Written by Ningombam Bupenda Meitei
The significance of North East India, in terms of connecting between South Asia and South East Asia besides China, has been discussed and acknowledged not only in today’s modern economy but also in the context of the ancient trade routes of silk from China to Greek world. The North East India is not a homogenous set of similar cultures, traditions, religions, food habits, literature, dresses, style and languages, it is indeed the most diverse part of India. Out of its 8 North Eastern states, Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim are not a tribal state and these 4 states do have non-tribals as majority communities. What drives New Delhi to reach out to the North East India – Act East or internal economic development necessity of North East and East India or making an attempt to bring South East Asia, by competing against Chinese economy, closer to South Asian economy? Can New Delhi kick start the economic and commercial boom of North East India without taking along with all the capital cities of the 8 North Eastern states?
NEC and DONER
It is mostly in post-independent India that the need of economic and social growth of the North East India is seriously taken into consideration. It was in this notion that NEC (North Eastern Council) was established under the North Eastern Council Act 1971 which was passed by the Parliament of India. The Act got amended in 2002 to include Sikkim in the already existed seven North Eastern States (Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh).
Much later, in September 2001, Department of DONER (Development of North Eastern Region) was established and it got upgraded to a ministry of Union of India in May, 2004. Ministry of DONER is the only ministry of India that deals with a particular region in India’s Union ministries. It caters to the needs of the eight north eastern states of India.
NEC works from its Headquarter in Shillong under its NEC Secretary who is usually Union Secretary level while Ministry of DONER functions from New Delhi with its DONER Secretary who is also of the rank of Secretary to Government of India. The composition of NEC comprises Governors and Chief Ministers of eight North Eastern States besides its Chairman and 3 other members who are nominated by the President of India. Ministry of DONER, organisationally, is run by its Union Minister, who is mostly of Union Minister of State and not Cabinet rank till its inception as a full-fledged ministry in 2004. The Minister of DONER is assisted by Union Secretary and other Joint Secretaries. DONER has its nodal officers in all the 8 North Eastern States of India. It also has its nodal officers in all the ministries of Union of India. The Minister of DONER is the ex-officio Chairman of NEC.
The Ministry of DONER, in its official website, points out that The Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region is responsible for the matters relating to the planning, execution and monitoring of development schemes and projects in the North Eastern Region. Its vision is to accelerate the pace of socio-economic development of the Region so that it may enjoy growth parity with the rest of the country.
NEC, in its official website, states that The North Eastern Council is the nodal agency for the economic and social development of the North Eastern Region which consists of the eight States of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. Over the last thirty five years, NEC has been instrumental in setting in motion a new economic endeavour aimed at removing the basic handicaps that stood in the way of normal development of the region and has ushered in an era of new hope in this backward area full of great potentialities.
Though DONER and NEC are organisationally different, both have the same person, who is both the DONER Minister and ex-officio Chairman of NEC, to lead.
The Ministry of DONER, in its website, explains that the nature of the associate organizations of the Ministry of DONER is complex. NEC is listed as one of the associate organisations of the Ministry of DONER. The question of whether NEC, which functions under the Chairman who is also the DONER Minister, is under the administrative control of Ministry of DONER or not, as NEC is a statutory body set up by an Act of Parliament, is a point of deliberation to get clarity in terms of the administrative delegation of authority and reporting – such as, shall NEC Secretary in Shillong report to DONER Secretary in New Delhi or DONER Minister?
In both UPA-I & II Governments, DONER Secretary was hardly seen in the North Eastern states’ capitals while NEC Secretary would do the needful of going from one state’s capital to other to check and get the feedback of development related works, assignments, projects or issues of the region. But, in Modi’s Government, there is a shift. The shift is the inter-change of the work between DONER Secretary and NEC Secretary. Now, DONER has its nodal officers in all the states’ capitals of the region besides its engagement with the Chief Secretaries of all the 8 states. NEC Secretary, though takes tour of the region, is not viewed in the way that the post was looked at in UPA regime.
The change in the delegation of authority and penetration of whose authority – NEC Secretary or DONER Secretary – could also not be considered as totally absent. In UPA regime, two DONER ministers were from Assam, one of the North Eastern States while in Modi government, the two DONER Ministers, so far chosen by Prime Minister Modi, are not from the region. While NEC Secretary is mostly an IAS officer whose domicile is one of the states of the North East while DONER Secretary is usually an IAS officer who is not from the North East. In my informal conversation with former Union Secretaries of India and policy makers of the region, there is also a view of the need to clarify the unnecessary overlapping of responsibilities between NEC and DONER Secretaries as such overlapping leads to not only confusion among the departments but also delays in effective implementation of policies and programmes sanctioned for the faster economic development of the region with social inclusion and environmental safeguard.
In the present scenario, the present Modi government, with the formation of NITI Ayog, has already abolished the Special Category Status from the entire North Eastern states. The fundamental question is – Can Destination North East India succeed without the Special Category Status to the region? The next question is the effective implementation and penetrability of the funds from 10% Mandatory Earmarking of Funds for NER (North Eastern Region).
The Ministry of DONER, in its website, states that in 10% Mandatory Earmarking of Funds for NER, Special attention has been given to the economic development of the region from the Eighth Plan period onwards. In October 1996, the Central Government’s announcement of ‘New Initiatives for the North Eastern Region’ included a number of measures for the development of the NER which covered policy changes, special area development and development projects in key sectors. In order to mobilize financial resources, a policy decision was taken to earmark at least 10% of the Plan Budget(s) of the Central ministries/departments for development of the North Eastern states.
Many in the states’ capitals of NER ask about the actual percentage of 10% which can reach the region from New Delhi. New Delhi will ask for the utilisation certificates from the respective states’ secretariats but the point remains is whether the 100% completed work, shown in the utilisation certificate signed by the state’s administration, is further crosschecked or not with the help of not the officers from the state’s capital but the common villagers of the area where the work is said and stated, in writing, and signed to have been completed. Public accountability and direct ground monitoring with the help of the communities residing in the area can be the litmus test to check whether what is stated in utilisation certificate is actually true or how far it is projected to be true when it is indeed false.
Destination North East India
The Ministry of DONER has initiated ‘Destination North East 2016’ in New Delhi. DONER Minister Dr. Jitendra Singh points out, “I personally do not subscribe to the idea of bringing northeast closer to mainstream India, but rather the rest of India needs to be brought closer to northeast.” This mindset of the minister speaks louder than any other assurance of developmental funds for the NER. It is precisely, this very mindset, that India has been searching for since independence with regard to NER. As a cadet of N.C.C (National Cadet Corps), whenever I went for a camp, the word ‘NER’ (North East Region N.C.C Directorate) bonded quickly and deeply among the cadets from the region but when I grow up and start analysing the politico-economic-social systems of the region, I discover that the region is deeply diverse, though not divided, and hence, without the sense of respect for each other’s diversity the development of any form in the region will take a long time. It is this honour of different diversities that not only unite the region but also define the living vibrant diversities in India as a whole. It is in this context, one can say without an iota of doubt that the idea of ‘Unity in diversities’ of India is not a dream or utopia but reality and daily affairs in the North Eastern Indian states. And this is what the region can give light to the whole country that to remain as a nation, there has to be not merely an acceptance but celebration of ‘Unity in diversities’. Thus, the rest of India must go to the North East to further strengthen the bond of Indians in its truest sense.
Destination North East India or ‘Incredible North East India’ or ‘8 sisters’ are essentially to attract the world towards the region, but in today’s 21st world economy, it must include and also mean more investments, minds and energies towards the region and for promoting economic growth and development of the people of the region, along with the region’s human resources development. It also becomes a platform to showcase the rich cultural heritage and different views of many worlds, bestowed by Mother Nature, of the region to the rest of the world. The idea is beautiful but the pragmatism of witnessing the economic growth, in particular, of the region by giving more employment, bringing more investments to the region, making the region a commercial linking point between the South Asian economy and South East Asian economy, etc. are yet to be seen on ground.
Will Destination North East India be materialised in its truest sense? – is the question which needs to be asked by not only people in the North block or the South block of New Delhi, but also from all the capital cities of the North Eastern states, its people, besides the living cooperation between the two major participants – NEC and DONER. In the scenario of having non-BJP governments in majority of the states in the region, an attempt to have a cordial working relation between the state capitals and New Delhi can also not be excluded as not so significant. But, the larger question is also to talk and stress more on areas which have not been given such a deeper focus, and such areas are commerce, economic investments, IT related investments, hospitality industries, role of the region in climate change of the world and its potential revenue from carbon credits shares, making international airports in the region workable to act as a transit between South East Asian cities to other cities in India, strengthening and upgrading the institutions like sports institutions, medical research institutions, technological research institutions and academia of higher research. Too much presentation of culture, dances, songs, music, foods, dresses, art, etc. – which are essentially, the soft world of the region – is understandable and appreciable, but the youths of today’s generation need inclusive economic growth and development which will directly enable them to live on their own with dignity and self-reliance. The region needs a special focus on its commercial and trading potential which can link the economy of South Asia and that of South East Asia. This importance of commerce, trade and business is and will be the energy to also strengthen and promote the culture and heritage of the region to mankind.
It appears that in the making of ‘Destination North East India’, the role of the NE states has been sidelined, and this is where Prime Minister Modi has to rethink. Merely advocating about the region by DONER alone will be ended only as a series of some celebrations in metros of the country. For the truer way of making ‘Destination North East India’ a grand success, the people of the region must be one of the significant stake holders, not only as a cultural dance performer on the stage of an event, in commerce, trade and business too. If New Delhi, which is DONER here, cannot take along with the state capitals of the region, then, how can DONER go along with the members of NEC, which comprises state Chief Ministers too? It is here that to go together between DONER and NEC, a larger fundamental query comes – Can DONER and NEC go together for Destination North East India? This question becomes much larger to a common man from the North East India, as to the common man’s perspective, DONER is Delhi while NEC is North East, so when and how can Delhi (DONER) and North East (NEC) meet? Can NEC go to New Delhi while DONER shifts to Shillong?
Ningombam Bupenda Meitei, educated at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, is a poet and author.