The Act East Policy of the present regime, albeit earnest intentions, fails to exemplify how it would facilitate development in the Northeast Region (henceforth NER) in India. Accepted, regional development is not mutually exclusive from profitable interregional and international alliance. Yet, is the NER not entitled to hear, in the echo of the Act East policy, of a differential treatment towards it and not, again, only of its ‘economic and strategic’ importance, as was in the case of the Look East Policy (LEP)? It is common knowledge that LEP, at the time of its adoption did not even have a Northeast perspective. The perspective materialized only in October 2007, on the prodding of the State Governments and the Ministry for Development of North Eastern Region (MDONER), expecting that LEP’s execution would expedite economic development in the NER and thereby bring about socio-political stability in the region. The Act East Policy envisages the same, in fact, with more conviction. One important concern, nevertheless, still remains warily out of purview: are the common masses of the region competent and receptive enough to avail the opportunities that would be brought about by turning it into accessibly the immediate ‘economic hub’ for the outside world?
Ostentatious rhetoric like ‘global manufacturing hub’, ‘economic hub’ etcetera exudes promises of a relatively trouble-free future. However, economic growth in a geographically as well as socio-culturally sensitive region like the NER is not as simple as it is made to appear. In the present global societal order, economic growth certainly demands some insulation from socio-political and cultural contentions in order to strengthen society; but intimations of complete divorce of economics from socio-cultural considerations, a sign of economic nationalism, points out only to indifference in the attitude of the Central Government towards the fragile environment of the region. Every region with its own peculiar demons to be dealt with needs unique treatment, which embodies the idea of considering the region’s geographical idiosyncrasies and respecting its relative cultural exclusivity within greater traditions.
The onus, therefore, lies with the State governments and the MDONER to inform the Central Government about the region’s special needs, through viable and efficient policy proposals. The developmental policies in NER need not be overly concerned for a ‘growth’ model but for a ‘developmental’ model, unlike what Gujarat adopted in the last ten years, if we subscribe to the findings in the report of the Raghuram Rajan Committee 2013. If social indicators show signs of progress, economic growth is not far from drawing levels.
While issues of internal connectivity; promotion of industries, trade and commerce; creating an organic economy are right in their own place and intentions, equal thrust must also be put on a key social issue like education. Although one of the States within the region, Tripura, beams with the highest literacy rate at 94.65 % (Times of India, Sep 8, 2013) in the country, with Sikkim and Nagaland following suit by showing high decadal differences (2001-2011 census) towards enhancement in the literacy rate, the educational scenario of the region in general still looks grim. Moreover, significance rests equally in the nature of education as in the extent of education among the masses. An educated and enlightened mass, capable of thinking for itself, will surely refrain from falling prey to politics of divisiveness. Education seems to have failed when it comes to building a strong human resource base in the region, suffused in moderately urbane ideals and imbibed with ethical obligations towards the greater humanity. A leading French thinker and social activist of the early twentieth century, Simone Weil, whose works have benefitted the western world to a great extent, said that rights are subordinate and relative to obligations, because in isolation a person can have only obligations but no rights (The Need for Roots, 1952). Something of an opposite character, where rights dissolve all sense of obligation, has unfortunately unfurled roots in the NER. Hence, an ethically strong model of development is the call of the times, which is possible only through sound educational content.
Sound educational content, on the other hand, is a result of conscientious and rigorous research. In the light of the mounting lack of trust between its brethren and constant inter/intra regional disputes, the region urgently needs to search for grounds for unifying the masses. What the region lacks is ‘good research’ aimed towards realizing its capacities, which in turn can be availed through higher education. While Universities in India away from the region keep setting up Departments and Chairs devoted to the study of North-eastern region, ironically, the region itself lacks competent research institutes and institutes for higher education.
At the same time, the people must also be made aware of the strength of their own micro-cultures, through educational curriculum which slots in knowledge related to micro-cultures. Vocational training, to cultivate unique skills pertaining to the specific culture of an area, should come under skill development initiatives in order to encourage entrepreneurship. The NER abounds in ethnic variation from one village to the next and in the ingenuity of indigenous knowledge à propos vocational skills, which automatically crafts viable categories for creating micro-units. Emulation of a micro-developmental model like the Japanese OVOP (One Village One Product) model serves not only as cost-effective but also as a sensitive step towards the biodiversity. Micro-enterprises help channelize micro-credits judiciously and proliferate tax-benefit schemes, thereby acting as a major source of income for the region and assisting in gaining larger and equitable shares in the income by the stakeholders. They are highly inclusive and sustainable models which conform to what the 13th Finance Commission aims to abet in the region, that is, ‘inclusive and green growth’. In addition, they promote cultural and economic interdependency in a region; something the region solemnly demands to do away with the constant conflicts afflicting it.
The NER must not remain a pawn in the game of Make-in-India project, aimed, partially, through the Act East Policy, but act on different lines for simultaneous development and resolve to reap benefits from the emerging markets and trade reforms.
In envisaging all this, education attains priority over other issues. The intelligentsia as well the common mass must gear up with proposals of innovative changes in the educational curriculum to be incorporated in the new educational policy that is expected to be launched in 2015. If vocational training espouses the ideal of ‘Sharameva Jayate’, then research for finding common roots espouses the ideal of ‘Satyameva Jayate’ and if the people of the Northeastern region are to live to light again, they must aspire for both.