Harvard takes step to Look East through the Northeast

Posted in March 2012

Staff Reporter
SHILLONG, March 29:
Taking this year’s theme as “India – The Next Frontier”, Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, USA organized the 9th annual Harvard India Conference on March 24-25 last at their campus in Boston.
Among many important panels, the conference also featured a panel titled “Look East Policy: Look East through the Northeast.”
The panel on the Look East Policy included Leichombam Erendro Singh, a World Bank Fellow at Harvard University, Pradyot Deb Burman, head of the Tripura Royal Family, Chairman and Editor, The Northeast Today Magazine, and Binalakshmi Nepram, Writer-Activist, Founder, Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network. 
This is the First Time Northeast India has figured in a Harvard India Panel.
The Manipur International Center, a research and advocacy group based in Boston, USA sponsored the panel. The Centre is a non-partisan, non-sectarian, and not-for-profit organization that promotes peace and development initiatives in Manipur and the Northeastern Region of India.
In 1991, coinciding with the liberalization of India’s economy, Look East Policy signaled a major shift in India’s foreign policy by asserting itself as an important economic, and strategic player in Asia.
The North Eastern Region of India (NER) is an important focal point that is tied to the achievement of many Look East Policy objectives. The region’s strategic location and untapped natural resources suggesting abundant potential for India, insurgency and conflict in the region were the backdrop of the panel discussion.
Leichombam Erendro Singh, after giving a brief background on India’s Look East Policy and it’s dramatic increase in the volume of trade with other Asian economies, argued that although the country’s economy has picked up significant momentum since the liberalization, the NER has benefitted little “spillover effects” from this economic surge because of the region’s landlocked nature, among many others.
He argued that inspite of India’s 10 percent earmark spending the abysmal state of infrastructure in the region remains one of the most difficult “binding constraints.”
He emphasized a “big push” spending to break the infrastructural handicap of the region rather than marginal spending that may fail to hit the “impact horizon.”
He also decried the lack of focused efforts in this landlocked region from important central ministries and their “unspent funds” flowing into the Non-Lapsable Central Pool of Resources (NLCPR) in the last decade or so.
Erendro also called for a broad restructuring, redefinition, and greater empowerment of the Ministry of Development of the Northeastern Region (MDoNER ) such that the department is better equipped to avoid operational inefficiency, to fix major leakages, and to incentivize the other central departments to target infrastructure development in the region with greater urgency, and coordination.     
Erendro also argued that the imposition of unconstitutional laws such as the AFSPA 1958 on a citizenry for more than half a century is not only inhumane, but is also an example of the “tyranny of the majority,” that results from the absence of proper “separation of powers” in the current Indian Parliamentary System, and called for an empowered Rajya Sabha, fashioned similar to the US Senate.
Binalakshmi Nepram in her presentation revisited the origins of the Look East Policy in the early 1990s. She described the policy as an attempt by India to strengthen its relationship with ASEAN members. As a result of this effort, India-ASEAN trade has been increasing in recent years, constituting 10% of India’s global trade in 2011. She praised that the Look East Policy as it has tried to address the economic turnaround of the NER as it should have.
Other challenges such as ethnic tensions, extortion, economic blockades, bandhs, large military presence, and armed insurgency further compound the problem in the region. ‘The Women are the biggest sufferers’ she exhorted
Binalakshmi also highlighted the presence of community spirit, and traditional system of governance as has always existed in the NER. She also spoke about the strategic border towns of Moreh in Manipur, and the potential to be the gateways to Southeast Asia.
Deb Burman, stated that it is not industrialization that should be the way for Northeast India. He spoke about the need for self-sufficiency efforts, for example in food grains sector. He mentioned that “the Northeast can be the food bowl of the East.” He also pointed out the misaligned incentive structure created for manufacturing industries in the Northeast.
As an illustration he brought up an example of some factories infiltrating in the states of Tripura , Meghalaya, Arunachal and Nagaland that provides poor quality jobs, and deeply disturb the local economy. He decried the region’s inability to attract better job producing, environment protecting, and income generating ventures. According to him Look East Policy is flawed and the Northeast India 2020 is an “incomplete document” as it did not consult the actual stakeholders in the region. Sitting with a few so called experts from Delhi and going to speak in Guwahati doesn’t mean that you have spoken to the ‘real’ stakeholders, who reside in the smaller towns and forests. He asked the various NGO’S not be silent because funding comes from the South Block.
Citing power generation through Thermal and hydle projects without scientific planning would cause large scale displacement he lamented the fact that certain policies only look at short term exploitation of the land over sustainability. Pradyot also pointed out that some of the high potential businesses in the Northeast include tourism, hospitality industry, Health and also creating a link between a friendly Bangladesh and a friendlier Eastern border rather than a hostile neighbours in the west.
‘People’s participation is a must and rather than create large scale industrialization we might as well concentrate in model’s such as  India’s Milk Revolution as a workable model that incorporated collective planning and involvement of local communities’ he emphasized, lamenting the fact that the present industries which have come to our region are mostly Gutka and pan masala Manufacturers   who just use loopholes to maximize profit.
Close to 800 participants attended the two-day Harvard India Conference that concluded on Thursday.

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