India’s Gateway to the East and the Need for a New Policy Perspective
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, while addressing the Indian diaspora, stressed on developing infrastructure to connect South Asian countries of Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh. He emphasized that such a corridor would, in the future, connect India with the east. Prime Minister Modi’s recent signing of the peace accord with India’s oldest insurgent groups in Nagaland and his visit to the region last year -where he commented on the region’s potential calling it a Natural Economic Zone -signals the administration’s renewed interest in tapping the potential of the region has prompted, yet again, a debate on the challenges present and the policies adopted towards the region.
The Northeast region which is connected to mainland India by only a small strip of land called the “chicken’s neck” has been mostly neglected by successive governments in terms of development and security. The reasons for this are plenty- geographic isolation, varying ethnicities, prevalent insurgencies, huge trust deficit between the people of the region and state authorities and a disconnect between the government policies and ground realities are some factors as to why human security threats are enhanced in the region. Any policy, thus, aimed at developing the Northeast region as ‘India’s gateway to the East’ must address these very real and persistent human security issues.
In this essay I focus on analyzing the different human security threats present in the region followed by an analysis of the traditional policy approach followed by the government. I conclude the essay with an emphasis on a new policy framework focusing on human security and list policy recommendations that aim to target the root causes of the various human security challenges.
Human Security Challenges in the Northeast Region
Natural Economic Zone?
“The blockade and the curfew have rendered me penniless. Before the crisis erupted, I used to sell vegetables and herbs in Imphal to make a living. Now, I have been deprived of my livelihood…”
– R. Themichon, 57 year old resident of Ukhrul district, Manipur.[i]
Themichon is one of the thousands of civilians who have suffered because of the blocking of the national highway- a lifeline for the state which not only carries all essential supplies but also connects the north east with the rest of India- imposed because of the violent hostility between the two major ethnic tribes of the state.
Long queues at gas stations- where the price of fuel reaches four times the normal amount- and closed local businesses and shops are a common sight during these blockades which can last up to a hundred days. Yet, the blocking of the national highway in two states of the northeast region in India is only one aspect of the economic issues that the local population faces. The region is characterized by poverty rates well above the national average, by insurgency and counterinsurgency action, by exceptional laws and constitutional provisions, and often-opaque governance structures.[ii] In the year 2012, the combined share for all the 8 states of the north east region made up only about 2.36% of India’s GDP.[iii]
Lost in numbers and statistics are however, the people of this region. From a human security perspective, there are four eminent economic challenges affecting the people of the northeast region. First, the lack of employment opportunities. In recent years, thousands of youth from these eight northeast states have migrated to other parts of the country, mainly urban centers in search for better employment opportunities. A 2012 case study of Delhi as one of the urban centers which has seen an influx of migration from the Northeast states notes, “Analysis of the determinants of the migration suggests that the increased presence of youth from Northeast region (NER) in urban centers has more to do with the backwardness of the source regions in terms of economic development, facilities for higher education and availability of gainful employment opportunities.”[iv]
For decades, the North East has been a black-hole for business and enterprise. The sustained conflict, geographical isolation, militarization and migration have led to a drying up of investments, and the lack of economic and social development in the region. This is despite the richness of natural resources in the region, presenting a huge opportunity for investment, and the growth of enterprise in the region.[v]The only gainful employment opportunities available to the local population are either the security forces, the state government or the various insurgent groups spread throughout the region. However, rigorous induction guidelines of the armed forces and the almost negligible presence of state infrastructure further limits employment opportunities for the local populace.
Second, the presence of several insurgent groups for the last several decades has allowed them to establish parallel government structures. For example, four Naga rebel groups run a system of parallel taxation that requires every individual in Nagaland to pay ‘tax’. According to a study done in 2011, the group collected £7.24 million in 2007/08 through such extortion.[vi] Similar such parallel taxation structures have been established by insurgent groups in other northeastern states too. In fact, in Manipur insurgent groups take their ‘cut’ at the source from government employees by deputing rebels at every government office who take up to 10% of the employees’ salaries even before it is handed out to them.
Third, insurgent groups who have also grown into criminal organizations along with rampant corruption amongst government employees make for one of the most alarming economic security threat in the region. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) implemented throughout India by 2008 -which aims to provide employment security guarantee by assuring at least 100 days of wage employment to every household in rural areas- is often misused and mismanaged. This scheme which has been termed as a “stellar example of rural development” by the World Bank[vii], has had almost the opposite effect of what it was supposed to provide to the local population. Allocation of MNREGA enlistment cards to unregistered workers and insurgents collecting the wages of the villagers are some of the issues that are hindering the proper implementation of this labor security scheme.
Further, since almost 98% of the northeast states share an international border, serving not just as the gateway to the east but also as the gateway to the ‘Golden Triangle’, drug trafficking is another “venture” that the insurgent groups invest in. Along with taxing the local populace, these groups also often force farm owners to give up crop cultivation to grow cannabis or poppy. However, lack of employment opportunities, in absentia government, corrupt officials and unrestrained insurgent activity also make drug trafficking and cultivation a lucrative option for the civilians. A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report (2004) notes that after a survey conducted in Arunachal Pradesh to determine the illicit cultivation of opium poppy, it was found that 52 of 86 villages in three districts of Arunachal Pradesh were observed to be growing opium.[viii]
Lastly, many believe that immigration from Bangladesh is not only affecting the demography but also the economic environment of the NER. A sensitive topic, immigration from Bangladesh has been a key issue not just for the Indian state but also for the residents of the northeastern states and has prompted the foundation of many insurgent groups who demand the return of the refugees and immigrants to preserve their own culture. During Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence, an estimated 10 million citizens of then East Pakistan crossed over into neighboring Assam and West Bengal to seek refuge, many of whom remained in India.[ix] The general concern about the harmful economic impact of immigration, particularly of illegal immigration, is over the labor market consequences. Because the immigrants in general and illegal immigrants in particular supply cheap labor, there is an apprehension that they take away jobs from native workers.[x] However, there is no credible comparative data available to determine the exact economic impact of Bangladeshi immigration.
In sum, the economic issues in the NER are deeply connected to the socio-political environment. Ineffective governance, corruption, criminalized insurgent groups and ethnic hostilities are some of the rooted issues that are posing economic challenges to the people of the NER.
“I now have a bullock cart without any bullocks, and no land left to farm so the cart can be used to earn a living. I have to use rafts made from banana tree stumps or country boats to fetch water and food from distant villages. It's difficult to cook, attend to the children and take care of the livestock. The rise in prices of essential commodities during and after the floods is very trying for my family. Which mother would like to have her children sleep hungry night after night?”
–Phaliya Mari, Morigaon District, Assam[xi]
In the case of food security in the NER various factors like socio-economic, environmental, political and corruption converge and weigh in heavily. The North Eastern Region of India is endowed with rich natural resources of soil, water and diverse flora and fauna. The region falls under high rainfall zone and the climate ranges from subtropical to alpine. However, the entire north-eastern region of India is deficit in food production. The issue of food security generally remains unnoticed in view of the emerging political issues in the region.[xii] Instead most literature and data is focused on ethnic violence and political crises.
One of the biggest threats to food security in the region are changing climate patterns, floods and irregular rainfall. Many like Phaliya Mari in Assam face the flooding of the Brahmaputra River every year- creating huge challenges for access to food and water. A recent survey noted that the state of Assam suffers an average loss of Rs. 200 crore (approx. $40 million) every year due to devastating floods with nearly 40 per cent of the state’s total land declared as flood-prone by the government.[xiii] Many climate experts have also noted the effects of climate change on the northeastern eco-region and expressed concern about the patterns of irregular rainfall and flash floods and their effects on food security.
A 2013 report on food security issues in the NER notes that “landlessness is causing serious problems in the North-East. It has increased among the peasantry substantially together with the concentration of land in the hands of a few. As a result, a large number of landless peasants have become economically rootless in the rural areas of the plains. This situation is deteriorating again due to the process of urbanization and industrialization.[xiv]
Corruption, which predominantly affects all aspects of human security in the region, is yet another crucial threat when it comes to food security. In Arunachal Pradesh, one of the first north eastern states to implement the National Food Security Ordinance – an initiative that aims to provide subsidized food grains to priority households every month – has had little impact on the ground. Many locals believe that the food security scheme is just a myth since the locals are not able to take advantage of the subsidies provided. Most of the subsidized food grains are either siphoned off even before they enter the state or the names provided for the high priority households benefits are of the corrupt officials and the elite. In fact, soon after the Food Security Ordinance was implemented in 2013 former Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Gegong Apang, was arrested for embezzling Rs. 1000 crores (approx. $200 million) from the Public Distribution System[xv] – part of the National Food Security Act of 2013 to distribute subsidized rations to the rural poor.
‘War’ Against Health Insecurity
When TW, a teacher in the northern district of Mon in Nagaland, needed treatment for an infected leg she painfully made the trip from her village to the district headquarters, and from there bore a seven-hour bus ride over a road that's a little better than a bullock-cart track to the town of Sonari in Assam. Like many who need medical attention and care in the remote district, she has no confidence in the government hospital and would rather undergo the hardship of travelling to the next state in order to be treated.[xvi]
One of major health challenges in the NER is the HIV epidemic. In the states of Manipur and Nagaland the HIV population accounts for .78% and .66% of the state population.[xvii] Recently on World AIDS Day this year in November the sparsely populated state of Mizoram also was reported to have 9,637 people who tested positive for HIV and 587 HIV patients were reported to have died in the last 24 years.[xviii] Since the HIV epidemic started spreading in the late 1980s and early 90s the state of Manipur was one of the worst affected in India because of large scale drug use and was even called the ‘AIDS capital of India.’ More recently, there has been a shift from injecting heroin to injecting pharmaceuticals causing other severe health problems, including abscesses leading to life threatening infections, and eventual amputations.[xix]
In 2008, the same year that the World Health Organization noted that tobacco was the single most preventable cause of death in the world, then Indian Health Minister A. Ramadoss identified tobacco as one of the primary causes of cancer in the region and urged the Chief Ministers of the northeastern states to “wage a war against cancer” since there was an alarming number of increase in cancer cases in the region. The Minister said that allocation for cancer treatment and prevention had risen from Rs. 280 crore during the tenth five year plan (2002-2007) to Rs. 2900 crore in the 11th (2007-2012).[xx]
Yet another major threat to health security in the region is high maternal mortality rate and poor reproductive health. The state of Assam has one of the highest maternal mortality rates. Hanna Ingber for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting wrote about the villages she visited on Boat Clinics along the Brahmaputra river in Assam and correctly highlights the health challenges faced by the local population at the grassroots, “In Muslim island villages, families marry off their daughters as young as 12 years old, taking them out of school, isolating them from their support services and increasing the likelihood of domestic violence and high fertility rates…. In tribal villages on the other end of the river, impoverished families have been displaced from their homes by land erosion time and again. These geographically and socially isolated island families depend on boats to access services. If the water levels are too high or low, if night falls or if a boat needs repair, no pregnancy or postpartum emergency can overcome the dictates of the river…”[xxi]
Exacerbating these health challenges are the inefficient and dilapidated healthcare facilities in the region. Although most of the northeastern states only have a handful of specialty hospitals, reports suggest that filling the void are healthcare centers which are spread all across the region even in remote districts and many more have been established after the National Rural Health Mission launched by the central government in 2005.[xxii] However, these healthcare centers are always short staffed and ill equipped. Nagaland has less than 500 doctors, including 98 specialists, to serve a population of 2 million.[xxiii] Many still have to make a long journey to other states/cities which have bigger facilities. For example in Manipur, a critically ill patient still needs to make a 15 hour treacherous journey to Guwahati (Assam) to get specialty treatment. Further, because the demography of the region includes many tribal ethnicities, a common practice, is to not opt for primary healthcare but instead seek cures in indigenous health practices.
Health security too has some deep rooted challenges that have yet to be overcome by either the state governments or the central government. Lack of healthcare awareness, meagre resources, bleak employment opportunities, cultural practices and alienation of the region’s population are some of the elemental explanations for the inept healthcare system and threats to health security in the region.
Conflict and Climate Change: The Need for Environmental Security
“We have lost our lands to the floods and have no land. We have settled on this embankment, while others have got together and taken a few bighas (1 bigha is around 1300 sq. m.) of land on lease for agriculture and are constructing makeshift homes of bamboo and plastic sheeting. But the locals are not very happy because even living on the embankment is occupation of their land and water resources. Some men migrate to places as far away as Kerala, Bangalore and Mumbai to work as masons, daily wage laborers or agriculture workers. I cannot recall when I last had a home of my own. I do not have personal property, land, a house; my children cannot go to school regularly, and there is no regular work. The sarpanch (village head) refuses to help, and the government schemes don’t reach us. We were supposed to get Rs. 3,000 (approx. $50) as flood relief; instead, we received R.s 500 (around $10).” – Palan Biswas, 55 year old resident of Morigaon district, Assam[xxiv]
As noted previously, changing climate and rainfall patterns are a harsh reality in the NER. Since most of the region is characterized by lush forests and subtropical climate, the region makes up one of the two mega- biodiversity regions in the country.[xxv] Studies have shown that over the years not only is the impact of climate change is becoming more and more concerning but the factors contributing to it are also reaching high threat levels to human security in the region. Some such factors are deforestation, slash-and-burn practices of cultivation and growing population.
In a study on Forests, Deforestation and Tribal Identity in Northeast India, Walter Fernandes notes three crucial points in regard with deforestation. He notes that deforestation is not just related to illegal activities but with lack of employment, development projects and ethnic conflicts as well.[xxvi] Since unemployment is a major challenge in the region and since most of the region is resource rich, most communities look to sustain off the land. Cultivation practices of slash-and-burn which essentially means to clear off forested or green area for cultivation land are also one of the biggest causes of deforestation in the region. Further Fernandes notes that rapid development and urbanization in recent years has led to formulation of plans to develop dams and hydroelectric plants in the region however, without taking into consideration the environment and the people of region.[xxvii] Fernandes also highlights the impact of ethnic conflict on the region’s deforestation. He explains through an example, “More than 300,000 persons fled their villages during the Boro-Santhal conflict in Western Assam in 1996. Their refugee camps were set up in what were thick forests at that time. The only choice that the people who were impoverished by the conflict had was to cut the forests around them. Today the area has been denuded completely.”[xxviii]
Illegal activities further fuel the environmental challenges in the region. For many insurgent groups it is one of the “ventures” that they invest in to provide funding for their causes and further their criminal nexus. However, it’s not just limited to insurgent groups. Yet again, corruption among paramilitary forces- who are privy to such activities- plays an important role in determining environmental security in the region. Since much of the illegal timber and raw wood is transported through check points secured by the paramilitary forces, there is an increasing trend for these security personnel to take their commission to let these illegal activities continue.
Further, similar to the economic impact of migrants, no credible data is available to determine the actual impact of external and domestic migration on the region’s environment, however some studies indicate that migration could have had a disturbing impact. A recent study notes, “The explosive population growth in recent decades had been a cause of concern for the original inhabitants of the states of north east India. Alongside the inflow of population from East Bengal and Nepal there had also been migration into the state from other parts of the country. The contribution made by this stream of migrants towards agriculture development of Assam during the earlier phase can’t be denied as they intended the area under cultivation reduce waste land, enhanced crop intensity, increased agricultural production and productivity, introduced the cultivation of cash crops like jute, vegetable, tobacco, oil seed, sugar, etc.”[xxix]
Environmental security, a fundamental part of the lives of the communities of the NER that depend on the region’s natural resources for sustenance, is now facing significant threats not just through the natural challenges like rising temperatures, irregular rainfall, floods, depletion of fisheries but the region has seen an accelerated growth of deforestation and unsustainable environmental practices that not only circumnavigates and contributes to these changing climate patterns but also poses a threat to thousands of farmers like Palan Biswas who live in the fear of either losing their life or their land because of an uncertain environment.
Between the Security Forces and the Insurgents: A Denial of Personal Security
“In the name of searching for extremists, the Assam Rifles were patrolling in the village of Purbi Govinda on Feb 9, 2006. They kicked the house door of Mr. Patindra Aslong open and started beating him cruelly. One of the jawans (enlisted soldier) plugged his mouth with cloth and another one raped his six months pregnant wife, while the other jawan guarded the house from outside. This horrifying incident led to the miscarriage of the pregnant wife. There were two more women who were raped by the jawans during the same incident.” –As narrated by researchers and activists in Tripura[xxx]
One of the biggest threats to personal security in the NER is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which gives exceptional powers to the security forces to apprehend and imprison any person without a need for a trial. Much has been debated and many have protested against the misuse of this Act not only in the region but also across the country. After a woman from Manipur was brutally murdered and thrown on the street under suspicion of working for an insurgent group, massive protests erupted in the state leading to a nationwide debate on the usefulness of this law. One of the most harrowing images from this incident that shocked the country, and is now somewhat the face of the anti-AFSPA campaign, were of a group of women protestors who undressed and carried placards saying “Indian Army rape us too” in the state capital after the incident.
However, a survey conducted to determine the perspective on security threats in the region presents some contrasting trends to popular belief. 2,552 respondents said that the primary source of threat were armed groups followed by insecurity caused by the state.[xxxi] Armed rebel groups that are prevalent throughout the region are also thus a major source of threat to personal security in the region. Insurgent groups often force and blackmail the youth from the region to join their cause threatening dire consequences if they refuse. Even though, most insurgent groups thrive on the support from the local population however forcefully garnering support under the shadow of the gun is a common practice in the region. As previously noted, local villagers not only have to pay tax to these groups but also have to provide food and shelter when the insurgents demand. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), one of the most notorious insurgent groups in the region which is known to have garnered mass support by using ‘armed propaganda’ has been reported to kill hundreds of civilians on the pretext of suspicion of spying for the security forces or not complying with the group’s demands.
The local population thus in the region falls victims to both the security forces and the insurgent groups who not only just encroach upon their personal safety but also most often force them into a specific way of life.
Ethnic Conflict: Community Insecurity
“Our bus was stopped and then they asked us to come out one by one. They tied my hands at the back and then hit me with a dao (machete) three times. I don't know what happened after that.”
- Kurgi Beypi, 11 year old from the Kurbi tribe in Assam.[xxxii]
The NER has had a long and violent history of ethnic conflict. The ethnic conflict prevalent now dates back to times even before India’s independence. Most of the region which is comprised of various indigenous tribes follow different beliefs and cultural practices and most of these ethnic conflicts emerge from the pursuit of power- as to who will control most territory and resources. Another source of conflict are the differing identities with differing social, political and economic objectives. These deep rooted ethnic identities and conflicts, over the years, have taken an even more competitive and violent direction with almost all ethnic groups setting up their own armed criminalized insurgent organizations and affiliating with mainstream political parties.
In some states ethnic tensions are so evident that even the cities are deliberately planned in a certain way. In Manipur the Meitei tribe which controls the government and most administration has purposely placed the Kuki tribe in the areas that lie between the Meiteis and the Nagas since if there is ever a violent conflict between the latter two tribes the Kukis would be the ones that would be massacred first. Further two other minority communities in the state – the Muslims and the Pangals had to take up arms and form their own insurgent organizations in order to counter the threat from the other three dominant tribes.
Blocking of the national highways during any clash or disagreement is a common way to cause inconvenience to the other community. These blockades often result in severe humanitarian crises in the state with no food, fuel or medical supply for days. In 2011 due to a standoff between the Kuki and Naga tribes, the Nagas blocked the national highway for a 100 days straight resulting in exorbitant food and fuel prices.
Another aspect of community security in the NER is the apprehension the local communities share for the refugees or migrants from Bangladesh or other states from India. The 1983 Nellie Massacre during which more than 2,000 migrants from Bangladesh were killed in Assam is a grisly example of the threat to migrant communities. It was also ULFA’s stated objective to preserve the cultural integrity of the indigenous Assamese by “making them return” and the group has often targeted people from the other Indian states like Bihar and also Bangladesh to achieve their stated objective.
Children like Kurgi Beypi often fall victim to the irrational vengeful violence undertaken by different tribes in the region. If not physically then thousands suffer because of the economic impact of such ethnic rivalries. However, violence is not restricted to the indigenous local population, much of community violence is directed towards migrants and refugees who the ethnic tribes believes are “diluting their culture.”
The Politics of it All
“Even two-year-old children who could barely walk have been shot dead. I have never witnessed such scenes in my life” – Siddique Ahmed, Junior Minister for Border Areas after 30 Muslims were killed in Assam earlier this year during central government elections. The 30 people from Kokrajhar district were allegedly killed by the Bodo ethnic group over the victims’ opposition to the electoral candidate the Bodo group supported.[xxxiii]
Vasundhra Sirnate and Rahul Verma suggest that there are two political processes operating in the northeastern region- The party political process demonstrated through electoral politics and the non-party political process found in the form of long-running insurgencies. Both these processes mutually support each other. The non-party political process has evolved in reaction to grievances against the Indian state and in synergy with electoral politics.[xxxiv] Similar to the parallel government structures mentioned before, insurgent groups, political parties and political leadership are intrinsically connected.
Identity further plays an important role in the political security of the region not just on the ethnic level but also in terms of the northeast region versus mainland India. For decades now, and rightly so, there has been a strong sense of alienation among the population of the region, accelerated by insurgencies and vote bank politics, that they have been marginalized by the central government. This feeling has also transformed into a feeling of “us versus them.” Although there has been a nationwide grievance over corruption and sluggish development the sentiment in the NER has been strengthened by racism against the local population by citizens from other parts of India often referring to them as Chinkis and also because of the general lack of awareness and knowledge about the region and its people. Another factor that has strengthened this sentiment of alienation is the huge trust deficit that has widened over the last several decades because of corrupt government officials, presence of security forces and the misuse of power by the political leadership.
In an article published in 2013, Sirnate and Verma note that all the northeastern states in the past state and central elections have recorded a high number of voter turnout. However, they emphasize that the high voter turnout is not necessarily a signal of “compliance with New Delhi.”[xxxv] Although Sirnate and Verma do not provide any explanations for the high turnout during elections, there could be a number of reasons behind this. First, instead of offering legitimacy to the central government a high voter turnout could be a way for people to express their grievances by having a say in the elected leadership and in a way feeling a part of the larger democratic process. However, secondly and a more plausible explanation could be that since most insurgent organizations have ‘their own candidate’ that they support, the voter turnout could be representative of the pressure the locals face by different insurgent groups to vote for “their” candidate. In some cases former insurgent leaders have gone on to join mainstream politics[xxxvi] like Bijoy Hrangkhwal in Tripura of the Tripura Sena and Pu Zoramthanga- who also went on to become the Chief Minister of Mizoram –was a leader with the Mizo National Front. Lastly, many incidents have been reported where the rural population has been bribed with cash, alcohol and promises of employment in exchange for their vote to the party or the candidate.
In regard with state political systems some of them major challenges to political security are similar to the challenges that are present for economic or community security. The democratic process of electing representatives revolves mostly around trivial issues, whereas the all-important crucial issues often take a back seat. An analysis of the election process in the region would provide important dimensions on how leaders and prospective leaders fail to understand the realities of human security, and instead aggravate this insecurity further by indulging in rigged elections and political killings. Justice towards ensuring human security in the region is further denied by long delays of trials involving civil and criminal cases.[xxxvii]
Indian Government’s Policy Towards the Northeast Region
Although the woes of the local population from the NER remain somewhat similar to other rural parts of India, there are various additional factors like active insurgencies, geography and multiple ethnicities that make the region even more prominent in terms of human security challenges than the rest of India. The Indian government’s policies towards the region have been one of ‘on the map, but off the mind’.[xxxviii] A separate Ministry for the NER was created in 2004 named as the Ministry of Development of Northeast Region (DoNER) to overlook, promote and enforce development in the region, yet there have hardly been any results that can be counted as progress in bringing the region to decent levels of growth and development. A 2009 article on resource allocation for the region notes, “According to the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, more than 426 billion rupees were kept for the northeast between 1998 and 2006. Also, central government ministries have been earmarking 10 percent of their annual budgets for northeastern states since 1998. The Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India has said that funds to the northeastern states add up to more than what India gets from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.”[xxxix] The problem thus clearly lies not in resource allocation but its implementation and the policy framework.
Bhagat Oinam argues that “all the policies that the Government has initiated with the Northeast are associated with a very specific aspect and that is… from the security angle.” He further says that “even what we call developmental policy is merged with how to contain insurgency, how to contain violence not in the sense of democratizing or empowering the people to sustain for themselves”. According to him policies are framed taking into consideration a premise, which acts on the assumption of the lack of development being responsible for the insurgencies and ethnic crisis in some states of the Northeast.[xl]
The merger of such policy with corruption and the nexus of political leadership and criminalized insurgents leads to a total failure of any policy, which is usually implemented through schemes or subsidies meant for the rural poor. As analyzed above, many government schemes like the National Rural Employment Scheme or the subsidized Food Program are excessively misused and most often the enduring threats present for all aspects of human security exhibit similar patterns of root causes- absence of government administration or infrastructure, widespread corruption and varying ethnicities channeling age old ethnic differences through violence and economic penalties.
The many resources and decisions made in New Delhi, because of these factors, fail to permeate even the top layer of state administrations responsible for implementation of policies that could potentially mitigate these various human security challenges. Apart from a failure of government policies, there is also a huge disconnect between what people want and what the solution set of the government is. Anne- Sophie Maier notes that since after the ‘Look East Policy’ adopted by the Indian government in the early 90s, foreign investment is tended to be seen as a solution for the development of the NER.[xli] Nonetheless, she further notes, international organizations and private enterprises sometimes fail to take into consideration the real needs of the people, whose lives are still very much shaped by a communitarian way of living. “Developmental initiatives” which are insensitive to the way of life of indigenous communities have most often produced undesired results and threatened their very survival.[xlii]
This does not, however, mean that economic growth or development initiatives are not part of the solution. They are just that- a part of the solution or the tool kit the government should possess and employ to address the human needs in the region but only after addressing the root causes of the threats first. Development initiatives or foreign investment are bound to fail or have meager results if corruption and ethnic violence prevail and when there is an anemic administration to overlook these initiatives. Thus, a policy framework that entails a custom-made approach to every state in the region- focusing not on meaningless investments and development policies but on different aspects of human security, strengthening state and community infrastructure that directly serves the interests of the people- is an alternative the Indian policymakers need to seek.
Even though this paper focuses on the Northeast collectively as a region and is also perceived by most as one single geographic area, much consideration needs to go into tailoring policies for each of the eight states of the region. Most analysts and policymakers acknowledge that the NER is diverse in terms of natural resources, ethnicities, language and demography, it is imperative that policy is formulated keeping the challenges the of each state in mind and not a collective one for the whole region. Implementing national schemes or policies has in fact had no positive effect on the ground but in fact has played into the hands of the corrupt. A human security approach not only allows for such tailored policies but also aims at managing threats and challenges that cater directly to the people. This paper provides eight important policy recommendations that are directed at the region as whole, since policy recommendations for each state are beyond the ambit of the paper. Nonetheless, an important pre-requisite to these recommendations is that while they are enacted as a canopy covering the whole region, tweaking grassroots implementation according to the local state factors like infrastructure, language, ethnicities and demography is paramount.
Based on the analysis of the different aspects of human security challenges in the paper, policy recommendation is based on eight components- Policing, corruption, cultivation programs, flood management, inclusive governance, ethnic collaboration programs, skill development and border security.
Police reforms in the NER have been overdue for the last several decades, even with some recent efforts to modernize and set up new recruiting centers in some parts of the region, much like other initiatives, this too has been an unsatisfactory effort. Increasing and building policing capacity will not only help in implementing the rule of law, especially in areas under rebel control, but also help in assisting the other security forces in combating insurgent propaganda and violence. Since state police recruits from the local population an increased capacity will also provide additional employment opportunities and will also enhance operational capacity since it would comprise of locals who would be familiar with the local language and geography. Another aspect of police reforms is also aimed at enhancing women security. A report noted that in 2012 the state of Assam topped the national percentage of crimes against women and that there was only one women police station in the whole state. Further it noted, the difference between the required strength and actual strength of women in police services remained huge[xliii], much similar to overall required and actual strength of the police personnel. Thus filling in these vacancies and further increasing the capacity according the UN standard of police ratio would positively influence all aspects of human security in the region.
It would be, however, be a fool’s errand to formulate any policy without addressing the threat of corruption, a much prevalent evil throughout the region and permeating all aspects of human security. It is extremely necessary to not only implement stringent anti-corruption laws but also launch programs that provide incentives to officials who don’t indulge in corrupt practices. Another aspect of these programs should be aimed at sensitization of government employees and populace towards corrupt practices- advertisement or radio campaigns that show how corrupt practices affect somebody’s life and how adopting best practices has the potential to bring economic growth and development to the region.
Even though agriculture provides livelihood to 70% of the region’s population, the pattern of agricultural growth has remained uneven across regions. The states continue to be net importers of food grains even for their own consumption.[xliv] It is essential thus that educational and awareness programs are launched for the peasantry which informs them about best practices for high yield cultivation and sustainable forms of agriculture unlike the common slash-and-burn method used in the region. Also, because of limited land available for cultivation, agricultural practices like sharecropping can be incentivized. These programs will also help the cultivators as well as land holders take advantage of the existing farming resources and subsidies made available by the central and state governments.
Disaster management is another area which needs immediate attention of policymakers. An aid worker notes the state’s preparedness to deal with the yearly floods and landslides in the region, “The dissemination of information from the headquarters does not take place, so people in vulnerable areas cannot be evacuated ahead of the disaster. The government is not interested in disaster preparedness and does not have an effective disaster management strategy.”[xlv] Keeping in mind these ineffective policies, disaster management agencies need to be provided with adequate resources and manpower to prevent large scale humanitarian disaster in the region every year. Investment also needs to be made in advanced technology in early warning systems and river defenses and diversion canals. Post disaster management with effective compensation and relief aid should be an important part of the policy framework too.
Further, since the region is home to various ethnic tribes and religious communities, inclusive governance should be an important tool in addressing human security needs. Representation of various ethnicities and women in all village level democratic processes as well as other initiatives like social audits and the Right to Information Act need to be strengthened. A World Economic Forum Report notes, “The 73rd & 74th amendments by giving constitutional status to panchayats and Urban Local Bodies have been the single-most substantial countrywide initiative that seeks to improve inclusion and facilitates devolution of powers. People could take part in the issues that affected them directly thereby having a say in the decision-making. There exists much scope of improvement as the benefit and adoption of the framework is yet to achieve their intended potential.[xlvi]
Another aspect of the policy framework towards the region should be to provide incentives to warring ethnic tribes to collaborate towards community building and development. These programs can also include NGOs working with these communities in the region. For example an organization in the region working towards economic reconstruction and livelihood helps create economic incentives for different ethnic tribes to collaborate through entrepreneurial and business ventures. The NGO notes that if an economic opportunity is provided which can boost livelihood prospects, people are willing to collaborate even with “the enemy.” Such initiatives not only have the scope to diminish the violence in the region but also provide economic security to local communities.
Skill development is another area which if encouraged has the potential to contribute towards human development in the region. With high literacy rates, high unemployment and vast natural resources, skill development seems to be an indisputable aspect of a policy formulated for the region. Increasing the capacity for training institutes as well as establishing new skill development centers in various fields like IT, forestry, agriculture, medicine etc. should be an important step in improving the region’s economy and providing opportunities to youth who currently have limited options to pursue.
Lastly, securing international borders along the region is a significant aspect of combating the various insurgencies. Illegal activities across the porous borders to Bhutan and Bangladesh have created an intricate nexus of insurgents, drug trafficking and smuggling of goods- the cost of which most often has to be borne by the local villager who either has to pay “taxes” to fund their activities or is forced to be a part of the nexus itself. Yet again, as with every point, the most crucial and primary area in need of effective policy is corruption amongst officials which hinders progress in every sphere of human security and development.
The NER, diverse in many ways, faces critical human security challenges in every element of the seven different components of the Human Development Index. It is for a better understanding of the challenges and an effective organization of the paper that the different components are analyzed categorically, however, the different components at the grassroots level are not so distinct. All of the human security issues are intrinsically sown together and often overlap in terms of challenges and root causes.
The traditional approach to these human security needs has always been viewed through the lens of traditional security and development and financial investments have often been seen as sustainable solutions. However, little progress in securing human needs or in fact in even bringing about development has been made. This has been due to the ignorance of the deep rooted factors that cause security challenges in the first place. Ineffective governance, corruption, criminalized insurgent groups and ethnic hostilities are some of the factors that are endemic to the region.
The human security approach proposed in this paper aims to thus target these deep rooted challenges by focusing on human needs and proposing recommendations that directly influence people’s livelihood and way of living. The proposed policy framework focusing on human security has the potential to enable the communities of the NER to achieve sustainable practices of livelihood in a secure environment. However, a cultural change needs to take place in establishments that bear the responsibility of security and development since no real progress can be made in securing any human security threats if at every step an official is taking his commission.
To conclude, the NER does have the potential to be India’s productive and powerful ‘gateway to the east’, however the new administration must give the region its due attention and learn from past policy failures and realize that a new perspective in policy is needed- the perspective of human security.
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