Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Jul 03, 2020
Post COVID19, India’s Northeast could reap benefits of Act East policy

‘New paradigms would emerge post COVID-19 crisis, with a potential for new breakthroughs in economy, trade, scientific research and several other diverse areas, catapulting the Northeast as the economic hub of the country and a preferred destination for startups,’ this was said by India’s minister for Development of North-Eastern Region (DONER) Jitendra Prasad Singh earlier last month. The minister’s comment, made at an e-symposia organised by the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong, assumes significance as economic development in the Northeast is key to the success of Act East Policy that seeks to strengthen India’s relations with the Asia-Pacific region.

The Northeast comprising eight states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Sikkim – has witnessed significant progress in areas related to road, rail and air connectivity in the past few years. While Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya are now connected with railways, Sikkim gets an airport for the first time since it was annexed to India in 1975. Apart from facilitating intra-state movement of goods and people, these initiatives are also aimed at boosting trade with neighbouring countries. Of the eight states in the region, Assam, Manipur and Mizoram are poised to gain much in the long term if road and air connectivity with South East Asia is further strengthened.

Finding opportunities in crisis

Assam, the gateway to the region, is among the first states in India to see an importunity in the crisis with the state government wooing the American and European companies that have pulled out of China because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Assam chief secretary Kumar Sanjay Krishna has recently interacted with representatives and CEOs of various European companies via video-conference, pitching the state as an attractive destination for foreign investors. The state government assured to provide basic infrastructure such as land, water, electricity and roads connecting industrial sites with highways.“The companies were also told that with the Government of India implementing the Act East Policy, the companies which set up units in Assam would have a ready market in the South East Asian countries and they should try to take advantage of it,” The Assam Tribune quoted Sanjay Krishna as saying. In addition, some Singapore-based firms are also said to have shown interest in investing in Assam in sectors such as food processing, skill development training, organic farming, airline catering among others.

In February this year, two tour operators from Manipur and neighbouring Myanmar had signed an agreement to run a bus service from Imphal and Yangon from April. While the Covid-19 crisis has played a spoilsport for the time being, this initiative could boost trade and tourism between the two countries. It’s worth recalling that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inaugurated an Integrated Check Post in Manipur’s Moreh on 4 January 2019. The governments of both countries had also agreed to open nine border haats (markets) to facilitate exchange of locally produced commodities.

Similarly, Mizoram stands to gain a lot once the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport project, a key bilateral initiative aimed at connecting India and Myanmar by sea and road routes, is complete. Under this, an 87-km road is being constructed from Mizoram’s Lawngtlai district to the international border; 82 percent work has been completed so far. The state government has also urged the Centre to facilitate cross-border trade between Myanmar and Mizoram.

Why Myanmar? 

Myanmar shares a 1,643-km porous border with India which holds strategic significance for the latter for a number of reasons. One of them being, the insurgency in the Northeast. A number of rebel groups such as United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (K-faction) and Manipuri outfits such as the People’s Liberation Army have been operating from the Sagaing region in north-western Myanmar for over a decade. A few months back, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) had handed over as many as 22 rebels to Indian authorities in what was seen as a policy shift of Myanmar towards Indian rebels.

“The episode marks a good beginning and a triumph for the Indian government in its efforts to convince Naypyidaw to eliminate the camps and training facilities of Northeast rebels … it is an indication of the growing cooperation between the two neighbours to put an end to militancy,” Rajeev Bhattacharyya, senior journalist and author of a book ‘Rendezvous with Rebels’, wrote in an article.

It has been for a decade now that India has been making concerted efforts to convince Naypyidaw about trade and military cooperation, and this development assumes significance because of that. In 2011, the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had granted Myanmar over $800 million worth of lines of credit for infrastructure projects, including railways, transport, power transmission lines, oil refinery, among others as part of its ‘Look East’ (the earlier version of Act East) policy. In the latest development, New Delhi has approved an additional investment of $121.27 million by ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) for Shwe oil project’s two blocks in Myanmar. OVL had invested $722 million in the project till 31 March 2019.

India’s growing interest in Myanmar may be seen as an attempt to protect its interests against China’s expansionist policy and its growing footprints in the region. Myanmar could turn into a theatre of international rivalry because of its immense potentialities – be it minerals, natural gas reserves or hydro-power, this author had noted in an article in 2015. And India is definitely looking to tap every opportunity to bring Myanmar on its side for long-term strategic goals.

Covid-19 lessons from South East Asia 

India can learn from South East Asian nations such as Singapore and Vietnam that have effectively tackled the pandemic. Both have become a model of transparency and communication. In contrast, India has drawn flak from various quarters for letting politicians and bureaucrats make decisions. A senior doctor with All India Institute of Medical Sciences has gone on record slamming the government that there were “confusing signals” on how to deal with the pandemic “because the public faces of the government for policy development and communication on this issue are clinicians and bureaucrats (pediatrician, pulmonologist, and Indian Administrative Service officials), rather than epidemiologists and public health experts” and virologists.

Vietnam’s low-cost model of tackling the Covid-19 pandemic has been applauded globally. Unlike its neighbours, Taiwan and South Korea, that could afford mass testing, Vietnam lacked the resources and instead opted for selective but proactive prevention, according to an analysis published by The Diplomat. Notwithstanding this unique strategy to control the pandemic, Vietnam has gained a lot at China’s expense as several foreign companies have shifted to the South East Asian nation in the aftermath of Covid-19 crisis.

India’s Northeastern region, which has so far recorded a relatively lower number of Covid-19 cases (over 13,000) compared to all-India over 6 lakh (as on July 3, 2019), could emulate the Vietnam model of proactive prevention to flatten the curve. Needless to say, an effective Covid-19 control strategy, combined with business-friendly policies would be useful in attracting foreign investors to the region. Apart from propelling economic growth in the Northeast, these businesses could create new trade links with South East Asia even as India gives a renewed thrust to its Act East policy.

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Jayanta Kalita

Jayanta Kalita

Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi. He writes on issues related to Indias Northeast.

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