Retd Addl Chief Secretary
The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi had announced with much aplomb the “Act East Policy” which would boost trade and commerce with ASEAN countries through the North east India. During the UPA regime it was known as Look East Policy. It sounded exciting and the possibilities are tremendous and the much underdeveloped North East India would be a growth area for economy of the country. Unfortunately on ground it is a sad story. Nothing substantial has materialised and perhaps we need to understand why this is happening. Let me first share the latest position as it seems to be happening on the policy front and at the macro level then a few observations drawn from my experience as a bureaucrat for many decades in the state dealing with some matters and also the interactions with various ministries as well as agencies: To start with it would be appropriate to cite a very important aspect- connectivity:
The India- Myanmar- Thailand Trilateral Highway.
The Trilateral highway agreement will become one of the boldest moves by India after Independence especially in the context of countering Chinese aggressiveness.
In Today’s technologically dynamic world; conventional war strategies with traditional approaches don’t have a stake and are not so successful. Hence, it is necessary to develop unconventional, technology oriented geo-political strategy which will have the calibre to check-mate the enemy without firing a single bullet. Commerce with South and East Asian nations accounts for almost 45% of India’s foreign trade. Myanmar and ASEAN nations are part of of the look east Policy of India. India is a part of BIMSTEC, East Asia Summit, Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, United Nations Economic and Social commission for Asia and the Pacific, Asian highway network and the trans-Asian railway network and India has embarked on several Look-east connectivity projects.
The trilateral highway will connect Moreh (Manipur), India with Mae sot, Thailand via Myanmar. It is part of India’s look east policy that will cultivate and strengthen economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia in order to solidify its standing as regional power. This project will help position as counterweight to the strategic influence of People ’s Republic of China in the region and suppressing weak countries under the number game deterrence. A motor vehicles agreement along with protocols for regulating and facilitating movement of cargo and passenger vehicular traffic is under inter-government negotiations between India, Myanmar and Thailand. The NHAI has been appointed as the technical executing agency and project management consultant. It will be a four-lane highway which is approximately 1360 Km (850 miles). India-Myanmar friendship road linking Moreh-Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa was built by the BRO inaugurated by the then Union Commerce Minister Shri. P. Chidambaram which is now forming a part of the trilateral highway. Other countries like Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines and Taiwan also want join hands and shown their interest in this agreement as India has opened this agreement for new partners and they are even ready for giving berthing rights to Indian Navy and infrastructure establishing rights to Indian Air force and Indian Army. Even South Korea and Japan want to establish a permanent sea-road link under this agreement. This project will boost trade and commerce in the ASEAN-India free trade area as well as with the rest of Southeast Asia and most importantly it will create a humongous barrier for China to execute its geo-strategic interests and policies. This is one of the smartest and visionary moves that the Government of India has ever made to check the expansionist and imperial ambitions of China.
Observations: There is no clarity at the Government of India level and therefore an absolutely confused approach in the NE regional level and in the states. At the GOI level the Act east policy is apparently handled by the ministry of external affairs and percolation of any information is absolutely minimal. The NE States are mostly dealt with by MHA and the DONER/NEC, leaving hardly any room to directly approach Ministry of external affairs. It is not clear whether there is any budgetary support for the implementation of the Act east policy and if so which is the concerned ministry/Agency to channelize the same ? On ground it appears that Assam is the only State in the NE having an earmarked department to look after Act east policy and to what extent one state can take things forward is a matter the policy makers must ponder upon in the regional and international context in view of its importance for the country.
The real trade and commerce seems to be happening in the Mytkina-Kunming – Lhasa sector where China has already made world class infrastructure development. Trade and commerce can only flourish when there is required infrastructure and the volume to make it economically viable.
I have personally travelled the Moreh-Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa sector(Constructed by BRO of India) in 1996 upto Mandalay as a part of the Indian delegation to Myanmar to discuss about trade and commerce between India and Myanmar. In Nagaland we have three international Trade centres(ITC) , at Longwa in mon district, Pangsha in Noklak district and Avangkhu in Phek district which have at best remained Border haats for barter trade all these years. It’s time for silver jubilee of that meeting and what is happening on ground is very discouraging. When is due importance going to be given to the far flung boundaries of the country and in the effort to be a world power can we afford to ignore such important matters ? Does The State Government in our own Nagaland think of taking any proactive approach in this regard? Ground zero is very depressing. Corona virus has taken the world by storm and shaken up every nation and the world will be able to respond gradually and life has to go on and we cannot afford to be left behind. While things have moved ahead at tremendous pace in most parts of the world, things in Northeast India in general and Nagaland in particular have remained at almost a standstill if not retrograde in terms of development. Some of the things that are required to be done in the region and particularly in Nagaland are:
1) Promotion of Tourism, promote the Naga cuisine with some refinement in presentation while retaining the original taste. Most of the vegetables and fruits would be organic and that would be added attraction in this health conscious world. It would certainly be necessary to lift Prohibition of liquor as in the successful tourist destinations around the world.
2) Manufacturing and value addition on local products in food processing, handloom and handicrafts, Bamboo and other locally available products
3) Formalising trade centres with customs, immigration, banking and other facilities as required including Forex facilitation( present arrangement of overcharging for service by the only SBI Forex branch in Nagaland will only kill the little exports going out Nagaland)
4) This would certainly generate substantial employment especially in the private sector which is a crying need today and if trade and commerce picks up most of the youth would be gainfully engaged and over a period of time reduce dependence on Government and wean away the youth from insurgency and more importantly there would be a drastic reduction in crime rates in the state.
There are also other major projects like the Asian Highway 1 and the Trans-Asian Railway which will enhance connectivity with many other countries but at this juncture it would be better to focus on the Act east policy.
We hope the policy makers and people at the helm of affairs will take positive action in a time bound manner.