Most development economists have a simple way of demonstrating India’s skewed regional growth pattern—draw a vertical line down the middle of the map of India: broadly, the region to the west of the line is relatively more developed than the east (who some identify as underdeveloped).
All of this is about to change. A constellation of circumstances seems to be coming together, which promises to end the status quo—later if not sooner.
First, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), after its audacious electoral wins in the 16th general election and subsequently in the state assembly election in Assam, is convinced of its ability to acquire a national footprint. So, it has a clear stake in correcting decades of neglect, providing the desired political will to drive change.
Being in power at the centre leaves it in a position to push the kind of public policy the north-east region’s peculiar topography requires—the only connect to mainland India is a thin sliver of land called the “Chicken’s Neck" in West Bengal.
Consequently, the strategy needs to marry domestic initiatives along with foreign policy manoeuvres to ensure the immediate foreign territories adjoining the north-east of India—Bangladesh, Myanmar and China—remain in sync.
Second, there is now clear movement on the ground suggesting that the Indian establishment is beginning to walk the talk on integrating the north-east into the mainstream.
For the past two decades, several governments have pledged to do so, but somehow made no progress. All of a sudden, however, several policy initiatives are coming together to implement the “Look East" strategy.
In his latest book, The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, Sanjeev Sanyal shows how independent India has ignored the scope of the seas that surround the country on three sides, in its development strategy.
Shipping minister Nitin Gadkari thinks similarly: he is spearheading the “Sagarmala" project which aims to support port-led development along India’s coastline at an initial investment cost estimated at $700 billion. Not only will it be cost-effective for freight movement, it will also decongest the country’s overburdened roads infrastructure.
Alongside, last week, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced funding for the Visakhapatnam-Chennai Industrial Corridor (VCIC), which leverages part of the eastern coastline of India. The ADB project document sums it up perfectly: “VCIC’s long coastline and strategically located ports provide multiple international gateways to connect India with South-East and East Asia that form the bedrock of present day global manufacturing."
The other big move that has fructified recently is the ability of India’s foreign office to mend relations with Bangladesh and make it a key stakeholder in the plans to integrate the north-east with mainland India.
Last month, India employed this hard-earned social capital in commissioning a rail link from New Delhi to Agartala in Tripura, which will go through Bangladesh. After entering Bangladesh, the rail link will do the last mile to Agartala from Akhaura—located in south-east Bangladesh, it is a railway junction connecting Chittagong port to Dhaka.
Similarly, India has been working on Myanmar for access to the port at Sittwe to land its goods headed for the north-eastern states. Once connectivity is granted, then the goods will move along the river Kaladan in Myanmar to a motorable point to the Indian border. In addition, there is a tri-nation highway plan in the works proposing to connect the north-east of India to Bangkok through Myanmar; a similar plan also looks to connect with southern China, once again through Myanmar.
Finally, the cabinet last week formalized plans to allow the eastern part of India access to green fuel: gas. The plan spearheaded by oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan entails laying a 2,500-km-long pipeline—through Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal—and is estimated to cost nearly Rs13,000 crore.
Taken together with the proposed liquefied natural gas terminals coming up along the coastline, it will create a gas supply infrastructure for the region. Once up and running, it will provide cheap and green fuel to industries looking to exploit the advantage of the coastline.
Clearly, if we connect the dots, we have a plan that looks to integrate the hitherto neglected eastern part of the country. Once realized, it will correct for regional imbalances, broad-base the growth process and open up new economic opportunities—and presumably more jobs.
Not only is this good economics, it is also good politics.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus
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