Chinese Silk Route to Europe And Chinese Silk Route to Manipur: What a contrast

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By Amar Yumnam

I would like to begin with a quotation from the latest book on Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (arguably the most powerful team of Economists collaborating on development research in recent years starting from the 2006 classic on Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship) in order to give a preview of my argument that follows. Daron and James write:

“Most economists and policymakers have focused on “getting it right”, while what is really needed is an explanation for why poor nations “get it wrong.” Getting it wrong is mostly not about ignorance or culture. …….poor countries are poor because those who have power make choices that create poverty. They get it wrong not by mistake or ignorance but on purpose.”

This explanation is very apt to understand the political economy of lack of development in Manipur in particular and the North East in general.  The articulation in this book is absolutely robust from a general perspective as compared to the just published controversial book on An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen where Manipur appears only once in a footnote and twice in the appendices. This book has no inkling of the inclusive compass of Sen which was visible in his very early book on Choice of Techniques wherein he wrote of the handloom cost of production in Manipur.

The changing fate of historical silk routes stretching from China to the rest of the world is a telling live example of how wrongs are perpetuated on purpose and not by ignorance. First let us know how the old silk route connecting China with Europe has undergone massive and developmentally consequential transformation. In the old days this silk route used to be dominated by trading in gems and spices. Today this route is a train service network connecting China with the capitals of even Western Europe (Rome, Paris, for example) covering a distance of more than 11,000 kilometres. The items being carried from China by the trains passing through Kazakhstan and delivering at the cities of Europe are Hewlett Packard computers, computer peripherals and electronic items. This transportation has emerged to be much more economical than sea routes and air cargoes. Further the development impact of this on China has been tremendous while enabling the European countries have access to lower-priced electronic and IT products.

Now comes to ponder what if anything has happened to the silk route that traces the muga related skills of Manipur to China. Today the way things are as if there was no linkage in the past. Further there is no sign of a new structure emerging that can re-invigorate the old links and evolve a thriving framework of relationships for shared economic transformation. Here comes the relevance of the quotation in the first paragraph that the policy makers get the interventions wrong “not by mistake or ignorance but on purpose”.

The connectivity issues for Manipur are perpetual and no meaningful improvement is expected any time in the near future. As usual the national highways linking Manipur with the rest of the country (India is still a country and not a nation) are now in as worse as they can be. In this connection the country’ minister of defence of the second rung was here to inspect and explore options for improving the conditions of the highways. What really pains and surprises me is the way the Imphal-based newspapers reported the visit as something to feel mentally elevated by all the people in Manipur. Well, in a sense there is very little application of mind and quality-enhancing interventions to be expected in the dailies published here as at the core they are little more than notice-boards. No newspaper realised that he was a minister in charge of defence; he definitely was not a minister connected with any development functions or the highways. The people of the land have been fighting for so long for India to stop the militaristic approaches to any issue here. Sharmila has been fasting for more than a decade. We agitated against the North Eastern Council being a functionary of the ministry of internal security rather than of any development related ministry. We have been complaining against the security oriented approaches to the linkage through the so-called border trade agreements. This has made the linkage being dominated by trading in contraband items rather than in normal items. This is an outcome in any highly controlled atmosphere; excessive control generates an atmosphere for illegal trading through whatever channels as exemplified by both theory and global experience. We have been saying for quite some time that in any border region where the demography is differentiated culturally and historically from the main policy evolvers the appropriate interventions in the interest of nation-building should be civil-oriented development interventions and not military oriented impositions. This is exactly what is missing here. Look East Policy or otherwise, India seems unwilling and incapable of bringing about development in Manipur. Unwillingness is evident from various manifestations that she does not have the intention and orientation for looking at the issues of the region from the perspective of the development ministries rather than the tested and failed militaristic approaches. The recent visit of a defence minister to assess the national highways is the latest example of this.

If India is unwilling to alter approach and incapable of heralding a golden future for the region in this fast changing global economic scenario, time has come to look for possible interventions to bring about transformation. Hong Kong is one prime example which comes easily. The leasing of the land for very nearly a century enabled it to experience development in every real sense of the term, and making it competitive globally in every foundation of social strength. There is no harm in experimenting with the leasing out of Manipur for nearly a century or so to Japan, China, South Korea, USA or any developed country having the willingness to bring about real development here. Time is now to get it right in Manipur, and not for development bluffs.

(Amar Yumnam is the Director of Center for Manipur Studies and Prof. of Department of Economics, Manipur University)

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