Political will and dynamism for propelling India’s “Act East” policy needs to be complemented with urgent measures to address two key issues — lack of “security” and “connectivity”. Addressing them is necessary to make the Northeast (NE) the launchpad for India’s interface with South East Asia. Connectivity needs to be addressed at three levels — physical connectivity, digital connectivity and above all the emotional integration of the region with the rest of the country. Road and railway networks connecting different parts of the region, as well as the rest of the country with the region, along with air/helicopter connectivity are essential for trade and businesses to flourish, to attract investments and put in place an ecosystem that is necessary to reach out to Myanmar and beyond.
With respect to security, there is a need to think out of the box on priorities and carry out disruptive policy changes. These should be combined with a time-bound action plan to create a conducive environment for growth and prosperity. The implementation of projects has been dogged by procedural issues. Cases in point are the projects that intend to create road-rail-inland waterway connectivity between India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. At a recent NE connectivity conference, a Bangladesh delegate said that when connectivity projects were first envisaged at the highest level of leadership of the two countries 10 years ago, investors in Bangladesh set up warehousing facilities and other infrastructure at transit points. Because of time overruns, these have either been diverted for other activities or have folded up.
The land earmarked for the development of linkages has been utilised for other activities and may not be available or would cost exorbitant. The Indo-Myanmar friendship road required approximately 80 odd bridges to be replaced/upgraded for it to become the Asian Highway 1. But after a delay of around seven years, it is slated to be completed in 2019 — perhaps later. Also, the backward linkage from Moreh, the border town in Manipur, to Silchar in Assam and westwards to the Siliguri corridor has also been dogged by slow progress.
This is not to underplay the steps taken by the government in the last three years to facilitate integration. Intra-regional connectivity has been given an impetus by mandating its responsibility to a newly-formed centrally-monitored organisation for road development and physical connectivity in NE states. An internet gateway is being established via Bangladesh from Tripura for the digital integration of the region.
The security environment will be the main factor in propelling the integration and development of the region. A secure environment is a pre-requisite for giving confidence to investors to operate in the region. The parameters of gauging security needs have to be changed since they do not give a fair idea of the security situation in the region so for as developmental initiatives are concerned. The number of violent incidents and counter-terrorist operations by security forces are declining but has the environment become secure? The answer is no since there has been no let up in extortion, kidnapping, factional clashes and illicit tax collection. The militant groups enjoy political patronage.
Government policies pertaining to “suspension of operations (SOO)” and “ceasefire” with various militant groups need to account for the financial support these groups have. In the long run, the system of SOO and CF needs to be stopped, as it is a case of “distributive injustice”. Police effectiveness needs to be optimised. This requires “federalisng” the region’s police force in order to ensure coordination, sharing intelligence and joint operations. This force would not be under a state authority and would thus be insulated from extraneous pressures, including tribal affiliations. FIRs against individuals committing offences will be filed outside the state borders, negating local influences in justice administration. The official machinery should counter militant excesses and not abrogate their authority to the security forces under the excuse that the state has been designated a “disturbed area”.
But there is also a need to look at development and trade outside the prism of security. The endeavour should be to create “intellectual resonance” in society for security and development. We need a comprehensive approach that combines reconciliation with an aggressive security policy.