The Look East Policy (LEP), now renamed as the Act East Policy (AEP) by the NDA government was formulated by the then Narasimha Rao government in 1991.
The LEP was formally launched in 1992 with much fanfare. The aims and objects of the policy originally were to forge economic ties with the countries of Southeast Asia. AEP, the revised version of LEP, encompasses the entire Asia-Pacific region as its area of operation. It added strategic and cultural dimension, including the establishment of institutional mechanism for dialogue and cooperation, to develop the North East Region (NER) of India by building connectivity to the countries of Asean and Asia-Pacific through NER, which has been lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of development.
The new policy focusing on the Northeast excited the people of NER and they hoped that the jinx of underdevelopment would finally go from this region. This much-talked about LEP/AEP has completed 25 years this year. So, this is a good time to look back and examine how successful has been this ambitious policy implemented by successive regimes at the Centre.
Some of the major projects include Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport project, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway project, Rhi-Tiddim Road project and Border Haats.
The Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport project is meant for shipment of cargo from NER to Myanmar and vice versa. The project, which was scheduled to be completed by 2014 faced many hiccups, envisaged connecting the landlocked area of Northeast with the sea via Western Myanmar and open up trade routes to Southeast Asia. The completion of this ambitious project now seems to be uncertain.
The Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway will connect Moreh of Manipur with Mae Sot of Thailand via Myanmar. The 1,360-Km long highway is to be completed by 2019. However, as of now hardly 10 per cent of the work has been completed. The poor trade exchange between the South Asian countries can be attributed to non-existence of integrated regional transport network. Although India’s bilateral trade with Myanmar has improved, it is through the sea route only and thus it does not contribute to the development of the Northeast. On the other hand, the existing border trade, which is done through land routes, between India and Myanmar has decreased over the last two decades.
It is well-known that NER lost much of its connectivity and market access as a result of partition in 1947. Traditional transportation routes — rail, road and river — linking the Chittagong and Calcutta ports, suddenly became unavailable and alternative routes were prohibitively costly. The partition caused the extreme geo-political isolation of the Northeast, making this a sensitive border region and most-exposed territory.
Resultantly, insurgency has become a cottage industry in some parts of the region. Drug and illegal weapon trafficking through this part of the country has aggravated volatility of the region. India signed 22 treaties with Bangladesh and committed to give a $2-billion loan to the country during the Bangladesh visit of the Prime Minister of India in 2015.
Although the relation between India and Bangladesh has improved fast, the issue of providing road and rail connectivity to the Northeast through Bangladesh to rest of the country is still pending. Both the countries agreed to commence regular bus services from Guwahati to Dhaka via Shillong. But the matter remains stalled since the last two years.
An Air India flight from Guwahati to Bangkok started in 2003. However after a couple of years, it was stopped. Myanmar is the only gateway to Southeast Asia from India. However, there is no direct flight to Yangon or Mandalay from any city of India.
The road connectivity from Guwahati to Imphal, the capital of Manipur, is appalling. The only connectivity to Myanmar from India by road is Asian Highway No.1 (AH-1). Travelling from Imphal to Moreh (part of the AH-1) is an ordeal owing to the terrible road condition, scrupulous security checking and unexpected interruptions by the underground groups. It takes 4-6 hours to cover the 100-km distance. Without any good connectivity with Southeast Asia through Myanmar, the AEP is simply meaningless.
In reply to a question in Lok Sabha on December 23, 2015, Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen VK Singh (retd) said that the NER of India is a priority in NDA government’s AEP. The Minister stated that the policy provided an interface between NER and the Asean region. He explained that various plans at bilateral and regional levels included steady efforts to develop and strengthen connectivity of NER with the Asean region through trade, culture, people-to-people contacts and physical infrastructure like road, airport, telecommunication and power.
Since LEP/AEP was launched in 1992, the Congress has ruled at the Centre for 17 years and the BJP-led dispensation for eight years. However, the Northeast has remained the same or has become worse, amid high hopes. As far as development and improvement of connectivity in concerned, which is one of the major policy components of AEP/LEP, the Northeast has not gained anything during the past 25 years of launching of AEP/LEP.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)