Thursday, 12 June 2014

Railways in Northeast India: Local Resistance to Policy Initiatives

Photo source: IBN Live
Northeast India’s connectivity to rest of the country and to its five neighbouring countries has remained a most challenging policy concern in post-colonial India. The scanty connectivity network has heavily constrained the inflow of India’s development outcomes in the region, has denied the entry of many modern institutions, and thus kept the region at the periphery of India’s modernity. Railway for example which was established in this far flung region by the colonial rulers solely for their own economic interest has hardly seen any further expansion in post-colonial period. For almost four decades after independence, the issues of internal conflicts and security have largely dominated Northeast policy frame. The reshaping of such policy domain catering to the needs of development started only in 1990s with India’s Look East Policy. Thus at policy level building and improving all kinds of connectivity became the most important agenda for establishing intra-state, inter-state and cross-border accessibilities. This policy initiative later found a concrete base in the year 2008, when India’s outgoing Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had visited the region and promised development with extensive infrastructure base. In the same year the historic vision document of North Eastern Region 2020 was formulated by incorporating the voices of mammoth 40,000 people of the region to bring a policy roadmap for region’s development. Connectivity was placed as foremost policy issue, and expansion of railway net was promised by the government to facilitate economic boost through the movement and mobility of people and product.

Three key railway projects were identified by UPA II as ‘critical’ for the region. Such projects also include the first rail connectivity in two most remote Northeastern states, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh with new broad gauge lines in Dudhnoi-Mendipathar and Harmuti-Naharlagun. Both these projects were actually initiated long ago in 1990s with emergence of Look East Policy, but were heavily disrupted for various issues like law and order problems and more importantly for strong local resistance. Dudhnoi-Mendipathar and Harmati-Naharlagun, each 20-km lines in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya and in Arunachal Pradesh initiated with the costs of about Rs 180 crore and Rs 407 crores respectively, which were later revised.

Finally one such visionary project has been completed and with Harmati-Naharlagun rail line being open, far eastern landlocked Arunachal Pradesh is placed in the railway map of India. Such railway line at last makes Arunachal accessible to rest of India and opens up multiple avenues and opportunities for the state, primarily in terms of economic development. The people of Arunachal so far have been struggling to survive through various dangerous means and through both legal and illegal cross-border economic activities, as it was cut-off from rest of India. But before all such expectations are being met, the local youths of the state have resisted vehemently to stop this railway service. It is interesting that at macro level, people of Northeast deeply feel that connectivity is seential to make the region vibrant and self-reliant, and the voices of 40,000 people reflecting in the vision document endorse it firmly. But when such vision is translated into reality, the local xenophobia resurfaces with all forces and vehement protests by the youth population not to make such connectivity functional. The youths are apprehensive of large scale infiltration and influx from rest of India and illegal immigration from neighbouring nations. Thus they demand for proper implementation of Inner Line Pass. The same is the situation in Meghalaya. The issue of Inner Line Pass has also created internal conflicts and violence, and destabilized Meghalaya once again in the year 2013. Such reaction and resistance to such positive policy initiative show that the region is still stuck to the dual issues of identity and migration.

Does such inward looking mindset reiterate that people of Northeast are not yet ready for embracing the idea of development? Can issue of xenophobia any longer delay the solution for of human poverty, livelihood opportunities and economic growth in the region? Even if the region has to tap its unexplored potentials for indigenous growth of economy, the support of modern institutions are essential as economy cannot grow in isolation. Unless its regional economy becomes prosperous enough to provide opportunities to its youths, they would continue to migrate to rest of India and the irony of the situation continues. At regional level Northeasterns are intolerant against the outsiders and migrants, and at national level, many of the innocent Northeasterns become victims of violence and racism.

Connectivity and people-to-people contacts can bridge such cultural gaps, lack of understanding and intolerance. An open Northeast frontier through such policy ventures will allow to create space for interaction and tolerance and will be beneficial for all the stakeholders in the long run for peace and stability. In today’s global inter-connected world, no place can grow in pristine isolation, rather a cooperative and integrated development is need of the hour. Let North-East Frontier Railway and state governments have dialogues with local youths to find solution and make such huge investment on railway connectivity justifiable both economically and strategically.   
Rakhee Bhattacharya


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