The first meeting of the ‘Niti Forum for North-East’ (NFNE) on April 10, 2018 chose five sectors to address on mission mode basis to accelerate inclusive and sustainable economic growth of the region. Union Minister for Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) Jitendra Singh, in a significant announcement, also said that henceforth 100 per cent funding would be made by the Central government for central sector projects in the eight northeastern states, which were earlier being undertaken on the basis of centre-state sharing in the ratio of 90:10.
The five sectors are tourism, food processing, bamboo, horticulture and Made in Northeast. On the new funding pattern for Central sector projects, Jitendra Singh said that this will only be applicable to the eight northeastern states, unlike the earlier 90:10 funding pattern which was in force for 11 special category states - which also included Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand.
He said that the infrastructure of the northeastern region, which had been neglected for 65 years, had got a boost under the NDA government with utilisation of funds increasing to Rs 30,000 crore in the last financial year from Rs 24,000 crore in 2014-15 fiscal. Singh said that for the development of highways and roadways and tourism sectors, two separate corporations were formed and to boost the industrialisation of the region, the “North East Industrial Development Scheme” was finalised last month by the Union Cabinet with a financial outlay of Rs 3000 crores up to March, 2020.
Coming to Meghalaya, all the five sectors- tourism, food processing, bamboo, horticulture and Made in Northeast, will have to start from ground zero, as none of the mentioned sectors have proper infrastructure. Even if the Centre is willing to award 100 per cent funding, it is a humungous task for the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) led by National People’s Party (NPP) headed by Conrad Kongkal Sangma.
Above that NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar said that 14 districts of eight northeastern states are among the 115 most backward districts across the country and dubbed as “aspirational” districts, identified to accelerate the all-round development. Of the 14 districts, seven are in Assam and one each in remaining seven states - Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Sikkim.
Talking about tourism, in the absence of proper infrastructure, Meghalaya, with the only Unique Selling Proposition (USP) - its nature and Cherrapunjee, had made all efforts to get on the tourism map, as many of the neighboring countries are not aware of the North Eastern region of India; all they know are the metropolitan cities, mainly due to the absence of even the basic necessities, most of the pay and use washrooms are not maintained well for the visitors, particularly for the foreign tourists. The tourist spots in most cases are not at all accessible for People With Disabilities or the senior citizens, although last year on World Tourism Day –September 27, along with the rest of the world Meghalaya too had observed the day with the theme- Promoting Universal Accessibility, it does not only focus on People with Disability and Old Age, the subject matter demands the society to accept that even the mentality of the general masses to welcome tourist which needs to be inclusive, in order to make it accessible, otherwise, all the seminars and talks on the issue will remain just talk with no implementation.
In regard to food processing, Meghalaya is an under achiever in spite of the favourable climate conditions and quality of produces. The state agriculture department had created a fruit processing unit using the brand name Meg Fruits, but it is yet to get to the taste buds of the general public not to talk of any meaningful exports.
Attempts are being made to can bamboo shoot pickles, chilly pickles and some meat products. However, these attempts are limited to cater to the local markets with absolutely no attempts being made for exporting. The packing method adopted could not preserved the pickles as it should be, also using the recycle bottle containers was not well accepted by many tourists, who actually wish to carry back home the products from Meghalaya, unlike in the state of Sikkim, every products is hygienic and professionally done to preserve the products.
The fruit crops from Meghalaya like mushrooms besides vegetables are in high demand outside the North East and topping the list are the popular ‘soh mynken khnai,’ the small chillies, which is said to be found only in this part of the world, which are in high demand. Yet, the local entrepreneurs and the state government have failed till date to cash in on the demand.
The Bamboo chips industry here has already shut down, many attempts were made to lure in technologies from other countries, the team leading the experts have only come back to the state without implementing any projects to promote bamboo and bamboo products.
Meghalaya- one of the states dependent entirely on imports for all essential commodities, from cattle to fresh vegetables, is bearing the brunt as all households are paying through their noses for all the daily essential commodities, as most of these items are priced almost three times due to floods in neighboring states. It is commonly observed that during such emergency like situation, many vendors and shopkeepers take advantage by hiking the prices, which goes unnoticed by the district administration which is supposed to keep a check on the price list on a daily basis. Stockists meanwhile withhold the food grains, which further creates the artificial shortages, only to be released through the black-market.
Meghalaya, is quite popular for its handicrafts products, and suggestion had earlier been made to tag these as originating from Meghalaya – India to be more inclusive for the South East Asian markets. Just by inscribing the word India after Meghalaya on all products from the state would have helped in attracting the tourists. But the absence of the word ‘India’ has not only alienated the state from the nation, it has also made it difficult to market the local products outside. In simple words, none of the products and produces from Meghalaya are marketed. Now NFNE comes up with Made in Northeast. The slogan coined by Prime Minister - Make in India - will find it difficult to make inroads to Meghalaya and its products. For reasons unknown, none of the handicrafts, mementoes, preserved fruits and vegetables, honey, tea leaves from the state have the added tag of ‘India’ on them.
In order to keep up with the trend, even in the case of handicrafts, Meghalaya needs to keep up with the Geographical Indication (GI), and through fairs, needs to be more adaptable with the suggestions from the consumers world-wide in terms of the design, preservation, size and texture the market demand without losing its innate characteristics. Then only can such exhibitions become the gateway for sensitizing the world about the products and places. Unless we build up a strong foundation for the local products and produces, it is a futile exercise to Act East business extension as we have nothing to offer at the moment.
Meghalaya needs to burn the midnight lamp to take advantage of the new schemes under the banner of ‘Niti Forum for North-East’.