Shinzo Abe’s India Visit: Projections for the North East India

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By Aribam Joy Sharma

Japan is always in the minds of the people of North East India. Battle of Imphal and Kohima 1944 apart (aka Japan Lan in Manipur), the people of this region was enthused by their hard work, self-discipline, punctuality, technological and rapid economic development. There is no need for further elaborate explanation on Japan in this region. Here, the instances of organising rock concerts in Kohima to raise funds and Manipuri peoples’ small contribution for the 2011 Tsunami victims is noteworthy. People-to-people interaction between Japan and Northeast in the field of education, sports, arts and culture are not new. This shows the human bonding and ties between the Northeast people and people of Japan. The popularity of Japan in the region is again enhanced by the annual War memorial observation ceremony held every year in Imphal, Manipur. This year, Asian Confluence, Shillong organized lectures in August and September 2015 to strengthen bilateral ties with Japan. Japanese Professors Tomio Mizogami and Tsutomu Sato delivered lectures on issues pertaining bilateral relations, tourism and Japanese army in British India during World War II. All these are the signs of closeness and popularity of Japan in North East India.

On this backdrop, the just concluded three days (11-13 December 2015) visit of Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe to India can be contextualised in the Northeast India. Northeast people knows that even in the rarest of the rare cases, there is no probability of a highest dignitary of a country (say, USA, China, Japan, etc.) visiting the region. Having said that, the Northeast India was bring forth in the Indian foreign policy calculus since 2003 by former PM AB Vajpayee and later Narendra Modi government gave strong impetus to the Northeast region in India’s Act East-Look East Policy. Sensing the nerve of Modi Governments’ strong enthusiasm to develop and open Northeast India, Abe Govt. has rightly pressed the button to help in the infrastructure and socio-economic development in the region. Here liesthe significance of the Abe’s visit to India to its Northeastern states.

Hence, key takeaways from Japanese PM Abe’s visit to India for the Northeast can be analysed further. Though there is no chance to sign any deal on the infrastructural projects for Northeast India under the shadow of much hyped deal on India’s first ever bullet train network, civil nuclear energy cooperation and sharing of defence technology, Prime Minister Abe expressed and mentioned about Japan’s intention to provide Official Development Assistance, ODA loan amount of 67 billion yen for the improvement of road network and connectivity in Northeastern states of India in their joint statement. Meghalaya and Mizoram are the first two Northeastern States that will draw benefit from this ODA commitment.

Japan is the only country whom India has actively courted to help in socio-economic development projects in Northeast India. Since 1981, Japanese govt. is providing ODA loan to Northeastern states in the field of energy, water supply, forestry, urban development and agriculture. So far, Japanese govt. has provided 13 ODA loan projects to the Northeastern states amounting to around JPY 140 billion. This is a miniscule amount in comparison with cumulative Japanese ODA loan commitment to India of Japanese Yen, JPY 4000 billion. Japan is also giving grant assistance for grassroots projects in the health and education sectors to the NGOs of the Northeastern states.

More importantly, Japan is the first country which is allowed to invest in infrastructure development in North East India and agreed to provide an estimated $ 100 million aid to reconstruct roads and infrastructure in the region after the Tokyo summit 2014. As accepted in Tokyo Summit, Japan International Cooperation Agency’s, JICA feasibility study on regional connectivity between the Northeast India and neighbouring countries and other projects like, Integrated water supply project for Imphal City, Development and management of land and water resources for sustainable agriculture in Mizoram have been completed now. Thus, close on the heels of PM Abe’s visit to India, it is high time for the provincial governments in the region to pressurise the Modi govt. and Japanese authorities for clearing those projects which have already completed feasibility studies.

Corollary to the above, Japan is assisting India to landslide prevention in the area of highway development under the Sendai framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. When constructing roads, local governments in the region need to take this opportunity to mitigate the burden of landslides which occurred ever year in the national highways of the region.

In the field of educational exchange, Japanese Language Programme was opened in Manipur University in 1990. But the programme was stopped since 2003 due to non-availability of faculty. I am not impressed by this reasoning articulated by the university authorities. Under the just signed MoU for development of contacts and cooperation between the educational institutions of the two countries and possible support for exchange of aspiring students between India and Japan, Manipur University can revive the Japanese Language Programme. If fully functional, the university can attract students from other Northeastern states also. Students who gain basic Japanese language skill can apply for higher studies in Japan under Japan government scholarships. Under the thriving Indo-Japan relationship, there is scope for expansion of jobs in Japanese companies in India as well as in Myanmar which can absorb new Japanese language graduates.

Universities and other science and technology institutes of the Northeast India can build up institutional exchanges and collaborate in scientific research and encourage movement of professors and faculties with Japan which is mentioned in the joint statement. Prime Minister Abe expressed that around 10,000 young Indian talents will be visiting Japan under such frameworks as students exchange, IT training and short term exchanges in the next five years.

Skill development in different trades is the need of the hour in whole of the North East India to generate employment. In the joint statement of the meeting, the Indian side appreciated Japan’s support to Skill India Initiative through training at Industrial Training Institutions (ITIs), skills development for managers, curriculum development and the Skills Evaluation System Promotion Program. All the states of the region should take keen interest to accrue some amount of gain from such skill development collaboration with Japan.

Other areas from which Northeastern states can get benefits are Digital India, Skill India and Smart City projects in which Prime Minister Abe expressed his intention to support India’s efforts by sharing its advanced skills and technologies in the future.

In the end, from global geopolitical perspective, Chinese are also keenly watching Japanese activities and deep penetration in the Northeast region. The recent visit of Chinese ambassador and his three secretaries to Manipur during the annual Sangai Tourism festival is a clear indication which will not be counted lightly by the Japanese. Japan will try their best to save their footprint in Northeast region. So time is ripe for the provincial governments in the Northeast to act in unison to acquire the Japanese investment projects in infrastructure and help transform this backward region. Let’s blossom Indian dream of developing and opening the Northeast India to greater Asia and Japanese dream of alliance with India here in India’s Northeast region.

(The writer is an independent researcher based in Imphal)

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