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Peace in Northeast: The right direction

Every initiative for peace in India’s Northeast appears to compound the regions proclivity to violence, and the recent agreement on the extension of the ‘cease-fire’ with the NSCN-IM is not the first such case. Indeed, the only successful ‘resolution’ of a conflict in the region has been Mizoram, but that is an example that will be impossible to replicate within the context of the regimes of collusion and the proliferation of ethnic and sub-ethnic conflicts that have now become endemic in large parts of the Northeast. Nevertheless, it is important to note that, in contrast to the general image and projection through the media, the "Northeast" in its entirety is not up in flames; there are vast regions of peace – and these have actually grown in geographical scope over the past decade, as has the popular impulse towards peace.

It will, of course, remain essential to tackle insurgency with firm measures for a long time to come; but the internal security orientation cannot, and must not be allowed to, exhaust the policy perspective on the Northeast. On the other hand, it is equally important not to fall into the trap of the conventional developmental discourse that seeks a solution to all the ills of the region in greater allocations of developmental funding from the Centre. Enormous quantities of money have been pumped into any number of schemes in the region, but the benefits have failed to reach the people – and have primarily profited a corrupt elite wedded together in the politician-bureaucrat-contractor-insurgent network. Nor, indeed, will a sudden salvation come through the current mantra of creating developmental and trade linkages with Myanmar, Bangladesh, South China and South East Asia. This paradigm is, again, a mirage that cannot produce concrete and significant benefits even over the next five decades. What is needed is the creation of a vibrant internal economy; and with the low levels of urbanization in the region (12.7 per cent as against the national average of 25.7 per cent in 1991), this would, of necessity, have to be an economy rooted in the villages. This demands detailed microplanning with enormous local inputs, for which a developmental administrative net would have to be caste very wide. This is, of course, true of the rest of the country as well; but it is both more crucial and more difficult in the Northeast because of the wide dispersal of populations and the arduous terrain.

Unfortunately, the planning process in the Northeast has been consistently faulty since the very moment of Independence. Initially, an isolationist policy was followed for reasons, alternately, of the ‘protection of the local populations and culture’ or of ‘security’ in a sensitive border region. Later, developmental policies that were designed for the rest of India were mechanically extended to this region, ignoring altogether its extraordinary diversity and disparities. The result has been a continuous downward spiral. What is little known is that, on a wide range of quality-of-life-indicators, including per capita income, the Northeast was well ahead of the national averages at the time of Independence, but gradually sank lower and lower because of the flawed patterns of ‘planned development’ adopted in this region. By 1997-98, Tripura’s per capita income stood at Rs. 6,200, and Assam’s at Rs. 7335, against a national average of Rs. 12,782.

In 1992, the then Assam Governor, D.D. Thakur, had, in his report to the President, described governance in Assam as "one of the classic examples of culpable inaction on the part of a state government." These words, in substantial measure, describe the crisis in much of the Northeast. In all aspects, be it security or development, there has been an almost complete abdication of local responsibilities, and an overwhelming dependence on relief from the Centre. Indeed, States which raise the loudest cries for ‘greater autonomy’ and decentralization of power are the ones that suffer most from a crippling inability to exercise, with any measure of efficiency or accountability, the authority already vested in them.

The Northeast suffers immensely because of the policies, the insensitivity and the incomprehension of the powers at New Delhi. But it suffers equally, if not more, because the leadership of the Northeast has comprehensively failed its people, and chosen instead to forge unprincipled alliances with terrorists, to play out a politics based exclusively on ethnicity and narrow tribal identities, and to indulge in outright and unashamed corruption. The primary crisis in the Northeast is a crisis of governance; and this, it seems, is not being addressed at all.

(Published in Hindi Daily - Dainik Bhaskar, June 15, 2001)





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