No genie in the bottle

Patricia Mukhim

THE manner in which the public diplomacy division of the Union home affairs ministry is engaging with border states hovers between superciliousness and ignorance. In its effort to reach out to the periphery (the notorious North-eastern states), the division deputed a former ambassador to three states — Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya — to yet again give us a different spin on India’s much-touted Look East Policy. Former ambassador, Sudhir Devere, who is also currently secretary-general of the Indian Council for World Affairs, was the visiting dignitary assigned this onerous task. But his lecture suffered from two major discrepancies. First, he was visiting the region for the first time and was, therefore, illiterate about most of the issues people here grapple with on a daily basis. Hence the lecture was not nuanced and failed to strike the right chord. Second, his presentation was simply recycled stuff. It was not even old wine in a new bottle, which you could have somehow savoured, notwithstanding the boredom.
When the Lep first became a talking point in the region towards the end of the 20th century, there were huge aspirations that the seven states would take off into a new and vibrant economic trajectory. There was talk of a more robust communication system with South East Asia, which would then bring in the tourists and send out exports from the region. Mind you, we have not even zeroed down on what to export as yet! This aspiration, like many others, is highly misplaced because (a) the North-east cannot compete on an economy of scale, in that it cannot meet the market demands on a huge scale. The region can only hope to cash in on a niche market for some of its unique products, such as muga and eri silk, ginger, turmeric, (which has the highest curcumin content at nine per cent), orchids and other flowers and fruits (mainly pineapples, oranges, strawberries). Minerals like coal and limestone are, anyway, being sold raw (without value addition) to Bangladesh from Meghalaya. If we are to talk of tourism, then apart from Sikkim the other states are still struggling with infrastructure.
It is in this context that one finds the Lep nothing more than a red herring, designed to make the region’s people “feel good”. Not that this area does not need to feel good. We could do with huge doses of placebos, but the feel-good factor has to be internally generated not externally induced. The Lep or any other targeted policy for the North-east cannot succeed if we are going to turn every opportunity into an anti-India catharsis. There is much homework to be done internally and less of sulking. We need to develop our own growth trajectory, have our own vision that would perhaps be quite different from the much-touted Vision 2020, and also find our niche. It is pointless to compare this region to other states of India or to use the same yardstick to measure development. The North-east has some exclusive features that the rest of India does not. It is well worth the while to look at these positives instead of burning ourselves out by tirelessly pointing at the negatives.
For too long, people of the seven states have lived out a victimhood syndrome. I am leaving Sikkim out of the present discourse because Sikkim was tagged to the North-east map simply for administrative convenience – to make it easier for the North Eastern Council and, subsequently, the ministry for the development of the North-east (Doner) to craft some sort of “homogeneous” development policies and programmes. Unlike the seven states, Sikkim does not suffer the victim-hood psyche that afflicts the rest. The Sikkimese have the highest per capita income amongst the states involved. According to the findings of the Central Statistical Organisation, its per capita income for 2008-09 stood at Rs 25,257. This was slightly lower than the national per capita income average of Rs 25,494 for the same period. Among the other North-east states, Meghalaya has the second highest per capita income of Rs 23,069 for 2008-09. Interestingly, Sikkim’s Gross Domestic Product for 2008-09 was Rs 1,756 crore, with an eight per cent increase, as compared to the previous financial year that, apparently, is the lowest among the North-eastern states.
But Sikkim’s Gross State Domestic Product recorded a high growth rate between 1999-2000 and 2007-08. The secondary sector has been the fastest growing, at a Current Annual Growth Rate of 13 per cent between 1999-2000 and 2007-08. This was driven by construction and hydro-electric power generation. At over 69 per cent, the tertiary sector is the largest contributor to Sikkim’s economy. This sector is driven by trade, hotels, real estate, transport and communications and its share in the state’s GSDP was a mere 25.3 per cent in 2008-09, driven mainly by agriculture. These are basic differences between Sikkim and the other North-east states. Its growth at 8.3 per cent is the second highest in the country after Delhi.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the Sikkimese do not suffer the heartburn that afflict other North-east states is because in the referendum held in 1975 — 97.5 per cent of the voting population (which included 59 per cent of those entitled to vote), opted to join the Indian Union. On 16 May 1975, Sikkim officially became the 22nd state of the union and the monarchy was abolished. Sikkim’s enduring chief minister Pawan Chamling unabashedly proclaims that a major achievement is to be included in the NEC, which has given its youth access and exposure to major technical institutions like IIT, Guwahati, besides according the state an opportunity to be part of the economic growth loop such as the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, which includes India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and China. Chamling also asserts that Sikkim is striving to achieve an internal revenue generation of Rs 1,000 crore by 2015 – a statement few chief ministers in the region have the confidence to voice.
Also impressive is his pragmatic view of globalisation. Speaking at the National Development Council in 2009, he said, “For us in Sikkim the globalisation process is a fact of life today. We have no choice. Globalisation is like boarding a flight; once you’re aboard, you really cannot get off unless you reach a destination. Therefore, we have to accept it, absorb it and participate in it. Ironically, we still do not know where we are going as the flight of globalisation is driven and its destination determined by the developed countries. We are worried on two counts. First, its likely impact on the traditional socio-cultural values and, second, its impact on the economic systems.” Having raised his concerns, Chamling says, “Though no one is sure about the real impact of the ongoing process of globalisation, yet it is expected that my state will be both positively and adversely affected by this. Our state, being a small and developing one, we have always tried to protect it from the external shocks. We have been successful in many ways.” Sikkim has also been very innovative. The state launched its “Skill Development Initiative” in 2003 and this has remained the most effective programme to make educated youth employable, skilled and capable of harnessing the diverse opportunities available both within and outside the state. Sikkim also added a new dimension to its skill-building effort by establishing a “Livelihood School” in every constituency. Many boys and girls are undergoing different kinds of vocational upgradation training in such institutes.
In terms of tourism, there is a feeling amongst all the seven states that they are not doing as well as Sikkim, but statistics speak differently. According to the tourism statistics for India in 2006-07, Assam had 2.76 million domestic tourists and 10,374 foreign tourists. Meghalaya had 401,000 domestic tourists and 4,287 foreign visitors. Tripura had 2.30 million domestic and 3,245 foreign visitors. Sikkim had 292,000 Indian and 18,026 foreign tourists. In terms of the market share in tourism, Sikkim is not as favourably placed as we believe it to be. What it has done differently is to attract high-end tourists for its eco-tourism and adventure-tourism sectors, both of which have been very attractively packaged. States that do not focus on what to sell have ended up attracting low-budget domestic and foreign tourists. The latter are mainly back-packers, students and researchers.
Incidentally, Tripura is also doing quite well in tourism, although somehow it has remained a little distant from the discourses of the North-east. Be that as it may, despite the insurgency Tripura appears to have its own growth model that the CPI(M) government is pursuing quietly, yet persuasively.
There are lessons to be learnt from other less problematic and goal-oriented states like Sikkim and Tripura and to move on without waiting for any more symbolic, high-sounding yet vacuous schemes and plans trumpeted by the government of India. The North-east is mature enough to build its own brand and forge ahead. Enough of the victim-hood syndrome! As for the Union external affairs ministry, we should say please think of more innovative ways to engage us – and no more lectures, please!