Look East Policy and North-East of India ::By:Dr.Ramakrushna Pradhan




Look East Policy and North-East of India

                                                      Dr. Ramakrushna Pradhan

The Northeast is geopolitically situated between mainland India and Southeast Asia. As a single geographical entity Northeast of India comprises of seven states – Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Tripura plus Sikkim. The region comprises of highly undulating hilly terrains, covering 263,179 sq km which is about 8% of the total geographical area of the country.The region is one of the landlocked regions of South Asia. About 4500 km i.e. 98% of its border is with five different countries of South Asia–Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. No other region of the Indian union share common border with so many different countries. The region is connected to the Indian mainland by a small corridor called ‘chicken neck’ through the tenuous 22 km Siliguri corridor.

 Although, the region is amply blessed with diverse natural resources, rich bio-diversity and oil and natural gas, enormous hydro-electricity potentials among others could not utilised mainly due to geopolitical conditions of the region among several other factors. The lack of connectivity and access to mainstream markets has perhaps been the main reason for under utilisation of resources and resource-industry linkages. This has resulted in the long standing underdevelopment of the region. Under development in turn breeds insurgency and insurgency retards development. This is what the hard truth behind the rampant under development of this region. This article addresses the core issues of underdevelopment in the northeast of India and further analyses how Look East Policy would help in having synergise effects on reducing poverty, generating employment and overcoming backwardness in the region.

Look East Policy – a foreign economic liberalisation policy of India towards South East Asia started in 1991 during the Prime Ministership of Shri. P.V.Narasimha Rao is believed to offer immense developmental benefits to India especially to its northeastern part.  It is a strategic policy on part of India to forge deeper and closer economic relations with its eastern neighbours. The essential philosophy behind the policy of look east can be visualised from the statement of Dr. Manmohan Singh when he says, ‘India’s Look East Policy is not merely an external economic policy; rather it is a significant sign post of strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and her place in the evolving global economic order.’ The policy was pursued with the objectives of reaping untapped benefits of trade with East Asian countries and developing India’s North East as a hub of economic activities by linking it to the dynamic East and South East Asian countries.

Northeast of India is a landlocked region. The partition of India in 1947 caused great disservice to the region by geopolitically isolating the region from the mainland India. It resulted in most regulated Northeast region, sensitive borders and most exposed territory. Most importantly, the partition also caused severance of inland water; road and railway communication through erstwhile Bengal and access to the Chittagong port was lost. Further the Chinese takeover of Tibet and virtual closer of border with Burma added to the isolation of the region. The loss of connectivity and market access as a result of the partition sets its economy back by at least quarter a century. If compared the economic profile of northeast before with after partition, it is quite clear that the economy was very sound before partition.    

In addition, the region is also beset with disadvantages like insurgency, unemployment, non-optimization of economic capability, perceived distance from the country’s political and economic epicenters etc. It is here the Look East Policy provides a window of opportunities for this impoverished part of India. Fortunately, the region happens to be the natural bridge between East and South East Asia and India. Often described as the Gateway to South-East Asia, Northeast of India has been offered with immense economic opportunities as a result of its integration with the transnational neighbours. In fact Look East Policy envisages the Northeast region not as a periphery of India, but as the centre of a thriving and integrated economic space linking two dynamic regions with a network of highways, railways, pipelines, transmission lines crisscrossing the region. Currently, the North-East engages in border trade, mainly illegal, with its neighbouring countries. But the Look East Policy aims to break the existing barriers of border trade and facilitate a smooth, legal trade route option.

Several measures have been undertaken in the aegis of the “Look East” policy to uplift North East India. First amongst these measures has been a proposal to build the “Asian Highway” and “Asian Railway Link” and “Natural Gas” pipeline. The proposed geographical niche for the Asian Highway is the Imphal (India)-Tamu (Myanmar) road going on to Kalemyo railway onto Mandalay in Myanmar. Four lane Asian Highway is also sought between New Delhi-Singapore linked to Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Phen, Bangkok, Vientiane, Yangon, Mandalay, Kalemyo, Tamu, Dhaka, and Kolkata. Road construction has already started from Tamu to Kalemyo, Myanmar. There is also a plan to construct a 1,360km Trilateral Highway from Moreh (India) to Mae Sot (Thailand) through Bagan (Myanmar).  Moreh in Manipur is seen as the strategic key to India’s “Look East” policy.  

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit  Transport Facility aimed at establishing connectivity between Indian ports on the eastern side and Sittwe port in Myanmar through a riverine transport corridor and road in Mizoram is envisaged as providing an alternate trade route to the North East. For purposes of Burmese gas transfer through North East, India is planning to invest $100 million in improving the old colonial Burmese port of Sittwe on the west Burmese coast. It is hoped that with deeper ties between these countries, the largely illegal flow of goods through Moreh (Manipur) into other North Eastern states from South East Asia will become legalized.  In this context, it is arguably possible for the North Eastern states to develop individual economic relations with, for instance, Thailand or Vietnam. This sort of a two way model will enable to create a truly federal system of democracy in India.

The region could also benefit immensely from water sharing. The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation and the Kunming Initiative have been undertaken by India and China respectively to reach out to ASEAN. The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation was launched by India on November 10, 2000 at Vientiane, Laos to boost cooperation in tourism, culture and education. The signatories were India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. These countries also agreed to undertake joint transportation projects including the trans-Asian highway. This initiative is India’s most significant venture in the region. The best part about the Mekong initiative is that it does have the potential for direct flights between Guwahati- Ho Chi Minh City-Imphal-Hanoi. For China, the Kunming Initiative linking the Chinese province of Yunnan with Myanmar, India’s North Eastern states, and Thailand holds promise of greater economic interaction. It is also argued that the North East India must be allowed to revive its old historical, cultural and traditional ties with South East Asia, taking a clue from other significant trans-border linkages like that of  Basque, Catalonia, and Ireland, where the European Union allows “transnational politics of recognition”, which empowers them from a marginalized existence in their own states.  


ABOUT THE  AUTHOR: Dr. Ramakrushna Pradhan (Ph.D/JNU) is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Govt. Degree College, Kamalpur, Tripura. You can contact Dr. Ramakrushna Pradhan at rkpradhanjnu@gmail.com







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