Public investment in N-E

Aiming to be national hub?

By Shivaji Sarkar

The North-East is said to be transforming and wants to catch the nation’s attention. At the same time, the country needs a stronger NE region for faster development and making addition to the GDP. But why is it flailing? Or is it making an impact, which the nation fails to see?
Yes, the N-E is changing. It held a meet in Delhi on its transformation and awareness, as it wants to be national and just not a regional hub. It is coming up with infrastructure such as the longest Dhola-Sadia, Bhupen Hazarika Bridge. Still it looks for sharp focus and its people though spread across the country find their acceptance not that easy even today.
The North East’s contribution to the nation’s GDP today at 2.5 per cent is almost half of what it was in 1947. The partition had its impact in accessibility through a 27 km wide Chicken’s neck, causing detour in terms of distance and time.
It has yet to become an investment destination despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated visits, stress to ameliorate the conditions and proposed Rs 45,000 crore government investments. One aspect that planners need to understand is that over 70 per cent of the people in the N-E are dependent on agriculture. The perspective has to veer around farming to give the region a boost.
The SAMPADA — Scheme for Agro Marine Produce Processing and Development of Agro-Processing Clusters — will be Rs 6,000-crore umbrella project for seamless transfer of food products to consuming areas. Additionally, the Guwahati traders are becoming less dependent on Delhi. They have started their own manufacturing in many areas including garments and now import less from central India. The traders find that this has helped give their buyers better quality and at less cost.
However, the region looks for connectivity proposals floated by sub-regional or regional groupings, such as BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal), BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). A recent study mapped a total of 476 freight-carrying routes in the region.
The development agenda is being noticed in the better connected parts of Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Tripura, which will go to the polls, is developing in a different way. It is becoming the rubber hub with high rubber cultivation in one lakh hectare area. It is adding to the State GDP but jobs are not growing in proportion.
Undeniably, the N-E is an emerging market and has the potential to becoming a hub of neighbouring nations such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar. Unofficially it is happening as there are many supposedly illicit channels that open up in all these countries. Officially, it is dubbed as smuggling.
There are also some ingenious Indian traders too. They export their goods say from Punjab to Bangladesh and then re-export these to the N-E. These channels are legal and the traders save in terms of export duty drawback, transportation cost as also time.
Tripura is becoming a gateway and is building a rail head to Chittagong port in Bangaldesh. Assam has set up ‘Act East’ department and an international firm is drawing up the policy. Dhaka has opened a consulate in Guwahati and is planning to open one at Thimphu in Bhutan. However, the N-E has a nagging concern as to why it remains cut off from the rest of the country. Would this agony end with the proposed rail and road linkages through Bangladesh? Will it come closer to Kolkata?
There are still some reservations in Bangladesh and the Indian economic corridor is becoming a political issue. India, instead of investing in a bullet train, may think of an elevated road-cum-rail corridor to link it with West Bengal and Bihar. While an estimate is yet to be made, it may be around Rs 40,000 crore.
This would boost the economy of North-East and eastern India. The plan is to take N-E out of its closet as it cannot grow with this plan alone. It has to develop an inner strength. Till 1960s, persons from Assam, then undivided, used to go to Allahabad University and other institutions in northern India for education. Today, this has changed. However, the region has not become a magnate to invite people from rest of the country.
Thus, the new N-E has yet to emerge as it is still in a receiving mode. The NHAI is building roads in Mynamar to create the South East Asian highway. The Ministry of External Affairs has funded the first installment of Rs 1177 crore as a private sector Indian joint venture with Punj Lloyd and Varaha Infrastructure. India is investing another over Rs 4,000 crore on Myanmar roads. The plan to connect the region with Myanmarese seaport at Sittwe is also on. In the long run this would give a further boost to north-eastern exports.
The inner power of the region has to be built on industry, manufacturing and agriculture. Somehow investments are mostly from the public sector and along with the government is said to invest Rs 45,000 crore in all the eight States. About Rs 300 crore private sector investment is coming into education. New universities like Himlayan University in far off Itanagar in Aruanachal or Don Bosco in Guwahati have come up. Dimapur is also developing as education hub. This is somewhat akin to Bengaluru developing such a hub in the mid-80s.
Importantly, over five lakh students from the region go to south and northern India for education. Bengaluru and adjacent region draws about a lakh young men from Bangladesh for higher education and higher IT-based training. This emigration has to stop.
Further, the region cannot long sustain on government investments alone. This despite the best efforts has a large fund leakage and under-utilisation owing to red tape. The region has developed some medium level corporate. It has to do more to increase the non-government investments and make the region lucrative not only for its own people but also for others. Why should a Bangaldeshi go so far as Bengaluru if he could get a better facility near his home in Assam, Meghalaya or Nagaland?
With relations improving with Myanmar and also better economic standards there, the region should design itself to draw its talent including from many parts of South-East Asia. Today it looks difficult, but with perspective planning this may be possible, feel experts.
Optimism is being gradually noticed in the north east. The youth are more open and focused. Those who have some pessimism also feel that in the next 10 years the region would be different, prospering and pave the way for a new India that is oft talked about. –INFA