India’s North Eastern Region (NER) is a diverse and strategically significant area, which shares borders with several neighbouring countries. The Act East Policy, a proactive turn to Look East Policy was initiated by the Indian government in November 2014. It seeks to strengthen economic, political, security and cultural ties with Southeast and East Asia, with the NER serving as a crucial gateway. This commentary highlights some of the challenges in the execution of this policy, and recommends measures for effectively tackling these challenges.
By Gurinder Pal Singh
The North Eastern Region holds immense strategic significance due to its unique geographic location, sharing borders with Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh amounting to almost one-third of total land frontiers of India (approximately 5,385 kms out of 15,200 kms). The unique geographic location of the region makes it a gateway to the Southeast Asia, and is thus crucial for our Act East Policy.
The Siliguri Corridor, also known as the Chicken’s Neck, is a narrow stretch in West Bengal that connects the NER with the rest of India. This corridor serves as the primary gateway for road, rail and air connectivity. With a width of approximately 22 kms and length of 60 kms,2 the corridor is highly vulnerable to natural disasters, blockades and military threats. The Siliguri Corridor’s proximity to China, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh further adds to its geostrategic significance.
The NER is home to diverse ethnic communities, many of which share cultural, linguistic and historical ties with neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China. This ethnic contiguity plays a crucial role in shaping regional dynamics, as it provides opportunities for cross-border cooperation, exchange and economic integration.
Chinese territorial claims in Arunachal Pradesh are a matter of concern for our security and foreign policy. China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh, which it refers to as ‘South Tibet/ Zangnan’, has been a major source of friction between the two countries.
The region faces several challenges/issues that deters its development and integration into the broader Indian landscape.
Since Independence, the region has remained a hotspot of insurgency. Measures taken over the years by various stakeholders have enabled transition from violence to stability. However, peace still eludes this resource-rich region. Incidents of insurgency in the north-eastern states have reduced by 80 per cent in the last eight years, while casualties of security forces have gone down by 75 per cent and civilian deaths by 99 per cent.
Insurgent Camps in Myanmar
The porous border between India and Myanmar has allowed various Indian insurgent groups to establish camps and bases in Myanmar. These camps serve as safe havens for insurgents to regroup, train and plan attacks on the Indian soil. The presence of these camps complicates the security situation in the region and poses a significant challenge for the Indian government in its efforts to counter insurgency. As per the reports, there are many camps in Myanmar opposite Nagaland and Manipur states.
Arms and Drug Trafficking
The region has become a hub for arms and drug trafficking due to its strategic location and porous borders. Insurgent groups often resort to these illegal activities to finance their operations, which, in turn, fuel further violence and instability.
Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)
The Indian government has implemented the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in parts of the NER to counter insurgency and maintain law and order. However, critics argue that it grants excessive powers to security forces, leading to human rights violations and a climate of fear and mistrust among the local population. Insurgents have also taken advantage of this view and incited Civil Society Organisations to conduct demonstrations against the Act.
Over the years, the Indian government has entered into various peace accords with insurgent groups in the NER. While most of these agreements have been successful in bringing about peace and stability, others have had a limited success due to factors like lack of inclusivity, feeble enforcement and enduring ethnic tensions.
In addition, the region faces several challenges that hinders its progress and stability. Inadequate representation of diverse ethnic and cultural groups in governance structures deepens the grievances, while interstate boundary disputes contribute to conflicts between states and communities. A conflict economy, driven by illegal activities such as arms trafficking and drug trade, further fuels instability in the region.
The sense of alienation experienced by the people of the North East, often due to historical neglect and perceived cultural differences, aggravates apprehensions and undermines integration with the rest of the country. Governance aspects, including corruption, weak institutions, and insufficient infrastructure, hinder development and effective conflict resolution. Additionally, demographic inversion, caused by migration and changing population dynamics, has led to socio-political restlessness.
Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach that includes inclusive negotiations, addressing the root causes of the conflict, ensuring effective implementation of peace accords, and promoting development and economic opportunities in the region.
‘Net Assessment’ is a vital tool for comprehensively analysing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It helps identify key challenges such as insurgency, underdevelopment and socio-political issues, while enabling policymakers to prioritise resources and initiatives effectively. ‘Net Assessment’ also aids in assessing risks and opportunities, allowing for the development of tailored strategies to address the region’s unique needs. Additionally, it provides a baseline for monitoring progress and adapting strategies as required.
Through the application of the ‘Net Assessment’ process, targeted strategies can be developed to tackle various challenges in the NER. For example, addressing perceived alienation requires fostering social cohesion and promoting cultural exchange. Improving the efficacy of developmental initiatives necessitates better coordination between stakeholders and aligning projects with local needs. Enhancing healthcare involves investing in infrastructure, capacity-building and telemedicine, while also ensuring accessible and affordable care. Rekindling lost historical pride can be achieved by incorporating the region’s history and culture into educational curricula and promoting heritage tourism.
To combat underdevelopment, targeted policies should focus on sustainable growth in key sectors such as agriculture, tourism and infrastructure. Addressing the parallel economy requires curbing illicit activities through enhanced law enforcement and alternative livelihood opportunities. By adopting these focused strategies, the various challenges faced by the NER can be effectively addressed, paving the way for its successful integration with the Act East Policy.
To further improve governance in the region, an inclusive growth model, enhancing trust and transparency and reaching down to the grass-roots level is essential. Firstly, enhancing digital connectivity can facilitate efficient governance by improving communication, enabling access to information, and promoting transparency in public administration. Investment in necessary infrastructure, such as broadband networks and internet access points, can help achieve this goal. Secondly, resolving inter-state boundary disputes fosters regional harmony and cooperation, which is essential for effective governance.
Engaging in dialogue and negotiations, while seeking mutually acceptable solutions, can help mitigate tensions and prevent conflicts. Thirdly, streamlining land laws can promote efficient land use, ease the process of land acquisition, and encourage investments in various sectors. Lastly, controlling the conflict economy is critical for addressing the root causes of instability in the region. Combating illicit activities, such as arms and drug trafficking, and providing alternative livelihood opportunities for those affected by conflict can contribute to better governance.
Addressing socio-political challenges in the region is also essential for success of the Act East Policy. Community participation in decision-making can foster a sense of ownership and responsibility among citizens. Rehabilitation of the surrendered insurgents can pave the way for long-term stability and peace, allowing the region to focus on development initiatives. Opening up higher education institutes and centres of excellence will further hone the much-needed bridge between the NER and rest of India. Leveraging the region’s sports potential can help nurture local talent, boost morale, and promote national integration. Supportive infrastructure, training facilities, and sports academies can be established to tap into this potential. Finally, incorporating the history of the NER into school curricula can foster a better understanding of the region’s diverse cultural heritage, promoting social cohesion and mutual respect among different communities.
The lack of economic growth and poor human development indices have had a negative effect on the overall stability of the North-eastern states. Promoting trade-induced industrialisation can create new employment opportunities, stimulate growth, and strengthen regional integration. Investing in communication infrastructure such as roads, railways, and air connectivity, can facilitate trade, tourism, and overall economic development. Designating the NER as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) can attract domestic and foreign investments, foster innovation and boost the local economy.
Enhancing human resources through education and skill development programmes can create a skilled workforce capable of driving economic growth and diversifying the regional economy. Creating systems and mechanisms to boost local produce can empower local communities, promote sustainable development, and tap into niche markets. This can be achieved through marketing initiatives, value addition, and better supply chain management. Lastly, measures to optimise energy sources such as hydropower and crude oil, can make the region energy-efficient and self-reliant. Investing in energy infrastructure and promoting clean energy can contribute to long-term sustainability.
Integration of India’s North Eastern Region within the Act East Policy framework is crucial for unlocking the region’s immense potential and strengthening its ties with neighbouring countries. To achieve this, it is essential to address the various challenges faced by the region, including socio-political, economic and governance issues. By implementing tailored strategies that cater to the unique needs and aspirations of the NER, India can ensure comprehensive development, regional cooperation, and long-term stability. The successful integration of this strategically significant region will not only contribute to India’s overall growth but also enhance its geopolitical standing and foster stronger relationships within the Indo-Pacific region.
This article first appeared in www.idsa.in and it belongs to them.