Sunday 14 June 2015

To ensure peace, open up the Northeast (Sunday Guardian)

M.D Nalapat is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.

In a living organism, either there is change or there is necrosis, a steady destruction of tissue. In the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru took the advice of Verrier Elwin to freeze social development in the Northeast, "so as to preserve local culture". Since then, that part of India has suffered appalling neglect, with physical infrastructure — especially roads — scanty and inward investment, and even tourism, discouraged. The people of the northeastern states are among the finest in India, curious about the world and eager to embrace the change that has been denied to them, initially in the name of preserving culture and later in the name of that catchall excuse, "national security". Six decades back, the regions outside our borders and around the northeastern states were even more backward than India at the time, with China, for instance, having a GDP which was less than half that of this country. Since then, the adoption of Soviet-style planning by Nehru and the takeover of vast stretches of industry by him and later by Indira Gandhi (with banking and coal being just two examples) ensured that India is now far below both China as well as its ASEAN neighbours in per capita income. City after city, town after town, village after village, is a dismal collection of dwellings surrounded by filth and the overpowering atmosphere of neglect and haphazardness, which is the distinguishing characteristic of so much of governance in a country where the administrative system works in a manner designed to smother rather than liberate the creative energies of the population.
How else to explain the fact that even the highest in the land have to use desktop computers from foreign manufacturers? Indeed, across the spectrum of need, the dominance of foreign brands is almost total. Even the head of state and the head of government have to use vehicles made outside the country even in their movement within a city. To use the example of another country, that Russia is no longer a major force in technological innovation became clear from the visuals of the re-assumption of the Presidency by Vladimir Putin, when his entourage travelled from destination to destination across city streets in cars manufactured in Germany, exactly the way his counterpart in India does. And like in India, Vladimir Putin must be relying on foreign-made desktops in his office.
The people of the Northeast are among the finest in India, eager to embrace the change that has been denied to them.
When even the top leadership of a country has to look outside its borders for surface transportation needs and for office equipment, to call that country a great power would be a stretch. If experts are correct, even the mapping of biometric data relating to the population of our country is done by agencies which rely overwhelmingly on foreign expertise. This is an era when Silicon Valley hums on the strength of the brainpower sourced from India. The motif of a colonial administration is control. Indeed, progress in self-reliance is regarded as undesirable, as a contingency to be reversed in the rare instances where it takes place. Which is why our procurement agencies avoid the technologies developed by young Indian brainpower in Hyderabad or Pune in favour of external substitutes that are several times more expensive. Unlike in the US or Israel, where start-ups are encouraged and talent identified and nurtured, in India local talent faces an obstacle race each day, which finally wears them down, with a few escaping to shores where innovation and enterprise are prized rather than discouraged. During the Sonia-Manmohan decade in particular, a flood of foreign technologies proliferated across the country, with even toilet equipment having to be imported from outside. In order to fund such purchases, taxes were raised and raised and raised, thereby slowing down the economy. While officials gloat over the rate of growth of the economy, they neglect to mention that almost all such progress is taking place despite them, and that growth would be much faster, should the maxim of "Minimum Government and Maximum Governance" get operationalised.
Returning to the northeastern — indeed, eastern, for Bengal and Assam form part of the mix — parts of India, these shut two of the most dynamic geographical locations on the planet, China and ASEAN. Prime Minister Narendra Modi stared down the naysayers in opening the gates to tourism from China, a country which sends a hundred million citizens each year, who are welcomed by countries as alert to their national interest as we are, such as France, the UK and the US. Indeed, the very countries whose security agencies warn us to bar the doors to such visitors, a view that was uncritically accepted, without questioning why those making it themselves spread the welcome mat for tourists from China. Whether it is tour groups from the world's second biggest economy or what is called "Islamic finance", we in India block that which other countries chase after, thereby losing out on the opportunities available.
Economic strength is the surest guarantor of security, and the task before the Modi government is to ensure a growth rate of 15% for at least five of the next ten years, and an average rate of growth in double digits for a generation beginning in 2014. Making commercial and tourist hubs of the northeastern states through linking them with the opportunities surrounding them through a quantum expansion of road, rail and air links would be a good way to start.

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