Look East Policy of India and Rootless & Voiceless Moreh, (Manipur)


By Professor N. Mohendro Singh
Every nation makes the best possible engagements and interactions, inside and outside, to ensure lasting peace, durable stability and perceptible progress. The neighbourhood and global connectivity has now acquired a new strategic dimension having a strong bearing upon any major initiative. To-day no nation can go ahead without knowledge connectivity, technological connectivity and market connectivity. The disadvantages and disabilities of a closed and enclaved economy have been largely addressed by the stimuli of market linkages – creating thereby a chain of economic dynamism and growth impulses. It is not a wonder that India has its own share in the global shock in one way or other, directly or indirectly and sooner or later.

The Look East Policy Approach initiated in the early 1990s, is largely founded upon the growing necessity for multi-dimensional connectivity. It is all about the calculated approach, expression of interests and intentions; — not a black and white policy document highlighting the arrangement of concrete actions put in place and to be put in place unlike the NER-Vision, 2020, Industrial Policy and Agricultural Policy and the like. But this assessed and processed conceptual framework gives a new shape to the policy intervention. It acts as a guide to the policy formulation.

The most overriding consideration that could create a profound impact on the thinking apparatus of Indian leaders, perhaps, is the strategic geo-physical reality in and around the Pacific. From the angle of geo-politics and also from the economic perspective, the emerging countries in Asia such as Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and Japan belong to the Pacific; essentially to the east of India. The possibility of successful application of Extended Neighbourhood Policy of India in the South East Asian region has gained a new dimension because of its compact proximity.

Another possible opportunity that could be capitalized in the scheme of things under the Look East Policy Approach is the age-old cultural affinity. The North Eastern Region said to be “land-bridge” or “gate way” for actualization of the policy approach “is Mongoloid in India and culturally part of South East Asia” (B. G. Vergese, 2006). Ninety-eight (98) per cent of their border is international and only 2 per cent national. There are many commonalities of people on the either side of the border. From time immemorial, there has been traditional trans-border-trade. Economic relation, although informal, is very intimate.

Manipur`s location, bordering Myanmar and astride the proposed South-East-Asia corridor significantly provides a very unique position to act as Gateway to the South-East Asia. As such the Look East Policy of India looks not only at the South East Asia but also meaningfully at the North Eastern Region; particularly Manipur. The indispensability of the “border states” has been taken note of. To-day the Government of India, in response to this emerging imperative, has created a new department called Department of Border Development.

Keeping this reality in view, the attempt has been made to forge the regional understanding and unity as a key step towards meaningful participation in the global events. Under what we call Asian Initiatives the regional groupings such as:-
(l)South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), 1985,
(2) Canberra Meet, 1985,
(3) UN-Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific, (UNESCAP), 1992,
(4) BIMSTEC, 1997-98,
(5) South Asian Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ), 1997,
(6) Bangkok Declaration, 1997 and
(7)Kunming Initiative, 1999 have underscored the relevance of regional united strength. In fact, the solid seasoned home strength marks thebeginning of the successful global competition; that way globalization begins athome. Now, most of the emerging countries have started careful introspection in allperspectives. Without sufficient inner strength any attempt may amount to aquagmire and quandary. You will feel simply left out. Remember the message ofglobalization is very simple, “just pick up the winners”. Competition gives you a spiritof efficiency; and efficiency is strength. Development is born out of strength. Now-aday, any significant move should be guided by size, scale and scope (S3). Professionalbackwardness should be treated as a closed chapter. This is the spirit of modern era.

Three major instruments:

Trade, travel and investment have been major economic instruments. They will continue to be so in the new arena of the Look East Policy also. These three pillars are interrelated.

The regional groups went fairly ahead during 1985 to 2000. During this period the South East Asian Economies witnessed an exciting phase of their performance. The tempo of economic breakthrough in 1950s in Japan, in 1970s in East Asian Industrializing Tigers (Republic of Korea, Hongkong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand) and in 1990s in China was carried forward – thereby generating a “model wave” of economic performance. These emerging countries also looked forward to larger market linkages.

The overall performance of India`s export to the South East Asian countries increased from 11.44 per cent in 1990-91 to 18.20 per cent in 1999-2000. In the same fashion import also recorded the increase from 13.46 per cent in 1990-91 to 19.04 in 1999-2000.

The Indo-China trade was really impressive. Trade with China recorded a phenomenal rise of 40 per cent in 1999-2000 as against 20 per cent in ASEAN countries. During 1999-2000 to 2003-04 there was six-fold increase in trade volume with China. In 2005-06 China was the third largest trade partner of India with Rs. 79,000 crore; next to USA and UAE.

It is calculated that the Gross Domestic Product of India can increase by 3.45 per cent if India is included in ASEAN +6. A study conducted by the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi reveals that the volume of trade between India and Myanmar could easily be raised to Rs. 2000 crore a year once road communication is improved and proper banking and exchange facilities are put in place in Moreh and Champai.

Moreh (Manipur)

Marked importance and focused attention was given to the “border states” by the Government of India mainly after the bitter experience of the Indo-China war in 1962; as distinguished from the “frontier-state”, — the last in the queue of political arrangement and economic planning.

So far as the border-trade with China is concerned, Nathula Pas (Sikkim) and Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh) come into the picture. Tripura comes in the forefront when we talk of border trade with Bangladesh. Of course, West Bengal cannot be ignored. When we talk of Indo-Myanmar Border Trade; and also of Look East Policy Approach in the larger context, Moreh of Manipur and Champai of Mizoram come into limelight. To-day the importance of being A MOREH on the easternmost corner of Manipur (India) has been acknowledged by the high-sounding inauguration of border trade at Moreh on 12th April 1995 by Sri P. Chidambaram, former Minister of State, Commerce, Government of India in presence of Lt. Gen. Tunkyi, the then Minister of Trade, Myanmar. Really the hope was high.

The message is simple. Develop your state through the strategy based on trade. This is an opportunity. Availability of opportunity is one; but utilization is another. Availability and utilization are two different things. Don`t take everything granted. It appears that there is a missing mind on this critical point.

The early 1990s witnessed three interrelated phenomena in India; (1) Liberalisation, (2) Look East Policy Approach and (3) Indo-Myanmar Border-Trade largely in response to a global change. In Manipur one looks at the Look East Policy of India largely through the Indo-Myanmar Border Trade Agreement, 1994-95.

The shifting of development strategy for the North Eastern Region was necessitated by the prolonged stagnation suffered by the region for more than 45 years. Development strategy based on industries could not produce satisfactory outcome. “The region is pre-industrial” (Planning Commission, 1997) even after 45 years of economic planning in the country. Even to-day the industrial backwardness remains acute.

The tempo of development based upon agricultural strategy is fairly low. While prolonged dependence upon agriculture is a sign of primitive economy, till 1997, the North Eastern Region had to import food grains from outside. The import bill amounted to Rs. 2500 crore annually. The shortage of rice in Manipur was of the order of 1 lakh M.T. in 2006-07. All kinds of vegetables come from Northern India. Fish is imported from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The acute scarcity of essential food items and sharp rise after a few days of economic blockade reflect the failure on food-front in Manipur. In fact, Food Security remains a far cry.

The third option is the strategy based on trade. Now the Indo-Myanmar Border Trade has streamlined three categories of trade, namely (1) Traditional Exchange, (2) Border Trade and (3) Normal Trade. The transaction under the Traditional Exchange is flourishing. Daily nearly 100-200 vehicles are plying with third-country goods. Border-trade is also coming up. According to the Department of Commerce and Industries, Government of Manipur export from Indian side amounted to Rs 6.15 crore in 2004-2005 and import from Myanmar to Rs. 5.27 crore as against estimated volume of trade of Rs. 200 crore. The performance needs a lot of improvement.

However, one cannot rule out the prospect of Indo- Myanmar Border Trade, People in Manipur are gainer in two ways; they can buy “third-country article” at low price. Quality is also good. They can sell the same at higher price. To-day the whole Paona International looks like a foreign market. A sample survey for 5 years (2000-2005) at Imphal, Kakching, Pallet and Moreh revealed that the annual rate of increase of shop establishments could be 8.52 per cent and that of employment could be 11.07 per cent inspite of so many handicaps and odds imposed from time to time at different places. The tempo continues getting momentum.

This is not the end of the story of Moreh. One can`t help touching on the other side of the coin. The so-called traders continue to face three major hurdles:

• Extortion and Improper Payments,

• Undue Bandhs and Blockades and

• Militant Conservatism.

It is really surprising to find 34 (thirty-four) legal and illegal check posts within 229 kms. from Moreh to Mao (Manipur) i.e. there is a check post for every 6.73 kms. Harassment is a way of life and gets institutionalized. The innocent traders pay and are also punished. They are forced to burn the two ends of the candle. A trucker has to make additional provision on an average for Rs. 21,430 per trip for improper payment. In the same way from Khuzuma Police Station (Nagaland) to Dimapur (Nagaland), there are 34 check posts for which a trucker has to make additional provision of Rs. 12,430 per trip. The rate of improper payment ranges from Rs. 200 to Rs. 1000. In other words, part of the profit said to be earned by the traders has been contributed towards the “unearned income” of “gate-keepers and swindlers”.

Unmindful of the economic value of commercial transactions, on a very small pretext of anything bandhs and blockades are called resulting in a very unpleasant surprise; causing dislocation and additional expenditure;- a sign of social immaturity. Over-stay means unnecessary expenditure and even health hazard. Uncertainty reigns fairly high. People do feel panicky in a strange situation. Manipur has, perhaps, the best record of longest economic blockade. In fact, the prolonged economic blockades do not allow human beings in Manipur to be human in 21st century.

The third headache is militant conservatism. To-day Moreh has become a hot bed of the clash of vested interests;– giving rise to a peculiar hybrid of commercial rivalry and ethnic conflict. Well, as integral part of the Look East Policy Approach of India, Moreh has been opened up, but the people there remain in a closed and conservative world. This contradiction has abetted the invisible struggle for domination. The game of remote control without accountability and decency has been let loose. In fact the temptation of aggressive domination is so high that the whole Moreh to-day looks like a rootless and heartless plant full of doubtful parasites coming and going just for monetary gains. Like a parentless baby Moreh is voiceless. Every section of society there gets subsumed into the greater networks of bubbles. People, by and large, lack ambition, dislike responsibility, evidently indifferent to growth and openly resist change. Quick money through trades of small arms and drugs from the so-called gold-mines of black marketeers is a breeding ground of animosity of small men. Administration there is not largely meant for control but primarily for “earning”. One observes a loose game without a referee.

The conglomerate in the morning throngs into the Namphalong market (Myanmar) through gate no. 2 just within a few yards from Indian border; possibly without any meaningful sense of formal trade and transaction. Well, in a way the so-called economic gains have been largely neutralized by the social loss and as such, there is a growing apprehension that we may be left with nothing in the long run. The Indo-Myanmar Border Trade, perhaps, commenced without adequate preparation. How long can trade activities be left with black marketeers at the connivance of the authority? What is the use of putting a plan in place without empowering the local beneficiaries? It is bound to be counter-productive and invites misunderstanding and inequality in income. Empowerment and development intervention should go together. The best course is; Empowerment first; programme second. Otherwise we are all dead in the long run.

The obvious question before us is whether the state government was duly consulted and their view points were taken into consideration? If so, what are the major highlights of the proposal put forward by the state government? Whether the tantalizing realities obtaining in Moreh were conceived and taken note of? Whether the central decision was simply left with the state government for future development? Whether the Indo-Myanmar Border Trade was an offshoot of a larger political move? What is the built-in-mechanism to monitor and address the alarming concerns? Whether the Indo-Myanmar Border Trade would eventually meet with the same fate of the Loktak Hydro Power Project?

As such, a fresh look at the ground realities of the Look East Policy of India through the small window of voiceless Moreh could be rewarding. A thorough change of both “Guard and Gear” is called for.


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