India’s Northeast: An Agenda for DoNER

17 Jun, 2014    ·   4520

Ruhee Neog identifies immediate priorities for General (Retd) VK Singh, the new head of India's Ministry for the Development of the Northeastern Region

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog
In interviews conducted post his appointment as the head for the Ministry for the Development of the Northeastern Region (DoNER), General (Retd) VK Singh identified certain areas for the “overall development” of the Northeast. This article will seek to discuss and give substance to two of these areas, which have thus far been mentioned preliminarily, and suggest a third.

The very first priority, which is probably already in the works, must of course be a review of the performance of the ministry - whether it has been able to fulfil its remit, and most crucially, where it might have gone wrong. This is primarily because the goals of the ministry are going to roughly be the same as before, and the changes will most likely be in the processes employed – not the ‘what’ but the ‘how’. An assessment therefore will be of immense help in identifying how past mistakes can be avoided and in structuring the list of priorities.

Connectivity and Economic Growth
Connectivity is essential for trade, and trade for economic growth. For this, comprehensive backward and forward links with the rest of India and across the region’s massive international borders are essential. Currently, connectivity on all three counts - between the Northeast states, with the rest of India, and abroad – is dismal.

General Singh also holds the portfolio of Minister of State of External Affairs, which is very interesting because the development of the Northeast necessitates to a large part the proper implementation of India’s Look East Policy (LEP). There have long been complaints about how, in the enthusiasm for the LEP’s success, the Northeast would merely be a spectator of the development that would pass through it without necessarily doing any good to the region itself. The dual role that General Singh has taken on is therefore a welcome move, and it is hoped that this would lead to the DoNER and the Ministry for External Affairs (MEA) working complementarily where required.  

In terms of cross-border trade, the trade conducted at Moreh in Manipur and Tamu in Myanmar is instructive. It is noted that while the essential institutions are in existence, their performance leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, Moreh has both Land Customs and Currency Exchange Centres, but they are under-staffed and do not function well. Additionally, despite there being a Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement between Myanmar and India, which is meant to ensure that taxation occurs only in a company’s country of permanent residence, tax irregularities continue to persist. Business is therefore sought to be conducted through seaports in Kolkata, Mumbai and Singapore, even though a land access point with (theoretically) hugely reduced transport costs is available.

Another major problem is air connectivity. Proposals for Greenfield airports in the Northeast have been bandied about but come to naught, with the exception of the airport at Pakyong, Sikkim, and the future of an Open Skies Policy as introduced by the ASEAN-India Aviation Cooperation Framework, which could be a trade multiplier, is uncertain.

Infrastructure Facilitation and Investment Promotion
The problem here is not of insufficient funds but that of funds not funnelling through to their targeted beneficiaries.

The most practicable investment model for the Northeast is the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model. However, it is difficult to chart a clear trajectory in the advancements that have apparently been made, and political imperatives often mean that these projects extend indefinitely beyond their deadline or come to a halt altogether with declarations of being revived at some point in the future. The lethargic implementations of ambitious plans and inter-state politicking have held these projects back.

Image Management and Accountability
The popular perception of DoNER in the Northeast is more negative than positive. It is seen as a region-specific ministry whose perspective is unfortunately informed more by the Centre, from which it emerges, rather than the region whose interests it seeks to represent. Added to this is its lacklustre performance and apparent inaction, which has much to do with the lack of public dissemination of information.  

The deficiency in public knowledge of the DoNER’s activities becomes especially important in light of the reactions to DoNER’s new avatar. In particular, much has been said about the appointment of a former Army man, General (Retd) VK Singh, as the Minister in charge of this portfolio. Many have expressed their concerns about the practice of looking at the Northeast through a ‘combative’, military lens. To quell such misgivings, it becomes imperative for the ministry to corroborate its work to safeguard the interests of the region through active and regular dissemination of information. Controlled transparency would allow accountability, which in turn would help inspire regional confidence in DoNER’s workings.

What can be most unambiguously said about this change of guard is that above all else, DONER needed an injection of fresh blood. Whether this will be to the detriment of the region or its gain cannot be deduced in the first few days of the new ministry’s existence.