Look Northeast policy
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Hosted by the Ministry for the Development of the North East Region (DONER) and the Confederation of Indian Industry, the seriousness with which the event was staged was evident in the battery of VIPs in attendance: three chief ministers from the region, one deputy CM, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, two ministers and two GOI secretaries, a host of senior officials were all present to make the case that India's Northeast was the new kid on the trade and investment block.
The New York conference was followed by a major Northeast trade and investment week in Bangkok earlier this month Thailand has begun to show a great deal of interest in doing business in the region and a three-day conference in Guwahati. Meanwhile, 10 per cent of Eleventh Plan Outlay has been earmarked for a region populated by 3.8 per cent of Indians, another sign that the Centre wants to make up for lost time. Increased government spending in the region is now sought to be augmented by an infusion of private capital, and for this purpose the Northeast is being sold to the world as a region rich in bio-diversity, with oil, gas, coal, water, limestone reserves, great tourist opportunities, and an educated human capital. Potential investors are being offered several attractive tax breaks and other concessions on a decadal basis. The new policy thrust, incidentally, is another reason why the Indian government is reluctant to come out strongly against the repressive junta in Myanmar to the general dismay of the international community and human rights activists.
What does this frenetic activity mean? At a national level it means that the Centre is more confident than ever before of being able to manage its northeastern periphery, despite army mobilisation and pockets of disturbances. But that's not all. These states happen to share extensive borders with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, which, in turn, are connected to the economic hub that is Southeast Asia. Binding the Northeast to national and international capital flows would yield more than monetary dividends, or so the argument goes. It would have an important political fall-out, since it would provide local people with a stake in the national project. What's promised is improved surface, air and cyber-connectivity, healthcare, education, training and employment opportunities, a range of agro-based industries, better power, as well as improved technologies which could change the face of these states and the lives of the people.
All this, of course, is fine. A region that has not figured on the national map for the last half century, and which is completely landlocked, certainly needs roads, railway lines, bridges, airports, hospitals, vocational training institutions, rural electrification, telecom and jobs as of yesterday. But if the local people are not sufficiently involved in such projects right from their planning stage onwards, if due processes are not followed in implementing them, investment policies of this kind would only foment suspicion, resentment, even resistance, which in turn could see a greater mobilisation of security forces in the area, setting into play the familiar cycle of violence and repression.
Here it may be useful to recount the story of the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL). In 1992, after the Atomic Minerals Directorate projected that there are 10,000 tonnes of uranium oxide reserves in the region, the UCIL set up a project which entailed the open cast mining of uranium ore in the West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya. Within a few years UCIL had to wind up its mining activities following violent protests from the local people. This June, when the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board attempted to have a public hearing on uranium mining in the state, it proved to be a resounding failure. The state was in fact shut down in protest over the mere staging of such a hearing. If the UCIL model did not succeed in the nineties, it is unlikely to do so today when there is greater public awareness, articulation and connectivity. The international norm of free, prior and informed choice exercised by the people most affected has to be the guiding principle for any project in the region.
Some lessons seem to have been learnt. The words used in the 'Northeast Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy, 2007', for instance, are chosen with care. A granite mining project near Goalpara town in Assam the state is believed to have more than a billion cubic metres of granite deposits of various kinds makes it clear that since these deposits are located in a reserve forest area, anyone mining here would be required to follow environmental norms, fill up the affected top soil and ensure afforestation as part of the project. A proposal for a cement plant near the limestone quarries of Arunachal Pradesh's Lohit district, specifies that environmental clearances would have to be sought. Other projects suggested as part of the Northeast Investment Policy are more benign, like mushroom production, floriculture, fruit, vegetable processing, and the like, all of which are claimed to be environmentally acceptable. There is also evidence of some innovative thinking. A proposal to encourage "tea garden tourism" could well provide a source of livelihood to tea garden workers who today find themselves without livelihood options in a sector that has been in the doldrums for a while now.
But clearly the Northeast Investment Policy will go nowhere if it is not embedded in a demonstrably democratic approach. The old raze-and-plunder approach of a rapacious Centre will need to be replaced by a development process that is genuinely participatory and which is, first and above all, sensitive to local sentiments, concerns and requirements. This has implications for the military mobilisation in the region, as well as the use of repressive instruments like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
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