By Oken Jeet Sandham
India’s Look East Policy (LEP) was to foster extensive economic and strategic relations with member nations of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in order to bolster its standing as a regional power and a counterweight to the strategic influence of the People’s Republic of China. Initiated in 1991, it marked a strategic shift in India’s perspective of the world. It was developed and enacted during the Government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and rigorously pursued by the successive administrations of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh.
When India started thinking to become a regional power with the sole aim to check China’s influence on the Southeast Asian nations, its northeastern region was becoming a launching pad. But Delhi came to realize that nothing could be working unless they improve the condition of roads, railways and airports of the Region.
One of the funny things is that the Government of India had never tried to see the reasons why a huge economic imbalance was there between the Region and the rest of the country. It would not be very difficult to identify the reason why such apathy had taken place. For last the two decades, the plights of the people of the Northeast had already reverberated. Even today, the differences can be easily seen. The educational institutions, colleges, universities are almost underperforming in the absence of much required educational facilities and infrastructures. Some States in the region are yet to have a Medical College or an Engineering College. Many State capitals are yet to see the railways services as well as airports. Even some existing Central Universities in some of the States in the Region were often on the news of being plagued with scams and scandals.
While in other parts of the country, there are over 40 Universities in one single State. Some States have over 40 medical Colleges and Technical and Engineering Colleges have been mushrooming in their respective States too. Interestingly, the Center not only still keeps providing funds to them but also to establish more and more new technical institutions. Unfortunately, some of the hospitals at the Region’s State capitals do not even have a cardiologist or a neurologist.
With all these perennial apathy of the Government of India plus the corrupt politicians of the Region, the people started coming out to raise their voices to make sure that the leaders at the Center start acting. The chronic underdevelopment problems of the Northeast are not natural but man-made.
Many pundits were wondering whether the LEP would really benefit the people of the Northeast while India was planning to play Regional power to keep China at bay. The fact is the people of the Region have to benefit from this Policy. The Policy should not be a ploy to fool the people of the Northeastern Region or to divert the attention of Region’s people from the Center’s chronic failures towards the Region.
There had been a series of seminars and conferences with regard to the LEP over the years. Yet there was hardly any on the ground and it was only talking. 25 years is quite long in human lives and if the Government is going to take 25 years to think how to implement, then probably that country will never prosper. Unfortunately, the people of the Region, who are left to struggle themselves for their livelihood, will become worse than subhuman beings. Because the people of the Northeastern India have been dreaming that at least they would be able to eke out their living from the LEP.
When Narendra Modi came to power, he wasted no time in announcing that LEP would be now called Act East Policy (AEP). He equally felt that LEP was not working on the ground and it was time for Acts, hence AEP. Without a doubt, he said a lot of things on the concept of the development of the country. He said there should be a balance in the developmental process and even went to the extent of saying that Northeast could not be developed from Delhi. At the same time, one should appreciate the amount of Central Ministers’ visits to the Northeastern States. It is remarkable. And in fact, such frequent visits to the Region by the Central Ministers will definitely push a lot of developmental works and at the same time, those State Governments in the Region will remain ever alert. Such visits will also reduce the level of corruptions. There are hundreds of Centrally Sponsored Schemes pouring in the North Eastern States involving hundreds of crores but most of them were not implemented on the ground because there was hardly any mechanism to check corruptions and non-implementations. Ironically, the implementation parts are vested in respective State Governments. So when the Central Ministers start visiting the States in the Region, there is every possibility that developmental activities may go up and it will never be the same again.
The Modi Government should give emphasis on the social infrastructures. Major road constructions and connecting with State capitals of the Region with railways and airports should be given top priority. We should also study as to how the northeastern people living in border States of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura will benefit out of the AEP because they are divided by the International boundaries. Delhi should also initiate steps to ease travel restrictions on the citizens of India and other ASEAN countries. All the necessary infrastructures should be placed at border towns for citizens to avail all the travel facilities. Indian visitors should be allowed to visit all the ASEAN countries without many restrictions, and may be ASEAN countries may introduce a single entry VISA like the European Union (EU). In fact, the citizens of the border States of the Region will benefit maximum through trade and commerce and even for other educational purposes without involving heavy expenditures as they will be traveling by route to reach most of their desired destinations of ASEAN countries.
At the same time, more emphasis should be given to the existing International Trade Centers (ITCs) because such ITCs are mainly for economic development between the citizens living in the borders areas. ITCs are not for revenue making but to help people living the border areas. Infrastructures and essential facilities for ITCs should be well placed on both sides of the borders.