Debating India

North-East Council must look East

Tuesday 26 April 2005

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently upbraided the North-East Council for diminishing into a funds disbursement agency "mechanically allocating what little resources it has among the States" in the region, he was reiterating a complaint that has been made several times. The NEC, set up in 1972 by an Act of Parliament to envision a "balanced" development plan for North-East India and assist in its implementation, has failed to fulfil this role. Instead, its track record is one of red tape, financial irregularities and incomplete projects. From its inception to 2000, the NEC spent over Rs.4,000 crore on development projects but there is little to show for it. Efforts to revitalise the Council have been on since 2002, when it was upgraded from an advisory position to the status of a mini-planning commission to act in co-ordination with the newly created Ministry for Development of the North-East (DONER). In addition, a 11-member committee was set up to suggest measures for operationalising the NEC’s revised mandate. The panel submitted its report in July 2004. Recognising that one of the glaring omissions by the NEC was its failure to chart an overarching roadmap for development, the agency is now preparing a "vision" document to spell out where it wants the region to be by 2020.

It is imperative that this roadmap take into account the unique geographical feature of the region that shares its borders not so much with India - only a small section of western Assam has a common border with West Bengal - as with Myanmar and Bangladesh, Bhutan and China. It is clear that industrial development of the North-East can take off only when investors have efficient and economic connectivity to markets. For this, the region certainly needs mega investments in infrastructure that will integrate it with the rest of India. At the same time, it would be far-sighted to position it as the main springboard for Indian trade with its immediate neighbours to the east, and further afield in South East Asia, and therefore, as the perfect place for Indian manufacturing industry to locate itself with an eye on this market. It is this that will bring jobs and prosperity to the region. During his visit to the North-East in November 2004, the Prime Minister described the region as the "gateway" to India’s engagement with the Association for South East Asian Nations and with the sub-regional grouping, BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand-Economic Cooperation). The recent inauguration of a highway project to link the North-East to Thailand via Myanmar, a rail project connecting Manipur to Yangon, and the signing of an agreement for a gas pipeline from Myanmar through the North-East and Bangladesh to Kolkata, are all opportunities in the making for the region, which is also rich in natural resources. It is for the NEC, empowered and reconstituted as the main regional planning body, to build on these.

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