Still ‘Looking East’?

WITH the exception of political personalities continuing to play the Act East Policy cards whenever they come for official visits to the north-eastern states, Manipur in particular, there seems to be hardly any signs of the ambitious plan materialising any sooner on account of absence of even basic infrastructure for transportation of goods, not to speak of managing increased volume of transaction. For many native scholars and social activists, who are concerned about peace and development in landlocked, peripheral, conflict-ridden north-eastern states, India’s Act East Policy was seen as a vital plank to put the entire region on the path of development. They expected that the proposed sub-regional connectivity projects would contribute to economic development of the region and address its problems of underdevelopment. By changing it to Act East Policy from Look East Policy when the plan dawned upon the then Congress regime at the Centre, incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi was signalling that he would be more proactive and purposeful than his predecessors in addressing the problems of the region. Of course, efforts are on for reconnecting India with south-east Asian countries since the last few years, with the Prime Minister as well as Central ministers making it a point to include ASEAN nations in their foreign tour itinerary. Yet the gap between potential of the region to reap the benefits of Act East Policy and the ground reality appears to be growing steadily as infrastructure for surface transport, which is the only feasible way for bulk transaction of tradable goods remains in the most pathetic way, eventually leading to speculation whether New Delhi will ever live up to the regional expectations.

In Manipur’s context, delays in the construction of the integrated check post at Moreh town, specifically undertaken to facilitate efficient implementation of the Act East Policy; condition of the two national highways, that connect the state with other parts of the country, yet to witness any significant improvement; the Imphal-Jiribam rail project unable to make much progress due to unwanted disturbances; and the lack of manufacturing industries, all indicate that the state is lagging far behind and could not reap the benefit, even if the policy sees the light of the day. On account of absence of these basic facilities, it could be safely concluded that regardless of the initiatives being taken up by the Centre to woo investors for exploring economic potentials in the north-east region the vision to inject new energy for economic development, industrialisation and trade by involving the south-east Asian neighbours will not fructify in the immediate future. The only notable developments, so far, taking place since announcement of the Look East Policy, are technically limited to some individuals sponsored by major companies to drive across some Asian countries and the Central government funding infrastructure development in Myanmar; though the latter initiative is mostly based on the principle to keep China from making further inroads into the mineral-rich neighbouring country as well as from security point of view. Thus, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s comment, at the NERCPA-2017 conference, that development of the north-eastern states is the key for the nation’s development seems yet another attempt, albeit in a new avatar, to keep the people of the region in a jovial mood, unless the Centre could prove that it is no more still ‘Looking at the East’.

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