India’s North East on focus at Harvard

Boston: Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, USA organized the 9th annual Harvard India Conference on the 24th and 25th at their campus in Boston. The theme of this year’s conference was India – The Next Frontier. 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 was chaired by Leichombam Erendro Singh, a World Bank Fellow at Harvard University, Pradyot Deb Burman, Chairman and Editor, The Northeast Today Magazine, and Binalakshmi Nepram, Writer-Activist, Founder, Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network.

The Manipur International Center, a research and advocacy group based in Boston, USA sponsored the panel. The Center 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.

The Look East Policy panel was participated and well received by a very engaging group of scholars, professionals, bureaucrats, media, and entrepreneurs from the United States, India, and around the world.

Leic-hombam 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 from this economic surge because of the region’s landlocked nature, among many others. He argued that inspite of India’s 10% 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.” Erendro also called for a broad restructuring, redefinition, and greater empowerment of the Ministry of Development of the Northeastern Region ( MDoNER ).

He 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. Answering to a question from the audience, Erendro referred to Irom Sharmila’s 11 years long hunger strike against AFSPA in Manipur and concluded “such a spirit, which epitomizes the region’s resilience, can not be crushed by force.”

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 argued that the Look East Policy needs re-examination, however, because it has not been able to address the economic turn around of the NER as it should have. She also emphasized the relevance of the North Eastern Region Vision 2020 document, and threw light on the basic strengths of the region that include the presence of large natural resources, mineral deposits, and tremendous hydropower potential. She also spoke about the prospects of tourism, handicrafts, agro-based industries, and a relatively literate population in the region. She also spoke about the strategic border towns of Moreh in Manipur, and Champhai in Mizoram, and their potential to be the gateways to Southeast Asia.

At the concluding section of her talk, she reiterated the importance of including women’s involvement in economic development planning and activities, and gave the example of Manipur’s Ema Keithel, or the women’s only market in Manipur, as an effective economic, social, and political empowerment model.

Pradyot 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 his state of Tripura that provides poor quality jobs, and deeply disturb the local economy. 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.

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