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UPSC Editorial Analysis

Need for Collective Action in Northeast India

GS Paper 3 - Infrastructure, Growth and Development, Inclusive Growth

Context 

India’s northeast area is known for its magnificent landscapes, diversified cultures, and rich tribal heritage. However, effectively incorporating indigenous groups into mainstream development narratives remains a serious difficulty in this region.

Despite its rich natural resources and unique cultural identity, the Northeast has challenges such as poor infrastructure, limited market access, socioeconomic inequality, and recent conflicts such as Manipur. One example of this complexity is the growing of ginger in Karbi Anglong, Assam. A cooperative society attempted to empower indigenous ginger growers, but ultimately failed owing to reasons such as the deterioration of traditional institutions and the domination of exploitive intermediaries.

Challenges with Northeast Region in India

  • Insurgency and Ethnic Conflicts – Despite peace agreements with various factions, insurgency remains a problem, particularly in Manipur and parts of Nagaland (desire for autonomy). The recent violence in Manipur (2023) between Meiteis and Kukis demonstrates the fragility of interethnic relations. These conflicts not only jeopardize security, but also stymie development initiatives and foreign investment, perpetuating a vicious cycle of underdevelopment and discontent.
  • Agricultural Challenges – Despite being an agrarian economy, the Northeast has numerous agricultural issues. Sikkim encouraged organic farming, but its success was limited. Farmers’ adoption of organic products is hampered by low premium pricing, certification difficulties, and competition from low-cost, sometimes imported fertilizers. In addition, middlemen continue to be a thorn in Northeast agriculture’s side.
  • Growing Influence of China and Border Disputes – China’s claims to Arunachal Pradesh and infrastructural development along the border pose considerable security risks. Recent skirmishes in Tawang (December 2022) and the Dokhlam Region highlight the tension. China’s expanding economic influence in Myanmar also threatens to isolate the Northeast, posing a challenge to India’s regional strategic interests.
  • Lack of Infrastructure – Despite recent attempts such as the Act East Policy, the region’s infrastructure continues to lag. The delayed completion of major projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway impedes economic cooperation with Southeast Asia.
  • Underdevelopment and Unemployment – The region’s economy remains primarily rural, with minor industrialization. Recent measures, such as the North East Industrial Development Scheme (2017), have had limited success at luring investment. High youth unemployment generates social instability and out-migration, resulting in a brain drain that further impedes progress.
  • Cross-Border Crimes – The Northeast’s proximity to the Golden Triangle makes it vulnerable to drug trafficking. Recent years have seen an increase in drug seizures, particularly in Manipur and Mizoram. This not only creates difficulty for law enforcement, but it also leads to societal issues such as youth drug addiction, putting a burden on the region’s healthcare and social fabric.
  • Political Instability – Frequent changes in government, particularly in states like Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, impede policy consistency. The intricate interplay of ethnic politics, autonomy aspirations, and national political dynamics frequently produces unstable coalitions. Recent debates over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) have exacerbated the political situation, triggering protests and intercommunity tensions.

Measures to Strengthen Northeast Integration into India

  • “Northeast to Southwest” Cultural Exchange Program – Establish a large-scale, long-term cultural exchange program between India’s Northeast and Southwest states. This could include year-long student exchanges, artist residencies, and business incubator programs.
  • Digital Silk Road Initiative – Create a cutting-edge digital infrastructure network for the Northeast, establishing it as India’s hub for digital innovation. This might involve creating a “Silicon Valley of the East” with tax breaks for IT firms, specific digital skills training programs, and a focus on developing technologies for hilly and rural areas. 
  • Transnational Indigenous Knowledge University – Establish a world-class institution in the Northeast that focuses on indigenous knowledge systems, inviting scholars and students from throughout India and Southeast Asia. This institution has the potential to become a global hub for the study and preservation of indigenous cultures, traditional medicine, sustainable agriculture, and environmental protection, establishing the Northeast as a cultural and intellectual bridge between South and Southeast Asia. 
  • Floating Market Tourism Circuit – Create a network of floating marketplaces throughout the Northeast’s waterways, drawing inspiration from Southeast Asian models but with a distinct Indian spin. This might become a popular tourist attraction, highlighting the region’s variety, strengthening local economies, and establishing a distinct Northeast brand in India’s tourism scene.
  • Bamboo Revolution Program – Launch a comprehensive national program focused on bamboo production and product development in the Northeast. This might include bamboo-based fabrics, construction materials, and biofuels.
  • Himalayan Medicinal Research Corridor – Establish a dedicated research and development corridor focused on traditional Himalayan medicine, combining expertise from the northeast with Ayurveda and modern biotechnology. This might establish the Northeast as a global leader in alternative medicine research and production, resulting in economic growth and scientific integration with mainstream India.

Way Forward

To integrate India’s Northeast, a holistic approach is needed, focusing on infrastructure, market access, and socioeconomic equality. Strengthening traditional institutions and countering exploitative intermediaries will empower indigenous communities. Addressing insurgency, ethnic conflicts, and border disputes through dialogue and development is crucial. Enhancing agriculture with better pricing, certification, and reducing middlemen’s influence, alongside promoting organic farming, will bolster the economy. Strategic initiatives like cultural exchange programs, digital infrastructure development, and educational institutions for indigenous knowledge can foster integration, while addressing cross-border crimes and political instability will ensure a stable and prosperous Northeast.

SOURCE: Hindustan Times

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