Northeast India- A Perspective
Nitin A. Gokhale
As I begin this new association with TNT- The Northeast Today, I can't help but recall a conversation I had many moons ago with a friend from college. Meeting as we were after two decades, there much backslapping and nostalgia but as the initial excitement ebbed, my friend, a highly successful senior executive in a multinational company, couldn't help ask me: "What are you doing in that Godforsaken place for so long?" referring to the fact that I was still based in Guwahati 20 years after we had last met. I remember giving him a quizzical look first and then saying: "What's wrong with the place? It is as good or as bad as any other place in the country," and moving on but now over a decade after that conversation (spending nine of those 10 years in Delhi), when I look back I should not have been surprised at my friend's question.
The attitude of the people in rest of India towards the North-east has been like our treatment of a distant relative who exists in the mind but about whom we know precious little. Our knowledge about this relative is often based on misinformation, half truths and innuendos. That's exactly how the rest of the country largely treats the eight sisters in the North East!!
Although the divide between "north-east" and the mainland has lessened over the past decade with more exchange of people and ideas between the two, it is certainly true that in Indian metropolises, the north east continues to remain a mystery.
So how does the rest of the country view the region? There are two very popular and convenient views in rest of India about India's north-east.
One view is that the region, comprising the eight states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh,
Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim is the country's pampered child. Many think and feel that the Centre has been pouring in disproportionate amount of money into the region, which is ultimately misutilized. The second school of thought holds that New Delhi and New Delhi alone is responsible for the economic backwardness of the region and that the neglect by the Centre is monumental.
The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.
The region has indeed suffered from so much neglect and apathy in the past that it is next to impossible to catch up with other parts of India. Yes, all the seven states in the region are granted a "special category" status by the Government of India which means these States receive 90 per cent of Plan assistance as a grant, and just 10 per cent as a loan, as against the norm of 30 per cent grant and 70 per cent loan for other States. As former journalist and first minister to head the Department for Development of North Eastern Region (DONER), Arun Shourie was wont to remark: "Funds are never a problem. Proper and timely utilization of the allocated money is."
And despite abundance of funds, most states in the Northeast face big deficits in their budgets!
That gap will have to be bridged with careful strategy designed to sensitize people from rest of the country about what the region really means to India in terms of geography, languages, culture, traditions and even from the point of view of national security and why the people of the region matter.
Who is to blame for this mess? Not the Centre alone surely. After all, 10 per cent of each of the Central ministries' budget is earmarked for development of the region. Where does the money go then? In reality, the isolation and backwardness of the North-east has as much to do with the Centre's failure to monitor the funds utilization as with failure of local leadership and the lack of initiative on part of its own people.
For years, a section of the leadership and the educated elite among the North-Eastern states, have become willing partners with the 'exploiter' class from Delhi. Today, the entire North-east is dependent upon rest of India more than it ever was. There is no internal revenue generation worth the name in these states. Private enterprise is more an exception than a rule and a majority of the population is dependent upon the government one way or the other.
An observation by a high-profile study group constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2002 to draw up a 25-year vision on development of the Northeast still largely holds water. It said: "A parallel system of governance by the insurgents on the one hand and ministers, MLAs, the bureaucracy and police on the other, is responsible for the political instability and
backwardness in the North-east," the North-east Study Group (NESG) had said.
The group had then felt that the entire system of governance is in a state of collapse in the region. "Whatever money comes into the region for development ends up in the hands of a chosen few," it had rightly observed.
The question is: Why has it happened? There are no clear-cut answers, but endemic corruption and poor management of funds are the two main reasons identified by many analysts. The funding pattern, evolved over the years has given rise to a nouveau rich class comprising mainly of the corrupt politicians, a section of bureaucrats and businessmen in the region.
So, have we lost the North-east forever? Many optimists, like me, are convinced that the
North-east has several things going for itself to catch up with the rest of the country. Unlike most other states, the North-east has a very high percentage of literacy. This itself should be a major strength. All that this pool of manpower resources needs is proper direction. Take the natural resources available with the region. Arunachal Pradesh has so much of water resources available that it can produce about 30,000 MW of electricity through hydel projects. This energy is not only sufficient to feed the region's states but also to export to the neighbouring countries as well.
Another point that the North-east has in its favour is the proximity to South-east Asia.
Identified by economic experts as the boom area of the 21st century, South-east Asia is best accessed from North-east India. The big question however is, who will do this? Not retired mandarins. Not people from MHA. Not people from rest of India.
Ultimately, it is the civil society, well-meaning politicians and committed bureaucrats, who will have to take up the lost cause and bring the North-east out of its current mess. Only then the rest of India will start looking at the North-east more seriously. Only then others will start treating the North-east not as an exotic faraway entity, but as an integral part of the idea that is India.
(The author, a veteran journalist with 31 years experience, lived in and reported from the north-east between 1983 and 2006)