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Development of North Eastern Region of India, Shri R V Shahi, Former Secretary, Ministry of Power

The Administrative Staff college of India, Hyderabad had organized a two day conference at Hyderabad on June 1-2, 2007, focusing on constraints and opportunities for development of the North Eastern Region of India. Various aspects namely infrastructure, public services, agricultural, tourism and trade were the issues which were discussed. The conference, which was sponsored by the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, Govt. of India, also deliberated on related important issues, such as building of a peaceful environment, exploitation of natural resources, development of skills of human resources and inter state as also Union - State relationships.

The Minister for development of North Eastern Region and Panchayati Raj, Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar made a masterly presentation of all the relevant issues in his inaugural address. He covered extensively the perception of alienation and discrimination between the North Eastern region and other parts of country and quoted, in great detail, facts and figures to establish that both these perceptions are far from realities. Making a comparison between situation that prevailed 30-40 years back and now the Minister brought out that the number of students studying in various colleges in Delhi and in other metro cities and also a number of people of North Eastern region working in different parts of the country would indicate the radical changes which have happened in last 2-3 decades and the extent of integration that exists today. There are a few pockets where these types of feelings do exist. We may have to address these misunderstandings and communication gaps which give rise to such perceived alienation.

Another misplaced perception is about discrimination. Here again, if we analyze the facts, we would be able to conclude that if at all there is a positive discrimination. For the 11th Five year plan, if we aggregate the programmes that have been worked out by National Highway Authority, Border Road Organization, Ministry of Rural Development, and State Level Rural Development Programmes etc., a total of 30,000KMs of roads at an estimated cost of Rs. 50,000crores have been provided in the plan. In next 2-3 years as many as 28 airports would be facilitating 600 flights a week, by activating some of the old air strips after they are properly strengthened and renovated. The minister suggested that mini and micro hydel projects were the appropriate solution to power problem of the region and not the large and mega hydel schemes. The renowned journalist Mr. B. G. Verghese, however, made a strong plea for large dam power projects so that water energy was not allowed to be wasted and flood control could also help in reducing hardship to the people.

The Minister went at length to explain about the security situation in the region. Giving facts and figures, he explained how Sikkim, Meghalaya, Arunachal, Mizoram were almost completely peaceful; in case of Assam there are stray cases in certain areas. Of course Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland we do have problems. He emphasized the need for participation of people in administration and development works. "If governance reaches the grass root we can expect much better situation", he said.

The Chairman of the Administrative Staff College of India Governing Board Mr. M. Narshimham, in his opening remarks made a few very important observations and suggestions, as summarized below:

  1. A major constraint to the development of the Region has been its geography. Partition in 1947 rent asunder the natural communication links mainly through inland waterways connecting the Region with Bengal. The North East was not geographically isolated then as it is now. It was, in fact, contiguous to the rest of the country.

  2. Siliguri Corridor - Its limitations as an effective medium of connectivity are all too apparent and which, therefore, has not moderated adequately the geographical isolation.

  3. There is scope for development of industry based on hydrocarbons, in food processing based on horticulture and plantations and in processing forest produce.

  4. Government came out with a package of fiscal and credit incentives for the development of industry and services in the North East, but incentives would work better if accompanied by investment in infrastructure.

  5. The scope, therefore, for the North East to expand economic relations and act as a gateway to these fast growing neighbouring countries is an aspect which could be one of the points for serious consideration.

  6. Potential for transnational regional cooperation on the lines envisaged in the BIMS-TEC arrangements provides a good scope for developing the region.

  7. Priority needs to be given to developing communication links between the Region and the rest of India on the one hand, and reaching out beyond our frontiers to our neighbours in the North, East and the South East, on the other.

  8. Improved inland communications through neighbouring countries could help augment exports of the Region, especially from States like Tripura and Mizoram, through nearby ports like Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sitwe in Myanmar in addition to the present sole outlet of distant Kolkata.

  9. A multilateral regional approach under the auspices of an institution like the Asian Development Bank, which sets much stress on transnational regional cooperation may be quite effective. The Bank has played a leading role in bringing together countries of the Mekong river basin for an integrated approach of development on a regional basis cutting across national boundaries of the various areas around that river. There is no reason why it cannot do likewise to promote transnational cooperation in the Region. A Ganga-Mekong cooperative approach need not be a flight of fancy.

General K. V. Krishna Rao, Former Chief of Indian Army and also Former Governor of Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura & Mizorum made a number of important observation about building a peaceful environment in the region. He recalled how the perception of people about excesses committed by Arm Forces Personnel was analyzed and in most cases the truth proved to be otherwise; in cases where there was a validity, corrective actions were taken. He stressed that in order to bring about peace in the area on a sustainable basis it is important that an atmosphere of trust between the security personnel and people is created.

Mr. K. Padmaibhaiya, Former Home Secretary Govt. of India and the Govt. Inter-locator on Nagaland explained the salient points of his paper. Some of the important comments made by him are as follows:

  1. The question of ethnicity is real and important. The region is characterized by presence of diverse ethnic groups living in clearly identifiable and distinct areas. Attachment to the land where they have been living for generations is an important socio-cultural reality. How to satisfy the cultural, social and more importantly the political aspirations of these various ethnic groups needs proper attention.

  2. As far as decentralization and local autonomy is concerned, the 6th Schedule is the present standard. The Autonomous Councils constituted by the State Governments do not enjoy all the powers under the 6th Schedule. Even within the 6th Schedule certain autonomous councils like the Bodo Territorial Areas District and the Karbi-Anglong and North Cachar Autonomous Councils have larger powers granted by specific amendments made to the 6th Schedule. However, even for the Autonomous Councils constituted under the 6th Schedule, there is no adequate devolution of powers to the village level and most power is concentrated at the district level itself. For example, commenting on the working of the Autonomous Councils in Assam, the Advisory Panel to the Constitution Review Commission observed that, "the scope for initiative at the level below the districts has been minimized by the political leadership. Consequently the participation of people in the development process has been found to be absent."

  3. Compared to this, the extent of delegation of powers available to the Panchayati Raj institutions is larger as per Schedule 11 of the Constitution. The 6th Schedule areas presently are excluded from the operation of Part IX of the Constitution relating to Panchayats. In these tribal areas, there are traditional systems of governance at the village level ranging from autocracy/semi-autocracy to fully participative democratic functioning. It would be useful to bring in democratic functioning to these village bodies atleast to the level provided under the Constitution for Panchayats. This needs to be done carefully without creating any animosity within the traditional village leadership. The Village Development Boards of Nagaland offer one of the models.

  4. Another major irritant in the working of these Autonomous Councils is regarding the flow of funds from the Government of India to these bodies. General perception is that the State Governments, for some reason or the other, do not allow smooth release of funds. This needs to be examined very carefully and a solution found. When Government of India is releasing funds directly to the district level and Panchayat level bodies, there should be no problem in releasing funds directly to the Autonomous Councils.

  5. Presently the Union Government plays a leading, if not an exclusive, role in containing militancy in the area. The present practice, also to some extent, increases the alienation between the local people and the Union Government due to the alleged human rights violations by the armed forces etc. The balance of advantage seems to lie in involving the State Governments in stages in tackling the militancy.

  6. There actually has been no dearth in allocation of funds to the North East. In addition to the amounts provided in the State Plan, there are funds provided to the North East Council (NEC) to take up projects of regional importance. In addition, all the Central Ministries have been mandated since 1997-98 to allocate 10% of their budgets for taking up programmes in the North East. This budgetary provision has steadily increased from Rs. 3211/- crores in 1998-99 to Rs. 11,268/- crores during 2006-07. Any unspent balance of the 10% provisioning in the budget by the Central Ministries goes to Non-lapsable Central Pool of Resources (NLCPR) created in 1998. This fund is at the disposal of the Department of North East Development. This fund as well as the other funds provided to the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region amount Rs. 1363/- crores for 2006-07.

  7. Fund flow from the Govt. of India has infact, not been a problem; leakage of fund at the State Govt. level has been a major problem.

Development of Infrastructure and improvement of public services together with the need for expeditious exploitation of natural resources were discussed in great detail. The session, chaired by the author of this paper, had Sh. P.P. Srivastava, Member North Eastern Council, Shri Anil Razdan, Secretary Power Govt. of India, Mr. Sanjay Hazarika, Center for North Eastern Studies and policy Research, Mr. Shunso Tsukada, Asian Development Bank, as speakers.

Shri Srivastava emphasized on the need for development of technical and techno managerial skills of people in the region so that larger number of them could engage themselves in various economic and industrial activities. When various projects and schemes are put into implementation, participation of local people through their suitable employment is essential. But, it is equally essential that they are suitably trained and their skill levels are upgraded.

Mr. Sanjay Hazarika, Center for North Eastern Studies & Policy Research, who had prepared a paper for the conference stressed on the need for public participation and involvement in issues of governance and delivery on promises. One quote from his paper is worth mentioning. This highlights the thrust of his articulation.

"The Shinning India and its high growth rates do not exist in the festering sores and darkness of Assam's villages and islands or anywhere else but in the great mansions and buildings built by political leaders of all hues, by senior officials and contractors and by the groups which espouse violence and extortion, and those who have "surrendered". These are the corrupt faces of a shinning economy in our region. Go to any town in the North-east and map the biggest and most expensive real estate and do a check on its ownership: apart from those with old money, a large number are from the categories earlier defined".

Shri Anil Razdan, Union Power Secretary gave a detailed account of potentials and possibilities of hydro electric power development in the North Eastern Region and also explained the plans and programmes which the Govt. of India has put in place to develop a number of large and medium size hydro electric projects. Besides, he also explained about the possibilities of exploiting the coal mines reserves as well as the gas in the region to develop power generation projects. A very important point that emerged during discussion was that the first priority for supply of power from the power which was generated in this region should be given the North Eastern States and only the excess could be sent out through long distance transmission systems. This will, however require augmentation of State level transmission and distribution networks so that power could be absorbed locally. This alone will enable in jacking up the level of economic activities in the region which, in turn, will help in overall development.

The Asian Development Bank representative also made a detailed presentation highlighting various aspects of infrastructure development and other possibilities. Two very important points made by him were (a) there is a need for bringing about greater degree of objectivity and transparency in the system of contracting, tendering, tender evaluation, award of contracts and purchase, and (b) in order that the economic and industrial activities are pitched up, it would be essential to develop a large number of contracting and executing agencies and due care will need to be taken to have a greater sense of quality in construction and execution.

Recently, the Government has brought out a compilation "Prime Minster's Report to the People" in May, 2007. A few important items from this report which cover the infrastructure and industrial sectors are presented here to highlight the efforts being made for development of infrastructure and industry.

  1. The Government has approved a Special Accelerated Road Development Programme for the North-East (SARDP-NE). It envisages improvement of about 7,639 km of National Highway, State Roads and General Staff roads, involving a total of 83 roads, bridgeworks etc. This will ensure connectivity with National Highways to 34 hitherto unconnected district headquarters at a total estimated cost of Rs. 12,123 crore. Phase A of the project, involving work on 1,310 km of roads at an estimated cost of Rs. 4,618 crore, has been approved and works are scheduled to be completed by 2009. Preparation of Detailed Project Reports for the improvement of the balance roads in Phase B of the project is targeted for completion of December 2007, while the works are targeted for completion within seven years.

  2. Railways: Kumarghat-Agartala and Jiribam-Tupul (Imphal Road) new railway lines and gauge conversion of Lumding-Silchar lines have been taken up at a total estimated cost of Rs. 3,450 crore to provide broad gauge connectivity for Silchar and the State capitals of Tripura and Manipur and the State of Nagaland. The Government has declared as national projects the construction of rail-cum-road bridge over Brahmaputra River at Bogibeel in Assam and the Rangia-Murkongselek gauge conversion project to serve as a lifeline for upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, which would result in greater integration of the North Eastern Region with the rest of India. The total estimated cost of the works involved is over Rs. 2,200 crore, which would be taken up as additionally over and above the normal Railways Plan so as to complete these projects by 2010-11.

  3. Airports: Several schemes for development of airports in the region have been taken up at Agartala, Barapani, Dibrugarh, Dimapur, Guwahati, Silchar, Imphal, Jorhat and Rupsi. The Government has also approved procurement of ATR aircraft by Alliance Air for improving air connectivity.

  4. Hinterland waters: Government has also decided to introduce a Bill in Parliament for declaring the Lakhipur-Bhanga 121 km stretch along the Barak river as a national waterway along with development infrastructure facilities at an estimated cost of Rs. 46 crore by 2008-09, to improve port-hinterland connectivity for major commercial centers like Lakhipur, Silchar and Badarpur in the Barak valley with the major ports of Haldia and Kolkata.

  5. Power: The NTPC will start a 500 MW thermal power plant at Salakati in Assam by 2009, involving an investment of Rs. 3,000 crore. To provide coal linkage to the plant, the North East Coal Limited will upgrade production of coal at Margherita in Assam from 1.1 million tones at present to 3.13 million tones by 2013, through estimated investment of Rs. 3,000 crore. The Prime Minister has laid the foundation of a 750 MW gas-based thermal power plant in Tripura, with estimated private sector investment of around Rs. 3,900 crore. The Kameng hydroelectric project of 600 MW capacity has been approved at an estimated cost of Rs. 2,497 crore. Following the vacation of a stay order by Supreme Court, work on the 2,000 MW Subansiri Lower hydroelectric project, having an approved cost of Rs. 6,285 crore, was resumed and completion is expected by 2010-11. Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana will reach electricity to all non-electrified villages by 2009. The Assam Gas Cracker Project has been approved with a project cost of Rs. 5,461 crore and project commissioning target timeframe of 2011-12. With the setting up of this project, many more downstream polymer/ plastic processing units are expected to come up, generating employment. The qualifying minimum generation capacity for getting mega power project status and consequent customs duty exemption has been halved for projects located in the northeast.

  6. Industrial promotion: A more liberal new industrial and investment promotion policy for the North East has been approved, continuing 100% excise duty and income tax exemption on finished products made in the Northeast and doubling of capital subsidy to 30% of the investment in plant and machinery given on investment by new as well as existing units for ten years. Skim has also been covered for the fist time.

Earmarked investment in the Northeast: The total allocation in 2007-08 for the North Easter Region, culled out from allocations under different Ministries / Departments, has increased year after year to Rs. 14,365 crore in 2007-08. The North-Eastern Council has been revamped and strengthened. Procedures for approvals and release of funds from the Council as well as the Non-lapsable Central Pool of Resources have been streamlined.

As mentioned earlier, the conference also focused on a few other areas such as agricultural, trade and tourism. But, in this brief write up, infrastructure development and exploitation of natural resources have been included. Besides, a few important and related issues such as security, participation of people in various economic and industrial activities etc. have also been presented. It is needless to emphasize that development of infrastructure is key to development of this region. Equally important is the need for a cordial & peaceful environment to allow development of infrastructure. Respect to ethnic culture, and local governance through people participation could enable creation of right environment.