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Development is a central factor of security. Indeed, one of the ways in which the security calculus of a nation can be ascertained is by ensuring all-round development in the crucial matrix and architecture. In the North Eastern context, the “dream of development” has more or less been one that has been confined to mere ideation. Even the infrastructure that paves the borderlands has been put on a virtual back-burner because of absurd apprehensions that inimical forces might utilise such links to intimidating benefits, and steamroll onto the flood plains of the Brahmaputra with hostile intent. Perhaps one of the reasons for the non-development of the India-China border in the eastern sector stems from such a myopic vision. But be that as it may, there is presently both realisation and pressure that the North East must be incorporated both emotionally and industrially into the heartland, utilising the geo-location of the region and its proximity to South East Asia as a locational advantage for the country’s progress. However, the erstwhile “Look East” had been a policy only on paper: pithy little would result for the North East and the country unless there is an effort to “Go or Act East,” rather than taking a view that the “East” as an expanse that must be taken advantage of. It is also unfortunate that the North East Industrial Development Scheme (NEIDS) has turned out to be a damp squib with such a scheme having failed to bring in investors to the region. Indeed, the Federation of Industry and Commerce of North Eastern Region, a local industry body has written  a letter to India’s Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to this effect. On 27 February 2020, the author was invited to proffer his views in a UNDP-NITI Aayog sponsored consultative committee “15 Year Vision Document for North East India”. While the conclave was a welcome one, there was disappointment that even this “meeting of minds” would be another exercise in futility. The objective of the meet was to “design strategic and long term policy and programme frameworks and initiatives”. However, all one could fathom was the taking note of some watered suggestions which primarily centred on aspects such as horticulture, floriculture and traditional medical practices. A four-way integrative Vision Document should be made of sterner stuff.

 

Gratefully, the nomenclature “Look East” has undergone a taxonomical change and has been replaced by the more insistent turn of phrase “Act East”. But, in the mould of most aspects that engender the enchanted frontiers, even (at least till the time of writing in October 2020) such swapping of expression has only been cosmetic.

 

In this context, it would be of some relevance to realise that both China and Myanmar are taking active steps to reconstruct pathways into the area for commercial reasons. While there is no reason to doubt the subterfuges that may emanate from an anti-India enterprise in India’s eastern lands or countries such as Bangladesh that strategically abut India’s North East, it must be appreciated that a formal opening up of the North East to dynamic South East Asia does not necessarily mean that a “famished road” is being erected for a decisive entry of insurgency and anti-India source from the liberated zones that abut Myitkina and Yunnan. Policy that guides frontier must take a holistic view and accordingly plot the waypoints for the nation’s development, however periphery its outlying stations may be situated in.

 

On the face of it, the efforts by New Delhi to improve the process of industrialisation in the North East have been laudable. Indeed, ever since the establishment of the North Eastern Council in 1971, able attempts have been made to boost the industrial health of the region. The North Eastern Financial Development Corporation Ltd (NEDFI) was also established in 1995 and when the Ministry of Development of the North Eastern Region was set up, NEDFI was placed under the administrative control of the ministry. Furthermore, an ambitious North East Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy (NEIIPP), 2007—substituting the earlier North East Industrial Policy of 1997—was announced for the region. The new policy sought to institute a slew of fiscal incentives and concessions for the North East for a period of ten years. The highlights of the NEIIPP included total tax free zones for units located anywhere in the region, central excise benefits for goods, transport subsidy for both raw material and finished products, 30 percent investment subsidy for new and existing expanding industries, working capital investment subsidy @ 3 percent on loans and a all-inclusive insurance policy including 100 percent premium which is to be borne by the Government of India. The service sector, biotechnology industry and power generating plants were also included in the NEIIPP for the first time. Although the different states in the North East announced or revised their own industrial policies to synergise their efforts with that of the NEIIPP—Assam, for instance, offered “subsidies on power consumption”—the fact of the matter was the new policy was providing substantial concessions to a geographically disadvantaged region, and a level playing ground was being established by the NEIIPP.

 

Taking advantage of such never-before-concessions, many industrial units have been set up in the North East. While units producing essential and substantive goods are few, a large number of assembly units have been established by resorting to the concessions that were being offered. But misuse of the concessions led to the publication of a list of “non-eligible units.” It was clarified that “in order to ensure genuine industrial activities, benefits under NEIIPP will not be available to goods in respect of which only peripheral activities like preservation during storage, cleaning operation, packaging, labelling etc takes place.” It was also reported that a coterie of unscrupulous industrialists in collusion with certain officials were taking undue advantage of the policy. Also, bureaucratic red-tapism and attitudinal difficulties were coming in the way of industrial units entering the North East. At any rate, an “Interim Study to Access and Evaluate the impact of NEIIPP, 2007” was undertaken and completed in September 2010, and although the study was an exercise in unnecessary verbiage, some important points have come to light. The study confirmed that “industrialisation in the North Eastern Region is not progressing at the same pace as in the rest of the country and needs to be taken up in a more methodical and organised manner.” The conclusion was based on the finding that in terms of “investment intentions” for 2008-09 and 2009-10, the region’s total was “only 0.7 percent of the total investment proposed in the entire country and about 4 percent of the “investment intentions” in Madhya Pradesh in 2008-09, which incidentally was ranked number one in terms of investment proposed. In 2009-10, even though the total “investment intentions” in the country have gone up in the country, it had reduced for Assam. Moreover, “out of the eight states in the North East, only five states had some “investment intentions,” in 2008-09 and 2009-10. In the light of the above conclusions, it has become imperative to take urgent corrective measure. An action plan has presently—notwithstanding the decisive entry of COVID-19—been drawn up for “accelerating industrial development” in the region, and although the plan has prescribed only the usual remedies, a robust re-evaluation of the problems that beset the region must be taken up on a war-footing.  Important components that might occupy the planners of development for the North East is the institution of Special Economic Zones, as also areas that can be designated as storage-container depots that would have onward despatch provision. Gratefully, the Government of Assam has constituted a high powered Economic Advisory Committee to suggest recommendation by way of kick-starting the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crises.

 

However, one of the unfortunate aspects that resulted from the inability to cash on in the NEIIPP is that the special incentives that were offered by the policy of 2007 have been withdrawn, and it is reported that New Delhi is not in favour of restoring the benefits that had been sought to be guaranteed by the policy. Although as aforesaid, the reason that has been provided is the undue advantage that certain dishonest elements had taken of the NEIIPP, primarily the transport subsidy and excise duty exemption, the voice that is emanating from the region is that a proper “watchdog” system that ensures that only “deserving industrial units” received the benefits would have been more practical. Special considerations were drawn up for the deserving in the region, and they should not be penalised just because few have reneged on the concessions. A comparison is also being made to the incentives that were being enjoyed in the erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir where they are still in place, albeit in the now bifurcated territories.

 

In February 2020, a conference on North East and BIMSTEC was held in IIT, Guwahati. The author was invited to chair the special session and one of the summations that he made pertained to security, development and transportation. He lamented the fact that with incidents such as Doklam (when there was considerable threat to the Siliguri Corridor were the Chinese to reach Jampheri Ridge: John Garver called the Chumbi Valley “the single most strategically important piece of real estate in the entire Himalayan region”) a day would come when the nation witnesses the cutting off of the North East from mainland India, a veritable coup de grace for the Chinese who have been wanting such a severance ever since 1971! The plea which the author had made in the BIMSTEC event was that new axes’ should be constructed directly from states in the North East via Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. Such a development would not only call the Chinese bluff (despite the fact that would only be a temporary move), but squarely put the North East back on the “Act East” policy map. If correct thought were to be put on paper and action (especially with a friendly government in Dhaka), the movement would not have been too demanding an affair. The argument that the Chinese already have a foothold in Bangladesh has as much water in it as do the fact that Dhaka purchased two diesel submarines, BNS. Nabajatra and BNS. Joyjatra from China. This is despite the fact that Bangladesh has no maritime concerns, especially against India which is a friend and an ally. Queries by the author to important Bangladesh officials including Gowher Rizvi, International Affairs Adviser to Sheikh Hasina about such aspects met with the answer that they should not be construed as “anti-India”. The submarine acquisition was reportedly to attain a “three-tiered” hierarchy in Bangladesh’s navy. Neutral assessment, therefore, brings to the fore the fact that Dhaka would naturally use its cards to preserve an independent status and not be led into any alliance. The policy, therefore, should be to square off India’s neighbours in a manner that does not reek of a “big-brotherly” stance, an attitude that, at least, the author has encountered in each and every country that borders India. Development would be complete only if the “Neighbourhood First” policy attains a correct and secure vision and action. Insecurity about China’s acts vis-a-vis the “Chicken’s Neck” (as was the case during the Doklam crisis!) would only thwart the direction in which New Delhi expects India to row towards.     

 

A backward region like the North East has a claim for high-merit concession in both development and security policy. The manner in which New Delhi should perceive the situation in the region must stem from a) correct development of the China-Arunachal Pradesh border b) reversal/reworking of the NEIIPP by  reinstituting it with a broad policy for both security and development for the region with appropriate checks and balances and c) an incorporation of the fact that there are aspects in the North East that comprehend both inadequate border management and the need to decisively incorporate the North East into the country’s growth curve. There has been talk that the department of industrial policy and promotion along with NITI Aayog is forging a new North East Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy. However, only time would tell whether it is yet another sop that New Delhi is brandishing for the electorate even as it prepares to go to the hustings in 2021 or is there sincerity for a milieu that New Delhi has been terming its own. Indeed, if it were to be the latter then only the view from the periphery would take a fuller and more charitable outlook of the centre and take steps to be part of the nation building enterprise that it wishes be a partner in.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.