India’s Northeast: Gateway to ASEAN

Dr. Asangba Tzüdir

 

While other Northeast states are moving forward in the Act East Policy, Nagaland continues to be a ‘chicken neck of disconnect with the Northeast India.

 

Connected with the rest of India by a 22 km wide link known as the chicken’s neck, North-East India, with an estimated population of about 45 million people and surrounded by 5300 kms of international borders is seen as India’s gateway to the East. Given its wealth of resources including water and hydro power resources, and most importantly for its geographical position, the region is gaining much importance with increasing focus on the ‘East.’ The attitude towards the region has also shifted from being simply ‘Northeast India’ to a fonder term, ‘India’s Northeast.’ Though the region’s potential is beyond doubt, issues of connectivity linkages still remains a critical component.

 

To this end, the North East Advisory Council has, over the years, been deliberating on the idea of connecting the region – a river transport system, a 4000 km long ring road connecting the 8 North eastern states, development of an economic corridor connecting Northeast India with Myanmar and Bangladesh, border townships, development of railway and airport network etc. This will augment the region’s potential to become a hub of economic activity and “trade for India and the sub-region” thereby transforming the region into an ‘economic corridor’ connecting India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and ASEAN, and further integrate the region with the world economy. Having said that, it calls for herculean efforts including massive investments in infrastructure, besides development of resources in the key areas of skills, education and healthcare.

 

Looking at the India ASEAN summit in January 2018, the government of India has put the region at the heart of ASEAN embrace with the objective of blending domestic and foreign policies via Northeast. To this end, the Foreign Minister of India called in the governors of all the North eastern states for a unique meeting to begin the process of integrating domestic and foreign policy, wherein suggestions have been prioritised into “short and medium term deliverables.”

 

Visualising the India’s Northeast transformation programme, Bhutan will be the first country to open a consulate in Guwahati while India looks to open the city for selected countries like Japan considering that Japan is becoming a major development partner. From looking East, India’s ties and initiatives with Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and now Japan seeks to provide the transition towards Act East. In a first, Assam will host an ‘Invest Assam summit’ with the larger objective of creating economic linkages with the ASEAN countries. Funds are being allocated for the upgradation of medical colleges and hospitals in Assam and Meghalaya to attract patients from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Further, Central and State governments are also planning to reduce the number of areas that need an inner line permit for these states to boost tourism.

 

While the challenges are many, connectivity remains the major challenge both within and out. Even as the 8 North eastern states connectivity remains a major concern towards enhancing the ‘gateway’, the trilateral highway through Myanmar, though supposed to be opened by 2020, is said to be still in “implementation mode.” The Kaladan River in the eastern Mizoram state and in Chin state and Rakhine state of western Myanmar, forms the international border between India and Myanmar but the Kaladan multimodal project is lagging because of the conflict in Rakhine.

 

Yet, the challenges do not underscore the vast potential the region presents. The recent visit of the President of India to three Northeastern states for the Northeast Development Summit where he highlighted the changing outlook of the region has ‘broadened’ the region as far from being just a frontier to a place of India’s imagination as a gateway towards Act East.
Looking at India’s Northeast as a gateway to ASEAN, while most of the states in the Northeast moves forward, Nagaland, meanwhile, plagued by economic dependency syndrome and development issues, is going backwards in time and therefore the ‘chicken neck’ of disconnect with the Northeast India.

 

(Dr. Asangba Tzudir contributes a weekly guest editorial to The Morung Express. Comments can be mailed to asangtz@gmail.com)

 

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