India’s Northeast comprises eight states, namely Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Sikkim, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, and Mizoram, accounting for about eight per cent of the country’s geographical area and housing four per cent of the population. Each of these states has its own identity and customs, yet citizens residing in the rest of the country conveniently refer to these states as the Northeast and not Nagaland, Mizoram, or Assam, unlike when they refer to other states of the country. Other states are called by their names, like Punjab, West Bengal, Telangana, or Gujarat.
The partition of Bengal in 1947 on the eve of India’s independence dealt a deadly blow to the connectivity between the eastern part of the country (West Bengal) and the Northeast. East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) was wedged between Kolkata (West Bengal) and north-east India. Agartala (capital of Tripura state) of north-east India is about 700 km from Kolkata via Bangladesh whereas the distance is about 1,700 km in case of travel through the Siliguri corridor.
The annexation of Tibet by China in 1958 severed the traditional trade and people-to-people links between Tibet and Assam. Instability and a lack of economic development in Myanmar even now hinder connectivity between the north-eastern states and the ASEAN countries, which is a big setback to India’s Act East Policy.
The lack of integration of India’s Northeast with the rest of the country has been often discussed in various forums but the integration of various states of the Northeast among themselves has hardly been spoken of. It would be of interest to know that the Northeast houses 145 tribes, out of which 78 have a population of more than 5,000. 220 dialects are prevalent in the region. The tribal people follow different traditions and customs, highlighting the fact that the diversity between them is as stark as between the people of Punjab and Tamil Nadu. A Meitei of Imphal valley has a very different language, culture, and traditions from a Naga. Similarly, there is no common thread that binds the people of Arunachal Pradesh with those hailing from Assam, Mizoram, or Tripura.
The terrain within the Northeast is very diverse, ranging from the plains of Assam having beautiful tea gardens and jungles, to the low hills of Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Mizoram, to the high-altitude Himalayas of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. All types of weather, ranging from extreme cold to moderate, is prevalent in some or other part of the Northeast throughout the year, which makes it suitable for visitors and tourists. Resultantly, the terrain offers immense opportunities for adventure tourism, agri-tourism, and trekking. Exotic fruits, vegetables, and herbs available in the region cannot be matched by any other part of India.
Rich heritage, dances, dresses, and cultures of various tribes of Nagaland are on display every year at the Hornbill Festival. There is immense potential within the region to conduct several such festivals that can culminate in a collective display of cultures, dresses, and dances of each state at the regional level. Such festivals can surely integrate various tribes and states of north-east India. Such well-curated festivals, if marketed properly and backed by well-developed infrastructure in a peaceful environment, can become a global fest.
Another arena of building bonhomie amongst various states and tribes is sports. The Northeast, especially Manipur, fields a disproportionately high number of players at the national level in all sports. Well-organised sports meets can help create strong bonds leading to a more cohesive Northeast.
Major impediments in the realisation of the above potential are extremely poor and inefficient administration due to prevalent insurgency in some states, massive corruption, and the absence of rule of law in many parts of the Northeast. There is a fear amongst travellers about their personal safety and security.
Another major factor that discourages tourists from visiting the Northeast is the extremely underdeveloped infrastructure. After all, tourists plan their holidays with the aim of relaxing both physically and mentally. Even the most exotic locations won’t attract them, in case there is even the mildest risk to their personal safety. Restrictive regulations like ‘Inner line Permit’ for visitors to some north-eastern states started by the British and followed by the post-independence governments have also adversely affected integration of the north-eastern states both within and with the rest of the country. A lot more can be done to market the strengths of different states of the Northeast among other states of the region.
Not enough effort has been put into integrating the economies of various states with other states keeping in mind their strengths. Tea is the strong point of Assam, spices of Mizoram, and exotic fruits of Arunachal Pradesh, which must be marketed by setting up facilitation centres within the Northeast. Besides integrating within the Northeast, export-oriented joint ventures with Bangladesh that will give access to the Bay of Bengal through their ports has immense potential.
The potential of integrating the Northeast within will add to the national growth and well-being of the citizens of the region. Since north-eastern states share almost 5,600 km of borders with the neighbours and access to the Bay of Bengal is through Bangladesh and Myanmar, it is imperative to explore possibilities of joint ventures with these countries to boost exports and create much-needed jobs.
The way forward to integrate the Northeast is to firstly restore law and order so that businesses are encouraged to invest. Secondly, encourage and create manufacturing hubs so that it makes economic sense to truly use the Northeast for trade with the ASEAN economies. Thirdly, to make the above possible, there is a need for world-class road, rail, and other infrastructure. The local raw material must be processed locally so that logistics cost is reduced and the local economy is given a boost. Last but not the least, tourism in this region has immense potential which must be fully exploited.
To achieve the above, there is a need to totally overhaul the administration so that people who care for the region are involved in the planning and execution of the development projects so that the benefits reach the target population.
Lt Gen Balbir Singh Sandhu (Retd) was head of Army Service Corps. He is a distinguished fellow at United Service Institution of India. His PhD thesis was ‘Peace, Security and Economic Development of India’s Northeast’. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.