Sreeradha Datta reaffirms that there is no substitute to ‘good governance’ to ensure stability on ground situations for a successful and futuristic planning of national and international state policies.
Sreeradha Datta’s “Act East Policy and Northeast India” (2021) is a comprehensive account of the role that India’s Northeast plays in India’s Act East Policy. The book springs from Datta’s research interest and expertise on India’s foreign policy concerning relations with India’s neighbourhood and South Asian security. Comprising six chapters, the book essentially covers pertinent questions about what is pushing ahead and what is holding back the progressive path in India’s engagements with South Asian and South East Asian neighbours through the Northeast. She reflects on the potential of the Northeast region through the prism of its economy, connectivity, energy, tenuous political stability, border trade and cross-border linkages. Although the Look East Policy (LEP) came in the 1990s along with India’s economic liberalisation, as a way to connect to other thriving economies in India’s east, the role of Northeast has been augmented and begun to be realised more recently. The transition from the LEP to Act East Policy (AEP) during the Narendra Modi government, has exhibited earnest steps for greater engagement with the Northeast and efforts to close gaps with more attention. To set the foundation of the book, Datta makes a detailed study of LEP and analyses the policies and practicalities of the efforts made by Government of India to tap the potential of the region, its progress, advantages, setbacks and challenges.
The first chapter walks us through the economy of the north-eastern states. Citing scholars and governmental reports on the economy of the “North Eastern Region” (NER), Datta reiterates that despite being primarily agrarian, the NER economy has a great local industry potential and this has a capacity to play a pertinent part in all developmental efforts made to linking the economy of the South East Asian region with India via AEP. Moreover, each state in the region has different developmental prospects and supporting resources to contribute to the regional and national economy. She calls for attention on the balance of growth and progress, which is still below expectation, despite the potentials in the region. The increase in educated youths in the region and investor absorption much match the aspiration of developmental policies. Datta stresses that development in the Northeast is a national security project. She hones in on Duncan McDuie’s solution of either stopping the conflicts that are leading to underdevelopment or addressing the underdevelopments that lead to conflict—she puts more weight in favour of the latter. Taking into account various important reports related to the paradoxes of the periphery, Datta touches upon border trade, connectivity and on how the Centre’s role as a facilitator can help in ensuring that the people of the region are important stakeholders in the national trade development. She details how infrastructure development and investment to enhance connectivity must be coherent with preparedness of the people in the region. Identifying the gaps, she points at how the economic policy for the region has to be conceived differently, taking into account the geo-economic and geo-political predispositions.
The second chapter looks at transport connectivity in the NER. Datta looks at AEP as the kind of policy that seeks to bridge the long-held narratives of “mental gap” that perceives that Delhi and the rest of the country see the Northeast as distant and marginal, and the “emotional gap” that makes the people in the Northeast sense a disconnect with development pronouncements from the Centre. She highlights the factors that hinder development and prolong the isolation of the region. Summaries of the status of roads, railways, airways and inland water transports that are implemented, underway and planned are thoroughly discussed at length. New transport projects including collaboration with multilateral funding institutions and Japan, and other ongoing schemes and projects are elaborately covered in the book, besides pointing out ground issues including corruption, conflicting interest and political turmoil that pose a challenge to governmental plans and policies from becoming fully functional. Re-examining government policies, road transport, railways, limited cargo movements, airports, Inland Water Transports (IWT), National Waterway-2 (NW-2) and funding from multilateral institutions like World Bank (WB), ADB and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JIPA), Datta accentuates that infrastructure projects need to go hand-in-hand with social infrastructure. A better centre-state coordination with greater accountability and efficiency in administration is recommended to improve the cobweb in the transport connectivity in the region.
The third chapter discusses energy potential in NER. Government data reports that NER accounts for 8% of the nation’s power generation. Datta assesses the energy capacity in the sector and throws light on significant government projects and initiatives. In the context of Northeast being a vital transit corridor, the book uncovers the status and potential relating to attaining self-reliance in energy through renewable energy, large dams, mini grids that are gaining traction and regional grid. Moreover, the impediments and difficulties on this path are also highlighted in terms of funding, mechanisms and feasibilities of the proposed plans.
The fourth chapter deliberates on the tenuous political stability of the NER. A brief history on the political development of the region also alludes to the mosaic of ethnicity in the region and the challenges relating to migration, reflected in the controversies around the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Datta puts forth Kaustabh Deka’s point that the Northeast is “a geopolitical and a geo-cultural unit that requires micro-adjustments to India’s macro-projections”. Datta reaffirms that there is no substitute to “good governance” to ensure stability on ground situations for a successful and futuristic planning of national and international state policies.
The fifth chapter elaborately deals with the growing cross-border linkages through NER and gauges connectivity concerns through the borderlands with closer attention to working on meaningful development of the Northeast as the gateway to Southeast Asia. The sixth chapter details the significance of borders and on transforming the border economy with special reference to the NER, and aptly opens the chapter with a quote by PM Narendra Modi, that says, “Our vision is of Act East and Act Fast.” Arguing that borders and nation-states have an intrinsic relationship that mirrors the nature and function of each other, Datta leverages the need to understanding borderlands for a productive engagement with its neighbours for this vision to act East and to act fast. Giving a detailed account of India’s border trade with Bangladesh and Myanmar, Datta proposes a check and balance on the challenges posed in the operationalities of the policies in the ground situation and reaping the full potential of a creative economy for the border community, including initiatives such as the border haats. This according to her, will encourage the strengthening of indigenous economy and multiple voices inherent in the region towards the achieving of greater heights in sustainable goals and inclusive growth through governmental projects and schemes.
Overall, Datta examines the Look East Policy (LEP/AEP) as a part of the larger concern of India’s pursuance to elevate its multidimensional role in increasing engagements at the regional, bilateral and multilateral levels, and especially in its relations with East Asia. Datta restates that a bottom-top approach is far more crucial than a top-down approach in making further enhancements in AEP through the Northeast. Furthermore, efforts and actions on connectivity and other localised or inherent concerns must continue. The book provides a comprehensive study of the stages of Indian’s connectivity vision entailed in AEP through governmental projects and schemes in the Northeast. The book is a stepping stone to understanding foreign policy issues and advances in India’s international relations, especially as India keenly makes engagements in economy with its neighbours both in South Asia and South East Asia, makes greater impact on newfound interests in regionalism or sub-regionalism in and around its neighbours, or in relation to recent global developments, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Richly detailed and resourceful, the book is a destination for anyone researching or looking for answers to the query: “How is the Act East Policy panning out for the NER?”
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE and is a Research Scholar at Manipal Institute of Communication, MAHE, Manipal.