northeastern regional parties – especially those in government – have to align with whoever is in power in New Delhi, no matter how incongruous. Apart from Sangma, the Mizo National Front in Mizoram and other parties have done this. It is accepted that these small states are resigned to dependency. Successive Central governments have perpetuated it as a leverage of control. And, regional satraps brag about their ability to get more Central funds.
This gravy train and dependency discourse must change if real development is to take place.
A new discourse
A discourse that looks to break this trap must focus on forging new economic pathways that will lead to economic self-sufficiency and decrease the dependence on doles and funds. Every significant investment must be tested against this measure.
A more market-based approach will create jobs, give a greater sense of pride to the people and bridge the increasing sense of alienation. Why has this not happened so far? Is it because security advisors worry that greater self-sufficiency will encourage separatist tendencies? Is it because politicians across the aisle enjoy the gravy train too much?
While affirmative action and policies that will help the region are to be welcome, the real answer is possibly more classic. Barring Assam – where some industrial activity has taken off – all the other states depend on primary economic activities such as resource extraction and agriculture. Classical development theories propound that these economies must eventually (and quickly) move to secondary- mainly manufacturing activities. Given the demographic composition of the region and the technology of today that can help leapfrog, some can already jump straight to tertiary activities such as services.
Ease of doing business, infrastructure.
Has any region in the world taken off without robust basic infrastructure? If we allow that classical principle to guide a developmental path, the need of the hour in terms of action is not so much fanciful industrial policies that perpetuate even more state patronage or grand pronouncements. Connectivity, good roads, last mile connections, air and rail infrastructure, dependable electricity, robust communication and internet infrastructure, sufficient water supply are key.
The 100 km highway linking two of the biggest cities – Shillong and Guwahati – takes three hours at its best, usually much more. Soft skills and appropriate training must be imparted to anticipate new jobs. The region has a workforce that is inclined to being trained and upskilling.
Neither the Congress governments in the region under the UPA’s watch nor the BJP and allied parties under the NDA have ensured delivery of basic infrastructure that can ensure a leap to the next level. What has been delivered in the past 10-15 years, when relative peace has prevailed? What infrastructure or investment has been delivered out of the provision of 10% of annual plan budgets of all Central ministries since Deve Gowda was Prime Minister? How can one expect old businesses to expand and new businesses to thrive when transportation costs are so high? Electricity and internet connections are poor. Look at the rankings of the ease of doing business, the entire region lags miserably. This at a time the Narendra Modi government has left no stone unturned to make the country climb that ladder.
A sustainable economic takeoff will occur only when private sector investments and entrepreneurship are confidence in the region’s economy. Along with poor infrastructure, there is still a perception that the region is troubled with high political and security risks. A huge number of separatist and militant outfits have actually been neutralised or are participating in the political process. This image of a troubled region needs to change to reflect ground realities. Foresight and investment are required to do so.
Assam partnered with FICCI and took the lead with the Advantage Assam initiative. However, foreign investors looked at the low ease of doing business rankings and the imagine of violence with which the state is associated with. It did not attract much investment. Indian companies also consider the political and security risk in the region to be too high. Consider this: a team of foreign investors with low risk thresholds have to pay as much as Rs 18 lakh for robust and secure transportation costs for a week-long visit to Assam and Manipur.
We can talk about untapped riches or industrial policies that can work magic. What the region needs is tough love, not molly cuddling. Unless there is honest political will to address the scourge of the dependency gravy train and a dogged desire to be economically independent, the region will not develop.
Laldinkima Sailo is the editor of the book Connecting India to ASEAN: Opportunities and Challenges in India’s Northeast.