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Monday Morning Meeting on “Integrating India’s Northeastern Region in the Backdrop of “Act East Policy”

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  • April 24, 2023
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Col. Gurinder Pal Singh, Research Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), spoke on “Integrating India’s North East Region in the Backdrop of “Act East Policy” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 24th April 2023. The session was moderated by Col. (Dr.) DPK Pillay,(Retd)., Research Fellow. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, the Director General of MP-IDSA, Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), the Deputy Director General of MP-IDSA and scholars of the Institute were in attendance.

    Executive Summary

    Act East Policy is a key foreign policy that aims to further strengthen India’s relationship with the South East Asian region through three ‘Cs’- Commerce, Connectivity and Culture. In the process of establishing connect with the South East/Asia Pacific region, integration of India’s North Eastern Region can be understood as both a precondition for the success, as well as a desirable outcome of the said policy. The need is to develop a robust and comprehensive strategy towards this end through an integrated approach. Challenges remain multi-dimensional that include insurgency, Indian Insurgent Group (IIG) camps, arms trade, and other governance and administrative issues. In order to fully utilise the untapped potential of the North Eastern region, strategies and their effective implementation is paramount.

    Detailed Report

    Col. (Dr.) DPK Pillay (Retd.) began the meeting with a brief introduction about Col. Gurinder Pal Singh.

    Col. Gurinder Pal Singh began his presentation by putting forth a brief outline of his presentation that emphasised the challenges faced while incorporating the North Eastern Region within the context of the “Act East Policy”, and to present strategies derived from the ‘Net Assessment Process’ to address these challenges effectively. Col. Singh proceeded by giving a brief historical background and evolution of the physical as well as political composition of North Eastern States. The nomenclature ‘seven sisters’ was eventually evolved to ‘Ashtlakshmi’ with the inclusion of Sikkim within North Eastern fold in 2002. The diverse demographic composition of North Eastern Region is riddled with division on tribal lines and heterogeneity, further complicated by the improper state border demarcation.

    The speaker then dwelled on the Act East Policy, announced by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the East Asia Summit in Myanmar in November 2014. The policy not only entails economic or foreign policy orientation rather it exhibits political, strategic and cultural characteristics. It is due to its extreme significance that institutional mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation have been established. All these mechanisms have been directed towards and driven by three overarching C’s- Commerce, Connectivity and Culture.

    He further discussed in greater detail six challenges facing the North East Region- Insurgency, Indian Insurgence Group (IIG) camps, illegal arms trade, AFSPA, Peace Accords and other aspects. The government’s action on this entire front has to some extent been encouraging but lots need to be done so as to further the integration process. 

    He then took the presentation to a ‘Net Assessment’ phase where he explained in detail the formulation of strategies based on the problem statement emanating from the situation on ground. For instance, in this case, integration of North East Region is the overall objective. To proceed ahead, scanning various internal and external factors impacting the region is required. After the detailed assessment of the region, as well as government’s own strength, suitable strategies have to be crafted out. The strategy must be clearly illustrative of what actually it entails, without any ambiguity. He went on to use this formulation in problem statements from a diverse set of landscape ranging from Governance, Economic, Cultural and Social Development strategies.

    Col. Singh concluded the presentation with some of the key recommendations across three different landscapes- Governance, Socio-political and Economic. Under Governance, he emphasised upon inclusive growth model, enhancement of trust, transparency and governance benefits reaching to the grass root level as drivers to integrate the region. In this regard, he recommended streamlining the land laws to overcome the complex traditional system. This will help in land acquisition, encourage private enterprises and resolve ownership aspects involving tribal groups and other stakeholders. One of the important aspects is to increase North East representation in North Eastern Council and Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region.

    In socio-political domain, Col, Singh recommended tasking Civil Society organisations, and other local organisations for participative contribution towards project monitoring, executing and implementation of government schemes. Further, he recommended opening higher education institutes and centres of excellence to further hone the much needed bridge between the North East Region and rest of India. In the economic domain, trade induced industrialisation, investment in communication infrastructure, designating NER as a Special Economic Zone can lead to increased investment, export promotion, infrastructure and skill development. Further, enhancing human resources can lead to numerous socio-economic benefits including increased productivity, investment, innovation, social development, social cohesion and sustainable development.

    Comments and Questions

    Col. (Dr.) DPK Pillay complimented the comprehensive presentation. He agreed to the contention that the number of casualties due to insurgency have significantly gone down due to a certain designed strategy being followed by the Armed Forces and the Police. He illustrated the three pronged strategy followed to deal with North East problem. The strategy entails, end to all inter-state disputes by 2022, no interference in indigenous socio-cultural life of tribals and enhancing economic growth in the region. He further agreed with most of the recommendations made by Col. Singh in his presentation.

    The floor was opened for questions and comments. The Director General, Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, the Deputy Director General, Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), and scholars of the Institute contributed to the discussion. In his remarks, Ambassador Chinoy emphasised on ‘national integration’ which is considered an important ongoing process. He believes that on the integration part India has done quite well, especially in the last few years. The period has witnessed resolution of unresolved boundary disputes between the states, forward movement, dialogues with various underground groups. Connectivity is another milestone achieved in the last few years in terms of construction of roads, highways, feeder connectivity and bridges. On the point of trade led development of the region, Ambassador Chinoy pointed out that trade needs proper transportation which under the “Act East Policy” is a problem as the Kaladan multi-model project, Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo project and other similar projects have been languishing for a long time. Airways led commerce is also not an option due to issues related to market connectivity and specific goods related problems.

    Ambassador Chinoy further highlighted the need for mental acceptance and integration of North Eastern indigenously developed businesses which at the moment are dominated by West India. Lack of large scale industrialisation is notable too.

    Col. Singh agreed with most of the observations brought forth by Amb. Chinoy and attributed most of the positive developments to ‘Political Will’.

    Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.) highlighted that Bangladesh (more specifically, Chittagong) forms the natural flow of the land. Hence cutting trees, mountains, terrains across north east for developmental purposes is not wholly sustainable. He further emphasised upon better diplomacy in terms of getting critical support from Bangladesh and Bhutan in tackling insurgency issues.

    In response to Dr. Gulbin Sultana’s question regarding religious peace in the region, Col. Singh highlighted the Buddhist, Hindu and Christian circuit as an instrument to cater to the religious aspirations of the people.

    In response to Dr. Smruti Pattanaik’s question on free movement regimes and free trade, Col. Singh highlighted that a lot more needs to be done to control and regulate the movement across the India-Myanmar Border.

    Dr. Pushpita Das highlighted the traditional nature of tribal society as the crux of the problem. She stated that the need is to change the nature of society in order for development initiatives to percolate down to the grass-root level.

    Col. Manish Rana pointed out the paradox of mixing economic and cultural integration. According to him, preservation of cultural uniqueness is more important than the resolve over cultural integration.

    Mr. Jason Wahlang asked about the prospects of integration in the longer run in light of tribal-non tribal clashes witnessed in the North Eastern Region. Col. Singh asserted that there are multiple socio-political issues which certainly impact the prospects of integration. He cited the example of Citizenship Amendment Act that was misconstrued in North East as targeted against indigenous inhabitants, while a lot of minorities have benefited from the Act on the western borders.

    Report prepared by Mr Abhishek Verma, Research Analyst, Internal Security Centre, MP-IDSA