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North East India: Strategic and Developmental Imperatives

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  • July 15, 2013 to July 16, 2013
    Conference


    A two day conference, “North East India: Strategic and Developmental Imperatives”, was jointly organised by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and Special Branch, Assam Police, on July 15 and 16, 2013. The Conference was inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Assam, Shri Tarun Gogoi. The key note address was delivered by His Excellency the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Nirbhay Sharma.

    The participants included: Dr. Arvind Gupta, Shri G.K. Pillai, Shri H N Das, Shri H S Das, Shri Jishnu Barua, Shri Khagen Sharma, Shri Sudip De, Shri D N Bezboruah, Shri J N Choudhury, Prof. Imdad Hussian, Prof. Monirul Hussain, Lt. Gen. J R Mukherjee (Retd.), Lt. Gen. Arun Sahni, Shri Jaideep Saikia, Brig. Ranjit Borthakur (Retd.), Brig. Mandip Singh, and Dr. Pushpita Das.

    Many useful thoughts and recommendations emerged at the conference. Some of these are enumerated below:

    Observations

    Insurgency & Ceasefire

    1. The basic ingredient of insurgency i.e. popular support is drying up in the region. Insurgency is active only in Manipur. There are around 50 insurgent groups in Manipur.
    2. The surrender and rehabilitation policy for the insurgents are faulty. There is no proper verification of the surrendered militants. Large numbers of persons who surrender are not militants.
    3. Ceasefire and Suspension of Operations with militant groups allows them to indulge in extortion and kidnapping, which in turn help them in maintaining their clout over the people of the region.
    4. There exists deep nexus between all the insurgent groups in the Northeast. The CPI (Maoist) is also in touch with the North east insurgents primarily to source weapons. Arms were given by the United Liberation Force of Asom (ULFA) to the CPI (Maoist) in West Bengal.
    5. While most of the insurgent groups especially from Manipur have camps along the India-Myanmar border in Myanmar, the ULFA has small hideouts along Myanmar-China and Myanmar-Thailand border areas in Myanmar. The North east militants also visit neighbouring countries like Nepal.
    6. The biggest challenge to the North East is extortion carried out by various insurgent groups. Extortion has become meticulously organised activity in the region and is one of the major sources of funds for the militants.

    Political

    1. It is important to understand the culture and psyche of the people of North East while framing policy alternatives.
    2. The perceived threat to the political identity of the Assamese people from the illegal migrants from Bangladesh lies at the core of the Assam problem. The indigenous people of Assam feel that in future the illegal migrants will become the majority population and they will lose political power.
    3. The Centre, the State and the insurgent groups who are engaged in negotiations are mulling over two possible solutions to this issue. First, to declare Assam as a tribal majority state where almost all the seats will be reserved for tribals. Second, to prepare a new list of all the people in the state based on the 1951 National Register of Citizens and the electoral rolls of 1971 and then reserve a given number of seats for the descendants of these people.
    4. The peace negotiations are long drawn processes because people who are engaged in these negotiations over time loose attention and inertia sets in. Also small issues take months to get resolved.
    5. The ceasefire agreements and peace negotiations have resulted in reducing the violence levels and given the civil societies of the region space to talk.
    6. Final peace accord with the Nagas will be signed by everybody in Nagaland for a lasting peace in the state.
    7. One of the ways to contain insurgency in the region is to delegate powers to the ethnic minorities through the Autonomous District Councils so that they can fashion their own development.
    8. The Sixth Schedule policy implemented to protect tribal way of life was supposed to be interim in nature. But it has been raked up to create tribal homelands.
    9. The implementation of Sixth Schedule in Assam has not benefited the tribal communities of the state. Following the 73rd and 74th amendments, the Central and state governments are providing huge amounts of financial resources to the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) and municipalities. Since, the scheduled areas do not fall under the purview of the PRI and municipalities, they do not receive any share of these funds and as a result they lose out.
    10. Deficiency in governance is a major problem in the region.

    Development

    1. Security situation in the region has improved considerably in Assam and Meghalaya in particular facilitating conducive atmosphere for investment and development. The Northeast Industrial Policy initiated by the Government of India further contributed in encouraging investment and industries in the region.
    2. However, the Northeast will not attract big industries because the region is resource deficit, and does not have economies of scale to match. Moreover, the security situation in the whole of the region has not improved uniformly.
    3. The tax free industrial policy has been rolled back causing uncertainty amongst the business community and thereby hampering investment atmosphere in the region.
    4. Apprehensions were expressed about the continued brain-drain from the region to other parts of the country. Although the trend is good for a short term as it provides employment opportunities for the educated and skilled youths of the region, but in the long run such leaching away of talents does not augur well some the development of the region.
    5. The North East Council (NEC) and the Ministry for the Development of the North East Region (DoNER) have become fund disbursing agencies instead of strategic planning agencies. At present approximately Rs. 11,000 crore is lying idle with the Ministry of DoNER.
    6. Only piecemeal projects costing between Rs 5 and 10 lakhs are being planned and executed. These projects have not resulted in dramatically altering the development scenario of the region.

    Look East Policy

    1. North east is the weak element in India’s Look East policy because of inadequate connectivity between North East and the ASEAN countries.
    2. The North East still remains inward looking focussing primarily on internal conflicts. There is no discussion on the benefits that could accrue to the region from the Look East Policy.
    3. India’s Look East Policy will remain partially successful if the North East does not benefit.
    4. If the North East Region is opened up there is a fear of being swamped by cheap Chinese goods, which would spell disaster for the local manufacturing units.
    5. Apprehensions exist that the development of communication links could result in developing strong links between the people of the North east with the people of China, Myanmar and ASEAN countries, which would undermine the unity and integrity of India.
    6. Opinion on the opening of the Stilwell Road was divided. While some welcomed the opening of the road, other expressed apprehension arguing that northern Myanmar has virtually become China.
    7. Emphasis was given on maintaining friendly relations with China to continue economic engagements.

    Border issues

    1. The international borders in the North east are extremely porous. Thus, cross border infiltration of militants, and smuggling of arms are rampant in the region. Dimapur has become the hub for the collection of sophisticated arms smuggled from across the border, especially Myanmar. Small arms, on the other hand, are sourced from illegal arms factories in Bihar and smuggled into the North east and distributed to the militant groups.
    2. Mizoram has also emerged as a major conduit for arms smuggling of arms from Myanmar. The problem is aggravated because of no deployment of border guarding
    3. Since the trijunction between India-China-Myanmar is not settled, the length of the India-Myanmar boundary also differs from 1348 km to 1643 km.
    4. China has differing claim in Arunachal Pradesh. Along the westernmost corner, Chinese claim line lay 20 kms south and in the eastern most extreme of Arunachal Pradesh it lay 30 km south.
    5. International boundaries in the North East have not crystallised into lines separating sovereign countries on the ground.
    6. Intelligence is the key in securing the border areas.

    Recommendations

    A number of recommendations were forwarded by various speakers. Some of these are as follows:

    Insurgency

    1. Thorough background check of all insurgents groups should be carried out before the central government enters into any Ceasefire or Suspension of Operations Agreements with the insurgents.

    Political

    1. Political solutions to the Assam problem should be discussed openly as widely as possible to avoid backlash from the tribal and the minority population of the state.
    2. A system of work permit should be issued so that the illegal Bangladeshi migrants do not end up as Indian citizens.
    3. The Autonomous District Councils should be empowered.
    4. Governance should be improved in a step by step manner. Strict supervision by senior officials should be initiated to improve the delivery system of the government.

    Development

    1. The Ministry of the Development of the North East region (DoNER) be merged with the North East Council (NEC) for better strategic planning and coordination of various developmental projects in the region.
    2. Focus of the Ministry f DoNER and NEC should be on investment in maga-projects which will make big difference to the development of the region.
    3. Institutional capacities in the North east should be developed urgently.
    4. Pragmatic land use policy should be formulated for attracting industries in the region. Micro, small and medium enterprises should be encouraged.
    5. Local tourism should be promoted. Tourists residing in the eight North Eastern states should be encouraged to travel within the region.
    6. Niche tourism or high end tourism should be encouraged. Medical and higher education tourism should be encouraged.
    7. The North east should become a single economic unit without disturbing the political boundaries of the states. No internal traffic barriers in the region. Exclusive five year plan for the North east focusing on development of infrastructure.

    Look East Policy

    1. Greater awareness about the Look East Policy and its benefits to the North East should be generated among he policymakers and the intelligentsia of the region.
    2. Ties with Myanmar should be deepened by exploiting Myanmar’s anxieties about China as well as existing deep civilization and spiritual ties.
    3. The North East region must be included in the India-ASEAN Vision for trade and cooperation. Development Plan for the North East should factor India-ASEAN strategic cooperation.
    4. Integrated and bottoms up approaches are required for integration of the North east in the Look East Policy. The North East should formulate plans as to how it can engage with the ASEAN. Better coordination of efforts by all the Northeastern states should be ensured.
    5. Visa offices of Bangladesh and Myanmar should be located in the North East.
    6. Centres/Departments for the studies of neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal in Universities should be set up in universities to understand India’s neighbours better.

    Border issues

    1. Special economic zones along India-Bangladesh border, especially in Meghalaya and Assam should be set up.
    2. States should focus more on the development and security of the border areas.
    3. Sentiments of the people of Arunachal Pradesh should be taken into consideration by the central government while discussing the frameworks for resolution of the border dispute with China.
    4. Matching infrastructure and military capability should be build to ensure peace and enable negotiations from a position of strength.

    Report prepared by Dr. Pushpita Das, Associate Fellow, IDSA

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