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#257, 6 May 2008

Northeast in India's Look East Policy

Chair: Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Arvind Sharma
Speakers: Yogendra Singh, Research Officer, IPCS
Julien Levesque, Research Intern and Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, Research Assistant, IPCS
Vibhanshu Shekhar, Research Fellow, IPCS

Introduction: Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Dipankar Banerjee

India's Northeast has the potential to facilitate or prevent India's vital Look East Policy. Should this policy ever aspire to the substance and credibility that it deserves, connectivity in all its aspects with the Northeast and beyond will have to improve substantially. . Communication possibilities with Southeast Asia have broken down and it is high time that this is rejuvenated. . If this integration does not take place, India will be left out of the process of East Asian integration, a process, which Southeast Asia finds itself completely enmeshed with.

Connecting India's Northeast with Southeast Asia: Possibilities and Implications
Yogendra Singh

In 1991 when India launched its 'Look East' Policy (LEP) the thrust was not given to the geographical proximity between its Northeastern region and Southeast Asia. The lack of adequate physical connectivity between India's Northeast and Southeast Asia, an outcome of skeptic mindset of the Indian policy makers, is one of the most important factors that hindered the possibilities of garnering regional economic complementarities. However, since 1997 when Myanmar was admitted into ASEAN as a full member, India's Northeast assumed importance importance in its LEPThis policy undoubtedly facilitated India's economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asia but the share of the Northeast in this policy remained insignificant.

There has been growing realization on the part of Indian policy makers that development of physical connectivity with Southeast Asia is a prerequisite to fully harness the opportunities provided by LEP. In order to make the LEP relevant for the region, India has laid greater emphasis on enhancing connectivity through all the possible modes of infrastructure development such as land routes, railways, air connectivity, waterways, energy infrastructure development both in field of hydroelectric and hydrocarbon and telecommunication linkages.

As a result, India has initiated some bilateral projects and also become party to some multilateral projects, aimed at enhancing connectivity between the Northeast and Southeast Asia. The important ongoing and potential infrastructure projects in this regard are Moreh -Tamu--Kalewa Road, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, Trans Asian Highway, India-Myanmar rail linkages, Kaladan Multimodal project, the Stilwell road, Myanmar-India-Bangladesh gas and/or oil pipeline, Tamanthi Hydroelectricity project and optical fiber network between Northeast India and Southeast Asia. However, the existing possibilities the process of enhancing connectivity between India's Northeast and Southeast Asia is not a cakewalk because there are also geographical, technical, political and security challenges that limit the process of infrastructure development.

However, these challenges are not insurmountable. What is needed is to initiate intra-regional capacity building programmes in the Northeast - development of better connectivity within the region, development of export oriented industries, development of technical and entrepreneurial skills in the local population - and develop consensus over a common agenda for the development of Northeast to utilize all the sanctioned funds in an effective and result oriented manner. The Northeast should be involved in various sub-regional initiatives, such as the BIMSTEC, MGC and Kunming initiative, as a separate economic entity, which, in turn, would facilitate the harnessing of available regional economic opportunities. The bottom line is that the idea of enhancing connectivity between Northeast and Southeast Asia is a welcome step and has the potential to change the socio-economic landscape of the region. But to make this effective it should be supplemented by efforts to prepare the Northeast forthis opportunity.

India's Look East Policy in Mizoram: Opportunities, Shortcomings and Challenges
Julien Levesque and Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman

Mizoram has often been portrayed as the "model Northeastern state." With a peaceful situation and India's second highest literacy rate, the province's readiness for development should have earmarked the state as the ideal recipient of the Look East Policy, particularly after the Indian Government "committed itself to making Assam the center of our great economic enterprise towards the East," as professed by Manmohan Singh in 2004. However, this has not been the case, as exemplified by the lowest road density of Mizoram among the eight Northeastern states that makes transport difficult within the state and also with neighbouring regions.

The LEP did not pay much attention to Mizoram until Bangladesh's refusal to grant transit to India made further reflection on connectivity an imperative - a process out of which the multimodal Kaladan project came about. The Kaladan project offers multiple opportunities to Mizoram. The construction of the project will bring investment and employment to the state. Besides, by opening India's Northeast to the Bay of Bengal, the Kaladan project will transform Mizoram into a major transit route in the region. Finally, enhanced connectivity will facilitate further investment that could take advantage of the state's high literacy rate. The border trade post at Zokhawthar in Champhai district has the potential to be a significant port of entry for goods from East and Southeast Asia.

However, certain challenges must be addressed for that possibility to happen. These challenges take the form of non-traditional security concerns, namely, the inflow of people on the one hand, and the inflow of narcotics and the spread of HIV/AIDS on the other. Indeed, for the past twenty years, Mizoram has been hosting temporarily a Myanmarese population estimated at 70,000 to 100,000 - and which can be classified into two main categories: refugees, who are settled in Mizoram and probably represent 50 to 70 per cent of the whole Myanmarese population, and migrants, who come and go at ease in search of economic opportunities.

Another issue that Mizoram faces is the spread of narcotics. Approximately 38 per cent of drug users below the age of twenty in India are found in Mizoram. As 48 per cent of drug users in Mizoram have never been employed, drug addiction may seriously hamper the workforce - a workforce that is educated and therefore essential to development. In addition, as 76 per cent of injecting drug users in Mizoram share needles, HIV/AIDS propagates among drug users, worsening the issue.

These concerns are aggravated by the reaction of the Mizo society and the passivity of the authorities. Despite a feeling of brotherhood, Mizos tend to pin the entire responsibility for crime and drugs on the Myanmarese, and a violent upsurge against them sprang in 2003. As a result of this rather conservative reaction, further opening of the state implied by greater connectivity and by development projects may not be seen favorably by Mizos, as it will undoubtedly expand these flows. On the other hand, local and central authorities have not shown earnest commitment to monitor the inflow of people and narcotics - for instance, no official record is kept of the Myanmarese population living in Mizoram.

Hence, for the LEP to transform Mizoram into a truly prosperous and stable state, proper monitoring of the inflow of people and drugs from Myanmar must be set up and the spread of drug use and HIV/AIDS must be tackled, so that greater linkages with Southeast Asia appear as an opportunity rather than as an additional source of trouble.

Thailand's Look West Policy and India's Northeast: Opportunities and Challenges
Vibhanshu Shekhar

Enunciated in 1997, The Look West Policy (LWP) of Thailand covers the geopolitical canvas of South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. There are three important objectives of the LWP

Strengthen existing bilateral and sub-regional relations with the target states

Seek potential markets and investment opportunities overseas, and

Promote foreign investment in Thailand

The overall positioning of India in the LWP can be divided into two different phases as the policy reflects substantial changes in its outlook and its scope over the years. The first phase of the LWP (1997-2003) can be understood as the phase of growing symbiosis between the LEP and the LWP as several sub-regional groupings came into existence, laying down the mechanisms and agenda for sub-regional cooperation between India and Thailand. However, the Northeast did not figure prominently in the LWP, despite being India's nearest land frontier. The inclusion of the Northeast into the geo-political canvas of the LWP began since 2004, which marks the second phase of the LWP.

Three important developments can be identified, which seem to have played important role in bringing the Northeast into the focus of the LWP. First, India-Thailand bilateral trade has grown considerably and India has emerged as an important market. Thailand's Exports to India recorded bigger growth percentage than that of Thailand's imports from India. Second, the initiatives for various infrastructural development programme and the India-ASEAN Car Rally from Guwahati, Assam in 2004, underscored the significance of the Northeast in connecting mainstream India with Southeast Asia. Finally, India's Northeast appeared on the LWP canvas also because the region figured in the radar of the LEPfor the first time. The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, characterized Assam as a 'gateway to the East' in November 2004. In its call for greater economic integration between India and Thailand, the LWP views India's Northeast as one of the most convenient facilitating factors in integration. This understanding has driven Thailand to identify scope for trade and investment in the Northeast. The Commerce Minister of Thailand, Krirk Krai Jirapaet, along with a delegation of 15 Thai businessmen visited Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura in June 2007 and identified several areas for investment in the region - agro-business, food-processing, energy, transport and tourism. The Thai-Ahom cultural connection is being touted as one of the most enabling factor for Thai business presence in the region.

The LWP offers several opportunities for economic development in the region. First, Thai investment in the Northeast can help in the revival of local industries, greater application of technologies and promote local industrial entrepreneurship and investment from mainstream Indian businesses. The sectors identified for investment are labour-intensive industries and therefore, can generate large-scale employment. Second, the LWP can also facilitate greater economic integration of the Northeast with the market economies of Southeast Asia. However, the process of globalization comes with a complete package of pros and cons and therefore the LWP also poses several challenges to the local economy. One of the widely perceived fears is that the influx of Thai MNEs and technologically advanced SMEs can intensify the economic inequality and give birth to an unbalanced economic development in which the developed enclave economy remains in conflict with backward popular economy. Moreover, an unbridled intervention of market forces and blind pursuit of commercialized agriculture can adversely affect the subsistence mode of agriculture and radicalize the tribal communities in provinces like Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura and Assam.

The governments in the Centre and provinces need to make serious efforts to ensure that the process of economic integration does not affect the region adversely. The state institutions need to be more efficient and create mass-awareness among the people about how to benefit from the process of economic integration. Both the central and provincial governments need to invest in developing local capacity, promote local entrepreneurship, and strengthen institutions like Indian Entrepreneurship Centre. Greater responsibility lies with the national and local civil society and state institutions in addressing those challenges.


Is Connectivity between the Northeast and Southeast Asia essential for a successful Look East Policy?

In pure economic terms, India can pursue a successful LEP without enhancing connectivity between Northeast and Southeast Asia because most of the volume of trade is conducted through the sea routes. However, LEP provides an opportunity to develop underdeveloped and landlocked northeast thus connectivity between the both regions matters. Myanmar could be considered as a land bridge between Northeast India and Southeast Asia though there are possibilities to extend the infrastructure linkages between India and Myanmar to the mainland Southeast Asia.

Stilwell Road is more a priority for India than for Myanmar

While there has been concerted effort on the part of the governments at the Centre as well as in the provinces, Myanmar has not shown keen interest in the reopening of the Stilwell road. The upgradation work on the Indian side of the road is in full swing but there is no such activity on the Myanmarese side of the border.

Can the cross-border trade via Mizoram be linked with the spread of drugs and HIV in the province?

It can be observed that the highest HIV/AIDS occurrence rates can be found in the two districts - Aizawl, Champhai - where the border trade route runs. The informal trade in Mizoram follows the formal border trade route, thus narcotics are smuggled through Champhai and Aizawl, where most drug users are found. Three quarters of injecting drug users share needles in Mizoram - the perfect vector for the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The statistics regarding the number of Chin refugees and migrants presented here differ significantly from the estimates of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Why?

The UNHCR considers that only a handful - a hundred at most - of Myanmarese Chins in Mizoram are political refugees and the rest of them are economic migrants. However, there is a need to divide the migrants into two different categories - settlers and seasonal migrant workers. The settlers are neither political activists nor seasonal migrant workers. Instead they have decided to settle peacefully in Mizoram and are more akin to the refugees. In this sense, the settlers constitute roughly 50-70 per cent of the Myanmarese Chin population in Mizoram and the rest of them are seasonal migrant workers.

How real is the fear of radical tribalism in the northeast as a negative fallout of Thailand's investment and consequent inflow of capital and people from outside the region?

Two different assessments were put forth over the inherent danger of radical tribalism. One set of participants followed somewhat an integrationist approach and argued that the fear of radical tribalism should not be blown out of proportion. In fact, the cultural alienation of the Northeast is essentially a result of the policies that the central government has followed since independence. The tribal communities in the region need economic development and prosperity and not cultural isolation in the name of distinct identity. The tribal communities will actually welcome these investments from outside. Another set of participants assessed that a possible threat of radical tribalism is very real in case of the failure of the governments in addressing their concern. The issue is not how much inflow of investment or economic development takes place. What is more important is how the tribal communities of the northeast respond to these initiatives, how much they participate in the process of development, and how much is their capacity to participate in the process. If the tribal population does not participate in the economic processes or find themselves at the receiving end of some benefits from this process then the possibility of tribal backlash is very high.


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