A visitor to Assam today cannot but miss the upbeat mood of the state and it’s diverse population after many years. Of several reasons for high expectations, the most important is perhaps creation of a kind socio political harmony and urge for all round development visible among all cutting across ethnic and religious divides.And this has logically and unobtrusively started an environment of tolerance and common efforts to achieve development goals.
The restoration of this social compact in Assam is indeed an achievement of BJP government under Sarbananda Sonowal on which the edifice of development could be built as experienced elsewhere in the country. One clear sign of this change is refusal of the masses to get carried away by isolated and local problems to think of sinister design and to leave it to the state to deal with the same.
Second, the transparency in the ongoing exercise of revision of the National Register of citizens has given rise to hope that justice will not be denied to any person having genuine claims to citizenship under the extant Law. This is how an investment friendly climate has been created in a quiet manner that attracted as claimed by the state investment of Rs 6000 crores already and prompted it to demand a liberal New Industrial Promotion policy for Assam and North East and opening of land trade points at its borders with Bangladesh . A ground has thus been prepared for the first ever Global business meet at Guwahati on 3-4 February 2018 in which trade industry leaders from all over and especially from ASEAN countries are expected to attend.
The Chief minister has already launched Advantage Assam as the motto of the ensuing mega event and succeed in obtaining total support from the union Finance and external Affairs Ministers to the cause of show casing Assam and the North East region in line with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of the North East as ” the engine of New India”. The Summit’s focus is to create an enabling environment for Assam and the North East to reach the ASEAN market and to attract investment from ASEAN’ advanced economies like Singapore and Malaysia.Already a good beginning has been made recently with the signing of a MOU with Singapore to upgrade the skill development system in Assam with emphasis on entrepreneurship.It therefore seems that the Sonowal government is determined to make Assam the lead state in the Act East initiative ; and the global business meet is a firm step to realize the object of integrating Assam economy into the South East Asian economy.
While the enthusiasm associated with the event is understandable one must also note that till date, nothing substantial has taken place by way of increase in trade, investment or technology cooperation between the North East and the ASEAN over the last three decades since the beginning of the Look East policy.
Of these well known reasons like the huge asymmetry in development in the advanced ASEAN economies from every angle obstructing trade development , we may consider adding what economists call’problems of scale and volume’ which lower the ability of products and services of the North East to compete in the ASEAN marketplace where every country is trying to enter and the competition is stiff.
This points to the need for a strong ” backward and forward” linkages of North East with its backyard in the West that encompasses North Bengal, Bhutan and Nepal ; and the North East regional economy is already integrated into these areas – though it is not fashionable to talk about it. It is interesting to note that While Guwahati is “the gateway to South East Asia” , Siliguri is also” the gateway to the North East”which underscore the reality that state boundaries notwithstanding North East regional economy encompasses Sikkim and North Bengal from a broader perspective. And, the inclusion of Sikkim in the North Eastern Council as a member state is a tacit recognition of this fact. Further the trade and infrastructure links of Bhutan with Assam, Arunachal and more critically with North Bengal are such that make Bhutan an important stakeholder of the North East economy and of course Sikkim.
The next logical question is why not Kathmandu and East Nepal bordering Sikkim and North Bengal as the extended part of this sub Himalayan regional economy because of ” complementarity” ? It’s time to raise these questions because one of the oft repeated lessons of the post world war 2 is that ” Geography is economic destiny of nations” and Act East initiative is founded on this maxim.
The complementarity is indeed striking : first, though around 70% of population of Assam, North Bengal and East Nepal depend on agriculture , in the last decade service Sector and industrial Sector have fast emerged as ” growth drivers” in diverse ” value added” activities everywhere. In East Nepal it is tourism, garments, metal manufacturing,herbs and aromatics,tea, carpets and handloom and handicrafts while in North Bengal and Sikkim dynamic sectors are tourism,tea, organic farming in Sikkim especially and processed fruits, handloom and handicrafts and wood products.Both Kathmandu valley, Sikkim and Siliguri are among the fastest growing subregions in South Asia with 7% plus growth fuelled mainly by intra regional trade and tourism.
Take Tea trade for instance, together the tea auction centres of Guwahati and Siliguri cover the bulk global Tea trade – Guwahati dealing with the largest volume of CTC Tea in the world and Siliguri has a IT hub, a Food Park, a Park for manufacturing engineering products, a health city over and above its transport hub due to its strategic location in the ” Corridor” connecting North East with rest of the country and the entrepot of Sikkim and Bhutan for trade with Bangladesh and rest of India. Assam holds an unique geo strategic location in this region for its historic role as the British ” bridge head” for power projection in Tibet, South China, Burma and today is among the states with higher growth rates as per the 2014-15 Economic Survey of the Government of India ; and with 15% of Global tea and 50% of India’s total tea production,15% of India’s crude oil out put, 160. 53 million tonnes of crude oil and 160 billion cubic metres of gas reserves,60% of total bamboo of the North East and a diversified sericulture and weaving industry, the state is to become an important factor in this emerging regional economy.
If one looks at the existing connectivity the three areas– Kathmandu valley, North Bengal- Sikkim and Bhutan- Guwahati and Assam are already integrated as Siliguri is just 433km away from Gauhati by road and Kathmandu 328km from Siliguri, the latter being the common point of entry to Bhutan and Sikkim. And economy of Nepal , having recovered from the 2015 earthquake is all set to grow upwards from its present 6% due to investment in infrastructure, fast growth of tourism, hydro power development and expanding industrial activity in labour intensive and agro-horticultural- handloom and crafts Sector.
A coherent synergy in the development strategies of these three sub regions would therefore appear a rational policy choice to promote faster growth and integration into the larger ASEAN economy by building Guwahati -Siliguri – Kathmandu Economic Corridor which might be well within the BBIN ( Bangladesh- Bhutan-India- Nepal) framework of mutual cooperation and complement Act East policy. With the assistance of the Asian Development bank or the BRICS banks, the corridor approach could be projectised and funding secured for building infrastructure and growth inducing institutions and systems.
It is time now in the North East to take stock of the region’s development experience that statehood doesn’t create an economy and development required building strong links with its neighborhoods in trade . Technology and investment. We are passing through an age when as Kenichi Ohmac points out in his insightful book- The end of the Nation state – the ” Region states” or such groupings as the ASEAN will be the order of the day. The Guwahati -Siliguri- Kathmandu Corridor concept therefore deserves a serious considerations by the Regional planning, media and policy makers.
( The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam – Meghalaya cadre and has served as Scientific Consultant in the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India)