Modi puts NE at heart of Asean embrace

The north-eastern states will, for the first time, play a big role during the India-Asean summit in January.

Last week, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj called in the governors of all the northeastern states and the lieutenant governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for a unique meeting — to begin the process of integrating domestic and foreign policy.

Sources said all governors came with suggestions and these have been prioritised into short- and medium term deliverables.

Bhutan will be the first country to open a consulate in Guwahati, but India will open the city for select countries like Japan as well, a first. Japan is becoming a major development partner for India’s northeast transformation programme.

At some point, India’s ‘Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal’ Initiative will segue into its ‘Act East’ policy. Within the MEA, the new initiative will be run by several departments — from the ‘states’ division and ICCR, to officials in charge of Bangladesh and Myanmar and the big ‘south’ division that is in charge of the Asean region. Outside the MEA, state governments and the home ministry will be roped in.

It’s not only the Republic Day celebrations that will see action with the presence of all the Asean heads of government. For the first time, Assam will host an ‘Invest Assam’ summit, on the lines of Vibrant Gujarat, which will see several Asean heads of state hoping to create economic linkages.

The leadership push is being given by President Ram Nath Kovind, who travelled to three northeastern states last week. Opening the Northeast Development Summit, he said, “If you consider the hundreds and thousands of years of civilisation, far from being a frontier, the northeast has been at the heart of Indian imagination. And if you take South Asia and Southeast Asia as a continuum — as it has been perceived for most of history — then the northeast is right in the middle of it. Its geographical location makes it the obvious gateway to India...” That is the crux of this new outreach.

On top of the list is connectivity. In the huge effort to integrate India’s domestic and foreign policy, the big constraint has undoubtedly been the lack of land connectivity in the region and with neighbours.

That’s not easy but officials said after several years of missteps, the trilateral highway through Myanmar was in “implementation mode” and should open by 2020. The same goes for the Kaladan multimodal project, which is currently lagging because of the unrest in Rakhine.

With Bangladesh, the aim is to revive the connectivity linkages that existed before 1965. Of the six erstwhile rail links between India and Bangladesh, four connecting West Bengal with Bangladesh have been made operational. In the past few months, two immigration check posts have been cleared along the borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, and Suterkandi in Assam is being upgraded into an ICP with Bangladesh. This will facilitate legitimate travel. Under the Udaan project, officials said, WWII-era airports are being upgraded to enhance air connectivity.

North-eastern music and dance groups will travel more, particularly to Asean countries. Funds are being earmarked from other departments to upgrade medical colleges and hospitals in Assam and Meghalaya to receive patients from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Central and state governments will reduce the number of areas that need an inner line permit for these states to incentivise tourism. “We used to be a trading and maritime nation, we’re trying to recapture that space,” an official said.

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