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Roundtable on Northeast’s Role in India’s Look East Policy

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  • September 18, 2013
    Round Table


    The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) organised a half-day roundtable on Northeast’s Role in India’s Look East Policy (LEP) on September 18, 2013. The purpose of this roundtable was to invite specific projects from the northeastern states that could be implemented in the region under the aegis the ASEAN-India Vision Document 2020 as well as India’s LEP. Dr. Arvind Gupta (DG, IDSA) chaired this roundtable and other participants included representatives from the Ministry of External Affairs, North Eastern Council, Ministry of Development of the North Eastern Region, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of Assam, Government of Manipur, Government of Mizoram, Federation of Chamber of Commerce of India and Jamia Milia Islamia.

    The India-ASEAN region is inhabited by 1.8 billion people and their combine GDP is US$ 3.8 trillion. The LEP policy and closer interactions with the ASEAN has accrued huge economic benefits for India. The India-ASEAN trade has grown by 23 per cent in the last ten years and in 2012-2013, the total trade between India and ASEAN was $80 billion. It is expected that with the signing of the Agreement on Free Trade Area, the total bilateral trade would increase to $100 billion by 2015 and $200 billion by 2020. Connectivity is a key priority in the Indo-ASEAN engagement and projects like the Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Multimodal Transport project, the Mekong-India Economic Corridor are key for improving and enhancing connectivity between India and ASEAN countries.

    While rest of India has benefitted from greater engagement with ASEAN under the LEP, the Northeast, which is the gateway to the Southeast Asian countries has been left behind as it could not utilise the opportunities opened up through the LEP because of the week economic base and lack of proper infrastructure. In order to address this problem, conceptualisation of a roadmap in terms of specific projects, which would benefit the region, must be undertaken. In this regard, the ASEAN-India Vision Document 2020 could be the guiding document. High visibility projects that could be implemented in a short period are desirable. These projects could be in the field of health, culture, tourism, capacity building, and food processing. Although the security situation of the region remains a matter of concern, it was felt that the Northeast has to take full advantage of the LEP as the window of opportunity is fast shrinking because the states in the eastern seaboard of India are also intensifying their interactions with the ASEAN to reap the benefits of LEP.

    Following are the observations and suggestions that were arrived at the RT:

    1. General
    • Significant investments in capacity building, health, education, human resources is an immediate requirement for the Northeast to meaningfully participate in the LEP. The Centre should have an integrated approach and provide the required policy push.
    • Myanmar is strategically important for India and it is collaborating with ASEAN and China for growth. India should participate in the process for mutual benefit and participating in the shaping of the strategic environment.
    • The nature of political and intellectual discourse in the Northeast has to be changed from anti-globalisation and identity politics to one of economic growth and integration. For this, universities as well as politicians have to be engaged. Multi-cultural and ethnic studies have to be encouraged and flow of businessmen and politicians between Northeast India and ASEAN should be encouraged.
    • On the other hand, intelligence and policing system have to be improved as opening up could lead to other problems.

  • ASEAN Cooperation
    • Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan should be welcomed in the Northeast for capacity building in areas like agriculture, tourism, hotel development, bamboo technology.
    • ASEAN countries have shown interest in investing in the Northeast, but they are deterred by the security situation in the region. The general perception among the ASEAN is that security situation in the Northeast is fast deteriorating. They also complain of lack of information about the Northeast.

  • Inside Northeast
    • The north-eastern states themselves have not shown any interest in benefitting from the LEP. This is evident from their lack of participation in various India-ASEAN summits.
    • The north-eastern states have to reach out to the ASEAN and showcase their strengths in order to attract more investments in the region. For this, ministers from these states should be invited to the Indo-ASEAN conclaves and they can reach out to the ASEAN countries.
    • Northeast’s competitive advantage vis-à-vis ASEAN need to be studied. The Northeast Vision Document 2020 must be linked with the ASEAN Master Plan to garner maximum mutual gains.
    • An India-ASEAN Joint Working Group should be set up to discuss with the people of the Northeast the possibilities for engagements with ASEAN countries.
    • A small group involving all ministries at the Centre and the State level should be set up to coordinate various projects that are being implemented in the Northeast.

  • Connectivity
    • Development of transportation and communication links in the Northeast should be considered as a strategic issue and accordingly greater resources should be allocated for such projects.
    • A policy framework for developing soft infrastructure along the corridors is urgently required.
  • Economy
    • People in the Northeast could be induced to take up land on lease for cultivation for various crops in Myanmar and set up food processing units in Myanmar. These will create economic interests for Myanmar in India and encourage it to act against the Northeast insurgent groups and keep the road networks secure.
    • Training centres imparting vocational training to the local youth should be established. These youths could seek employment in the ASEAN countries.
    • Agricultural research laboratories could be set up in Northeast to boost the agricultural produce in the region.
    • Special economic Zones could set up around the Land Customs Stations.

  • Culture
    • Closer ethnic as well as cultural links can be explored further. Towards this end, an Indo-ASEAN Cultural Centre and an Indo-ASEAN Trade Centre could be set up in the north-eastern region. The North eastern Council (NEC) could be the coordinating authority for this purporse.
    • More centres focussing on Myanmar and Southeast Asian Studies could be established in the Indian universities. These centres can offer courses in language, international relations, tourism, and other studies on the region.
    • Cultural troops from Northeast should be sent to ASEAN countries to showcase the ethnic and cultural ties between Northeast India and Southeast Asia. Nehru centres should be set up in Bangkok and Mandalay.
    • A textile museum has been set up Simrep. Northeast should send travelling exhibitions to this museum. The Ministry of External Affairs and ICSSR could support such exhibitions.
    • Two or three fellowships under India-ASEAN cultural exchange programmes could be instituted.
    • ASEAN delegates should be invited to various festivals organised in the region to enlighten them about the culture of the region.
    • Indo-ASEAN Sports Centre could be set up in Imphal.

  • Tourism
    • Northeast, rich in scenic beauty, is an ecological treasure trove, and therefore has huge potentials for eco-tourism. So, eco-tourism should be encouraged in the region.
    • Similarly, various Buddhist monasteries in Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura should be promoted to attract Buddhist tourists from the ASEAN countries. Training centres should be established to train the local people as tourist guides.
    • Around 200 to 300 patients from Myanmar visit hospitals in Manipur unofficially. State of the art medical facilities could be developed in Manipur and Assam and medical tourism could be promoted. For this, visa on arrival facility for Myanmarese citizen could be extended to Moreh.
    • Guwahati used to be one of the largest tea auctioning centres in the world. Tea cultivation is a strength, which could be utilised to promote tea tourism in the Northeast. Development of tea should also be promoted.
    • The Northeast should be integrated with rest of the country through the development of road, rail and air links.

  • General Conclusion
  • The discussion was useful as it brought to fore many ideas on development and integration. Representative from the north-eastern states said that they needed more information from the Central government about the opportunities opening up. The representatives of Central ministries said they need specific projects from the north eastern states.

    (Report prepared by Dr. Pushpita Das, Associate Fellow and Coordinator, Internal Security Centre)

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