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Whither Act East Policy?

By The Assam Tribune
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ROUCH & TUMBLE – Patricia Mukhim

Northeast India has the potential to become the information technology hub of the country provided digital communication bottlenecks are removed. This is another clean industry that will generate employment for the youth of the region and use their employable skills and their proficiency in English speaking.

Now that its election season in Assam, one hopes the discussions will only veer around what’s good for Assam but also include the agenda for the larger development paradigm of the north-eastern region. Assam is called the gateway to the Northeast for a reason. The gateway has a responsibility to provide alternative routes for the largely land-locked region to take wings. It is here that the Act East Policy should also feature in the public conversations and discussions leading to the Assam Assembly elections.

For too long the Act East Policy is reduced to seminars organized by the Ministry of External Affairs. Nothing happens after the seminars, which is why perhaps seminars are called ‘talk shops’. Recently the Assam Rifles in collaboration with the United Services Institute, New Delhi organized a discussion on the theme, ‘Unravelling the haze that obscures the Northeast’s Potential for Acting East’. This is a theme that needs to be discussed in every State of the region. India’s Act East Policy should be included in the school, college and university curricula. Only then will this policy become the talking point in the region where it is supposed to be operationalized. A mere change of slogan from ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’, is no big deal; now we also need to see real action on the ground.

Indeed, New Delhi needs to turn words into actions because in 2018 when the BJP was electioneering for the next elections, the Act East Policy was the bogey with which the party sold itself to the people of the Northeast. Granted that the BJP did try to give a big push for road and railway infrastructure and various steps to boost the regional economy. But till date most of the infrastructural projects remain incomplete. However, Modi’s Northeast agenda then and his frequent visits to the region created the rhetoric of inclusiveness that helped to bring people closer to the BJP. No other Prime Minister has visited the north-eastern States as many times as Modi has. And that’s no favour done to the Northeast. It is one way of emotionally integrating the people of the region to the rest of India.

That the Act East Policy is critical to the economic growth of the north-eastern region cannot be overstated. Our natural market destination is towards Southeast Asia through Myanmar (if one looks at roadways and waterways). But States like Meghalaya and Tripura can benefit more by looking south towards Bangladesh, their closest neighbour. The use of Chittagong port will boost our trade prospects with the outside world. Meghalaya for instance has Bangladesh as a natural ally for trading its niche products such as oranges, bananas, pineapples, betel nut and betel leaf, etc. And this is because there are no state-of-the-art processing units within the State or region. If Dabur can set up shop in Nepal which hardly produces fruits of any kind, why can’t Dabur set up fruit processing units in any of the NE States?

Meghalaya’s Lakadong turmeric is known the world over for its curcumin content which ranges between 7.9 to 8% — the highest in the world. Curcumin is known for its medicinal value and Meghalaya needs high class processing units to retain the curcumin content even after the raw turmeric is hydrated and turned into powdered turmeric. Branding and bottling of Lakadong turmeric has started on a small scale. This needs scaling up so that production can be boosted and farmers earn a decent income.

Every State in the Northeast is known for its arts, crafts and weaves. The weaves from Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Assam already have a market in the international fashion market. Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh need to improve their weaves for the niche market. The DoNER Ministry should be looking at these initiatives which are the strengths of the region and adopt and assist small weavers. The designs of the weaves need to be patented and given Geographical Indication so that they are not mass produced and lose their unique values. This has to be done especially with Muga and Eri silk and the Naga shawls.

The Northeast is a much sought after tourism destination which has grown exponentially over the past decade. However, we need trained human resources to manage this critical industry and to also have in place efficient garbage management systems that are non-polluting. Some NE States have already designed high-end tourism features which are distinct from mass tourism. Mass tourism will kill the very idea of tourism because it generates too much carbon footprints. Tourism is the only clean industry that is sustainable. The Northeast is a biodiversity hotspot and cannot environmentally sustain smoke-stacked industries such as cement factories and coke units which are environmentally devastating. Nor can the region ceaselessly mine coal and limestone at a great cost to the ecology. It is the natural landscapes that we in the region are showcasing to the world. If these natural landscapes no longer exists; if forest lands have now become stone quarries; if rivers are now turning into sand banks and most have become dry or poisoned, then what will tourists come to see? They will start looking for better avenues. This is what the Act East Policy should be addressing since tourism will start becoming a circuit between Thailand-Laos-Cambodia-Northeast India.

As stated above the Act East Policy will not take off unless we have robust inter-regional connectivity and also connectivity with the rest of the country and with Southeast Asia. None of this has taken off and needs to be operationalized at the earliest. The trilateral highway connecting India to Myanmar-Thailand, etc., is making very slow progress. This needs to be accelerated. So too the multi-modal Kaladan riverway that connects Mizoram to Myanmar and beyond!

Between Northeast India and Southeast Asia are many cultural affinities. These need to transform into opportunities for tourism and business purposes too. Religious, medical, educational tourism between the regions have great prospects. We only need to skill up a cadre of tour guides and operators. At the moment these two categories of human resources are still not adequately trained and not many are promoting tourism with an eye on sustainability. Costing of tourism products such as the Living Root bridges or Kaziranga National Park and Loktak Lake are too meagre to ensure sustainability.

Northeast India has the potential to become the information technology hub of the country provided digital communication bottlenecks are removed. This is another clean industry that will generate employment for the youth of the region and use their employable skills and their proficiency in English speaking.

Last but not least, Northeast India is known for its music and acting potential. We have the world renowned Shillong Chamber Choir – a self-propelled musical group that everyone across the country patronizes. There’s the Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland and many more groups. These groups need some amount of State patronage. The region needs an international-level performing arts infrastructure along the lines of NCPA, Mumbai so that regular performances can be held the year round. The region also has huge potentials to become a filmmaking destination but there are hurdles galore for film directors and producers to overcome if they have to shoot here. Single-window clearances for this are imperative. This too should be an integral part of the Act East Policy action plan.

The Act East Policy is the key to open up possibilities for the youth of the region and fast-track the overall economic growth of the seven States.

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