Wednesday, February 27, 2008

How to fix India's troubled north-east

Kaushik Basu

By Kaushik Basu
Professor of economics, Cornell University

Tucked away between China, Burma and Bangladesh, and linked to the rest of India by a sliver of north Bengal that arches over Bangladesh, India's north-east is a region of amazing grace - charming people, ancient cultures and bountiful nature.

Tribals in north east India
The eight states of the north-east comprise a region of diversity

As any shrewd observer of the world would deduce from this, it is a region of contested claims, strife and anarchy.

The eight states of the north-east comprise a region of diversity - multiple religions, dialects and tribes, each with its distinctive culture and history.

In Mizoram there are the Bnei Menashe, who claim to be Jews, descendants of the ancient tribe of Menasseh.

Then there are groups from as near as Bihar, such as the Adivasis who came to work in the Assam tea gardens and stayed on.

Their claim to special rights, granted to "original inhabitants", is contested by the local people, who argue that they lost that status by their move, for they are not original to Assam.

If we do not act soon, there is every possibility that the region will erupt into internecine warfare of a kind not seen in India before

Some of these contests acquire a farcical dimension, such as when China welcomed but refused to give visas to some delegates from Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds that China considered parts of that state to be Chinese.

India meanwhile insisted that China must insist on visas.

Copying Kapuscinski

Of all the states of this region, the most troubled is Manipur.

I flew into Imphal, Manipur's capital, by a short Indigo flight from Guwahati on the morning of 8 January.

Ryszard Kapuscinski is known to be the great travel writer of our times, but he was more than that.

He was a philosopher, an astute and compassionate observer of the human condition.

There are few signs of the famous Indian economic boom here
When Kapuscinski journeyed to remote lands, he carried with him the greatest travel book of antiquity, Herodotus' Histories.

Out of this experience came his own masterpiece, Travels with Herodotus. I am doing what Kapuscinski did, but at one remove - I am travelling with his book.

I arrive in Imphal with a blinding headache and flop down in bed in my artlessly large room in Hotel Nirmala. I try to read, but fall asleep.

When I wake up, the winter sun is streaming in through my open windows.

From my balcony I can see the chaos of Thangal Bazar - tarless streets, unkempt roof-tops, half-cemented buildings, the anarchy of low-hanging electric wires criss-crossing in different directions and tapped from below by small shops with rusty tin roofs.

Collapsing economy

The flashes of colour come from the women, in their stunning phaneks - sarong like wrap-arounds - and shawls. They seem to be endowed with an effortless grace.

There are few signs of the famous Indian economic boom here.

This is a region of a collapsing economy, huge unemployment, and interrupted power supply. I was assured that at most times it was safe to touch those exposed wires.

At night I go for dinner to the home of an old Manipuri friend.

Rebels in Manipur
Insurgent groups routinely extort money in Manipur

It is a picturesque three-hundred year old house, with a quaint courtyard, mysterious stairways, muslin curtains and melodious wooden floors.

To get there one has to drive over a rock-strewn and dug-up road. It has been under repair for four years. When we reach the house, there is a power outage and we sit by lanterns and candles.

On the way back there is not a soul in the streets - life is too insecure for that - and my hotel has pulled down shutters from the ceiling which are bolted to the floor with padlocks.

The people of the north-east have high human capital - Mizoram's literacy rate is second only to the state of Kerala's. And it has a history that goes back 2,000 years.

Ratan Thiyam's Manipuri theatre is famous internationally.

An 11-year old boy, Honey Kenao, plays the tabla like a grand master. He is a prodigy - we will without doubt see more of him.

At various institutes and universities where I speak, the discussion is lively and engaged.

Threat of war

But beneath this, the region is simmering.

North-eastern family
The vast human potential of this region risks being wasted

Insurgent groups routinely extort money from bureaucrats, shopkeepers and professors. Kidnappings are frequent.

Trucks on highways are often stopped by competing local powers and either have their cargo confiscated or are allowed to pass after paying a "tax".

Hardly any new industry worth its name is moving into the region.

There are three immediate measures that the Indian government needs to take.

* Improve law and order

India has to clamp down on extortion and make it clear that the collection of taxes and exertion of force is a prerogative of government. As Max Weber had reminded us, the state must have a "monopoly of violence" - meaning, if anybody has the right to use force, it is the state.

* Invest in infrastructure

Roads, railways, financial services and electricity provision all need more money and all lag behind other points of India.

* Improve interaction

If the region remains cut off from the rest of India, there is every possibility that it will erupt into internecine warfare of a kind not seen in India before. And that will be extremely unfortunate for a region that has so much potential.


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