Some years ago, the Union ministry of external affairs has already opened an office in Guwahati with the stated intent of taking the “Look East Policy” which has caused much excitement in the academic circles for quite some years now, very seriously. The talk at the time had been for every northeastern state government, in particular the Manipur government, to put in the appropriate energy to ensure that the best possible advantage is had of the policy. For, leaving aside the intense debates on the merits and demerits of the policy for a while, it is still noteworthy to recall what American entrepreneur and tech guru Stewart Brand said about the digital revolution: “If you are not part of the steam roller, you are part of the road.” Although the excitement had died down a bit, there is no argument about it that a steam roller is heading the way of the Northeast and in particular Manipur. A rail line is about to touch Imphal, and in the years ahead, it is anybody’s guess the line would be extended further east to link with South East Asia’s own rail network. The same is true of the road, and an trans Asian highway is currently being envisaged. There are so many who argue that there is nothing very much to be had by the Northeast from the Look East Policy and that the place with its poor material resources, would probably end up at best as a highway economy, with a few petrol pumps and roadside eateries doing good business. It is a vision that needs caution, but one that should not deter to the extent of inducing us to reject the new outlook. One of the examples often cited is the economy of the highway between Guwahati and Shillong, or between Delhi and Chandigarh. The vision conjured up is that of impoverished people along the highway simply watching in helpless frustration the caravans pass by to and fro with no real benefits for them.
This does make for a scary scenario, but one we must argue is not altogether accurate of honest. The fallacy here is, the proponents of this argument are forgetting that Shillong and Guwahati, or Delhi and Chandigarh are also part of the highway and not just the space between them that the highway connects. One way of picturizing the alternative scenario would be to ask as to how much setbacks Shillong and Guwahati would have suffered had there been no highway connecting them. So if Nongpoh, the midpoint township between Shillong and Guwahati has not become another Shillong or Guwahati, there is no gainsaying that it would still have benefited tremendously from the growth that Shillong and Guwahati had because of the highway. One cannot expect every roadside truck docking station to transform into a metropolis because of the Look East Policy, but in assessing the overall success story, the boosts the nodal points have received also to be taken into accounts. Can there be any doubt that many northeast towns and cities would emerge as these nodes? We are also not altogether cynical about every investments that the World Bank or Asian Development Bank makes, especially after witnessing the vigour with which the economies of Vietnam, northern Thailand, Yunnan province of China and to a lesser extent the entire Greater Mekong Sub-region, GMS, are churning at this moment because of the ongoing ADB facilitated connectivity project.
In any case, what can be so very bad about good surface connectivity, which incidentally will constitute a major portion of this policy? Whether the roads are used for bad things, for example, logging, is all up to the political preparedness of the state. To counter logging for instance, new tough legislations against logging and environment degradation can be passed. Good politics should be about ensuring the good effects are taken advantage of and the bad are blocked. The other question often asked in a cynical vein is, what would the Northeast be selling to balance its buying? Well it could be selling its image (tourism); services, which a horde of young men and women migrating to other states of India are already doing; it could also be engaged in a whole range of value addition to exportable goods. This ought not to be taken lightly for many South East Asian countries are actually prospering from this alone, as for instance Nikon cameras and Mercedes Benz cars, and a whole range of other internationally famed product brands are now also made in Thailand. Manipur is not short of skilled labour too. All that this inadequately explored work force needs are good openings and disciplining under a good, optimistic work culture. There will be more good as well as bad consequences, but let us think of crossing the river after we have reached the river. But first let us acknowledge the bridge is important.