External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar on Monday made a strong pitch for enhanced connectivity and interaction between India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia through Assam. Indeed, the potential has always been there but the lack of sincere attempts by successive Central governments has put a dampener on these prospects which if realized can open up exciting vistas of development for the Northeast. The Japanese Ambassador who accompanied the Union minister in his Guwahati visit also dwelt on the possibilities of greater mutual engagements between the two countries, with thrust on Japanese investments in the infrastructure sector. Ironically, the Japan-funded mega water supply project in the city has dragged on for many years, missing repeated deadlines stemming from the inapt, unprofessional handling by the Assam Government. This is certainly not the way to bring in foreign investment into the State. Investments require an enabling environment and the States providing the best of conditions alone will find investors. As for greater connectivity between the Northeast and its South Asian neighbours, the Centre has to exhibit a sense of purpose to match its rhetoric being made for the past one-and-a-half decades. The visit of the External Affairs Minister is a step in the right direction, as it sends out a positive signal about its intent. But for the dream of making Assam a future gateway to Southeast Asia, a lot of hard work needs to be done, beginning with improvement in connectivity and communication. The foremost thing for the Government is to actually act upon its much-vaunted Act East Policy that has remained more or less on paper till date.

The Japanese Ambassador, Satoshi Suzuki, rightly emphasized the potentials of Assam and the rest of the Northeast, accruing from their strategic location and historical and cultural ties with Southeast Asia. The Northeast will have to figure in the joint goal of India and Japan for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and to boost India’s quest towards the 5-trillion-dollar economy. Significantly, Suzuki also dwelt on the importance of entrepreneurship development in the Northeast. This will be a prerequisite for us if we were to reap the benefits that are supposed to follow from enhanced connectivity and engagements with Southeast Asia. Unless we can prepare ourselves for the expected transformation, merely having connectivity is unlikely to benefit us. In order to reap the dividends, we will need quality human resources as well, failing which outsiders will grab the lion’s share of the benefits. The Japanese Ambassador’s offer to cooperate to build bamboo value chains is something our governments in the north-eastern States must reciprocate. They would also do well to utilize the technical intern training programme (TITP) and the system of specified skilled workers as mentioned by the diplomat. Healthcare and sanitation are two other crucial areas – especially in the post-Covid situation – where Japan has offered technological assistance to the Northeast.