People always think poverty means having no money. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, it can be the lack of development in a region, which means limited access to basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter. In India, there are a lot of rural pockets that face this problem, but there’s a chunk that stands out most – the North East. One of the first things PM Modi did when he took office was announcing the ‘Look East Through North East’ Policy. Over the last 5 years, a number of schemes and projects were launched to boost growth in the North East region. Even in the latest budget, the Interim Budget 2019-20, the government increased by 21 per cent to Rs. 58,166 crore.
Now that we’ve reached the end of his term, let’s see if the schemes are even hitting the mark on what the people of the region need and if they’ve been properly executed since their inception.
Problem #1: There aren’t enough jobs in the region
NaMo’s Vision: Realising that this region could be India’s window to trade with our eastern neighbours, PM Modi wanted to turn North East into a commercial hub. More commerce = more job opportunities. By cutting the red tape on several stalled projects like the Brahmaputra Cracker and Polymer Ltd. (petrochemical firm) and the Numaligarh Refineries Ltd. (wax plant) in Assam, the government kickstarted this effort. BPCPL alone was expected to create over 1 lakh jobs. Through the North East BPO Promotion Scheme (NEBPS), the government aimed to expand the IT sector in this region by providing incentives for 5000 companies, which was estimated to create at least 15,000 new employment opportunities.
Remarks: To really gauge how much change these schemes have caused in terms of direct and indirect employment, we’re probably going to have to wait for the numbers from the 2021 census. But in the meantime, looks like both the Brahmaputra Cracker and Polymer Ltd. and the Numaligarh Refineries Ltd. are doing well and it’s safe to assume that if the companies are doing well, they must be hiring. As of December 2017, about 2,100 of the 5000 seats allocated for companies to receive incentives from the NEBPS scheme have been filled and there’s no update on the allotment status since them. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s some progress.
Problem #2: There are too many people living below the poverty line
NaMo’s Vision: According to the 2011-12 poverty estimates released by Planning Commission, the population living below the poverty line (less than Rs. 123/day) in the North East was very significant – around 23.42%. The Government introduced the Shyama Prasad Mukherji Mission in 2016 to develop skilled labour and local entrepreneurship by providing the appropriate infrastructural facilities in clusters of ‘smart villages’. Additionally, various self-employment and subsidy schemes were initiated under the Integrated Rural Development Program (IRDP).
Remarks: The IRDP scheme alleviated 15% to 20% of the poor that were above the poverty line but did not significantly change the lives of those below poverty line.Additionally, it’s also under-financed, and most self-employment initiatives are focused on secondary earners (women) rather than the primary earners (men). While this is great for empowering women, it does very little for poverty eradication. Like most subsidy schemes, the success of the programme depends on accurately calculating who are the beneficiaries, something that has not been properly executed for this scheme.
Here’s what’s wrong with the way India calculates poverty –
Problem #3: These states are geographically isolated from India
NaMo’s Vision: PM Modi has been trying to reduce travel time between the North East and the Indian mainland in an attempt to boost tourism and reduce the prices of commodities by making transport easier.
The Indian Railways commissioned repair and improvement projects on about 900 kilometers in the area and a 132-kilometer railroad from Maynaguri–Jogighopa was to be constructed. In the 2019 Interim Budget, the states of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura appeared for the first time.
Roadways are part of the plan too. As of 2016, the Government has already announced over 80 road projects for the region. The Special Accelerated Road Development Program for North East (SARDPNE) includes upgrading 10,141 kilometers of national highways and state roads.
Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) mandated to develop National Waterways including National Waterway – 2 (River Brahmaputra) from Bangladesh Border to Sadiya for the purpose of inland water transport.
North Eastern Council (NEC) and Alliance Air (Air India subsidiary) signed an MOU in 2014 for increased flight operations in the region by connecting Shillong, Lilabari, Tezpur and Silchar with Kolkata/Guwahati.
Work had also begun on building a bridge over Feni river in Tripura, to ferry heavy goods to and from the region and the mainland via the Chittagong International port in Bangladesh.
Remarks: The push for transport in this area has definitely been big and all-encompassing. However, this was long-pending and much needed as one of the biggest problems in this region is the fact that it’s actually really difficult to access it. Having said that, the road to building roads through this region has been taxing and long since the topography of this area simply does not lend itself to this sort of human activity. Unpredictable weather, frequent landslides and undulating land are likely to cause consistent stalling of these projects.
Having said that, the Maynaguri–Jogighopa rail projects were completed in time. The Government is not only working on the 80 road projects under SARDPNE, but has also added 12 new projects worth Rs. 6,441.34 crore. The Feni river Bridge construction is underway and is due to be completed in December 2019. The Bogibeel rail-cum-road bridge in Assam and the Pakyong airport in Sikkim have been completed. And lastly, Arunachal Pradesh has been brought on the country’s air map for the first time.
Problem #4: There is no connectivity within these states
NaMo’s Vision: As of 2016, PM Modi announced a project for improved Internet connectivity for the Northeast region in collaboration with Bangladesh. This was to make 10 GB of seamless alternate bandwidth available for the region.
Along with Reliance Jio, the Government was successful in collaborating with various state governments of the Northeast to ensure Internet and call connectivity in these regions as a part of the Digital India movement. In 2017, Bharti Airtel has entered into a pact with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to provide 2,000 mobile towers in 2,100 villages of Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh by March 2019. Under the Northeast Development Plan, Centre aims to offer mobile connectivity through more than 7,000 mobile towers in more than 8,600 villages including alongside national highways spread across the seven hilly states.
Remarks: Brand ambassador by state-run telecom company Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), Mary Kom recently spoke in Parliament to review telecom and Internet connectivity in the North East region. She said, “In the last one year, there have been an improvement in mobile networks and wherever people go, they get network.” She even commented that many remote villages located in hilly regions now have mobile towers, when they were previously ignored because of their rough terrain.
Problem #5: These states don’t generate enough electricity
NaMo’s Vision: The seven northeastern states face around 379 million units of power deficit annually. The first and the only green power plant, the Palatana Power Plant, with a 726 MW capacity in the North East was set up in Tripura only recently in 2014. The recent commissioning of Bishwanath-Chariyali-Agra transmission line has also brought a 500 MW additional capacity to the region. The government has made a total investment of around Rs. 10,000 crore in power transmission projects covering all the states in this region.
The North Eastern Electric Power Corporation confirmed that its generation capacity would rise to 2,060 MW by the end of 2017, as commissioning of three more power projects would be completed before the end of this year.
Remarks: The Palatana project is a hallmark of cooperation between India and Bangladesh, as India has initiated the process to supply 100 MW of power from Tripura to Bangladesh. It’s also the only installation to be certified as green power project in the country, which is great for the region. Since the big steps in the North East energy sector have only just been taken, it’ll take some time to see if they bear fruit. However, these steps do look promising.
Regardless of the success of each project, it’s clear from recent state elections that the North States have appreciated the Central government prioritising their development. Since 2014, all the North East states that were previously under Congress rule have elected NDA governments during their respective assembly elections. And as the election draws closer, the Central government has amped up it’s efforts to develop this region. Last year, they allocated Rs. 4,500 crore to fund development projects in the Northeast region and earlier this year, PM Modi inaugurated eight new projects and laid the foundation stone for four other schemes during his visit to Manipur.
The only impediment to the NDA’s success in the North East is perhaps the Citizenship Bill, which allows immigrants of certain religions from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to seek asylum in India. North Easterners fear that if passed this Act will lead to an influx of immigrants into their states, diluting their identity.
Here’s everything you need to know about thr North East’s identity crisis –
Widespread protests have been held against the passage of this Bill, and even though the PM Modi’s North East vision clinched the votes in the assembly elections, this Citizenship Bill could be the silver bullet to undo all of that.