ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Looking East from Afar

President Pranab Mukherjee’s appreciable number of visits to the north-eastern states of India in the 16 months of his tenure is a reflection of that region’s strategic importance and potential role in a powerful India, he has said to an admiring mainstream media. Mukherjee has visited Assam thrice, Nagaland and Sikkim twice, and Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh once each. Both the president’s and the media’s commendatory themes have circled around the same (and predictable) subjects. He has pointed out how these states border the crucial south-east region of Asia and are therefore the “bridge” with it. This has led to an emphasis on improving the region’s infrastructure, but that does not seem to be based on what the people of the north-eastern states want. The people have been demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA) and lifting the “disturbed area” tag from many parts, an end to the documented “disappearances” of young men and women (including the rapes of the latter) in extrajudicial killings, focus on the economy, etc. Even the Supreme Court was forced to ask the Manipur government last year whether there was a “war” going on in that state, when considering its reply on AFSPA. These are issues that have disrupted normal life in large parts of the seven states engendering a siege mentality in the citizens and simmering resentment against the defence forces.

The public discourse on Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura – when it does take place – centres around the “alienation” that the people of this region feel vis-à-vis the rest of the country, and the central government politically. The ethnic and cultural differences have to be addressed and this would need political and social initiatives beyond easy platitudes. Moreover, “development” itself needs a nuanced approach, one which has not been much on display. Contrary to popular perception, it is not the paucity of funds for development that is responsible for the region’s poor infrastructure. Since 1998 all central ministries earmark 10% of their annual budget for the seven states. Apart from the North East Council, which is meant to channel these funds, there is also the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region. The Eleventh Plan outlay for this ministry is a generous Rs 14,409.08 crore. However, a minuscule percentage of these funds seem to reach their target and the desired outcomes are rarely achieved.

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