Unlock The Power Of The Northeast

Unlock The Power Of The Northeast | The Probe Podumentary

Why are some of the Northeast Indian states that are endowed with rich natural resources multidimensionally poor? Hear this latest episode of our Podumentary!

 

The United Nations Development Programme and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative released the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index report last month. According to the report, Meghalaya and Assam are some of the poorest states in India. The Niti Aayog’s Multidimensional Poverty Index report also puts Assam, Meghalaya, and some more Northeastern states on the poorest list. Why are some of the Northeast Indian states that are endowed with rich natural resources multidimensionally poor? Hear this Podumentary out!

Speakers: 

Dr Dibyajyoti Saikia
Human rights and Social activist 

 

Dundee C Khongsit
President, The Federation of Khasi Jaintia and Garo people (FKJGP)

 

Karma Paljor
Editor in Chief
East Mojo 

 

Prof Sanjoy Hazarika
Director, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia 

 

Suhas Chakma
Director, Rights & Risks Analysis Group 

Produced below are the abridged version of the transcripts of our Podumentary (audio documentary) titled: Unlock The Power Of The Northeast 

The United Nations Development Programme and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative released the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index report last month. According to the report, Meghalaya and Assam are some of the poorest states in India. The Niti Aayog’s Multidimensional Poverty Index report also puts Assam, Meghalaya, and some more Northeastern states on the poorest list.

Why are some of the Northeast Indian states that are endowed with rich natural resources multi-dimensionally poor? Karma Paljor, Editor in Chief of East Mojo, says that the tyranny of distance and insurgencies have taken a toll on India’s seven sister states.

“One of the main reasons, as some of the country’s top editors would put it, is the tyranny of distance and how far Northeast is located from the rest of India. So, due to that, the region was ignored by various governments that came into power one after another. So, there was very little development, as far as the building of roads and railway lines are concerned. The other reason, of course, was the kind of insurgencies we saw. In fact, at one time, it was known as the land of thousand insurgencies. Now, when you mean poverty, do we see people out of their homes? Do we see homelessness? Do we see people dying of hunger? No. We do not see that. It’s a tribal society. So, we take care of each other. But, we have huge malnutrition related problems because people, especially children, do not get the necessary nutrition. The second issue is the lack of basic healthcare in most remote regions. We do not even have doctors in many regions,” notes Karma.

While internal conflicts have hurt the Northeastern states, the annual flooding of the Brahmaputra river and corruption in implementing government schemes have all added to the woes of the people of the Northeast. Prof Sanjoy Hazarika, Director of Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, says the peculiar geographical condition and the remoteness of the Northeast make it very disconnected from the rest of India.

“A major internal conflict has gone on since the 1950s, first in Nagaland. Then in Mizoram, Manipur and then Assam and Tripura. To a much lesser degree in Meghalaya. So, this has been one of the biggest factors in the lack of growth. The second thing as far as Assam is concerned, there is a very peculiar geographical condition: Assam is a narrow state which largely lies in a valley. Most of it lies in a valley. The Brahmaputra valley, where the floodplains extend for many kilometres on either side of the river. As a result of annual floods, you have very few months in the year when you can actually do what is called development or infrastructure work because first, you are preparing for the flood. Then you are dealing with it. Then you are repairing the damages caused by the floods, erosion, and the widespread devastation that has occurred,” says Prof Sanjoy.

While Assam and Meghalaya are multidimensionally poor, a recent report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) stated that Tripura was on top of the joblessness list in the Northeast. According to Prof Sanjoy, the youth from the Northeastern states are migrating to the Metros looking for greener pastures because of poverty and unemployment.

Faced with insurgencies and dismal job prospects, the Northeastern youth today are not just moving out to other states looking for jobs but also moving to metros for education. Dundee C Khongsit, President of The Federation of Khasi Jaintia and Garo People, says the problem is so precarious that the states alone can’t stem the tide anymore.

“I am very sorry to say that it is almost seventy-five years since India celebrated its independence, and we have reached the stepping stone of fifty years of celebration since we got statehood, but our state has been neglected in every sector. As it is today, Meghalaya does not have its own university or an engineering college, medical college and so on. Our state needs much support from the central government, and the state government alone cannot achieve anything,” asserts Dundee.

The Northeast region has an unemployment rate much higher than the national average and contributed just 2.8% to the country’s GDP in 2019-2020. According to the 2020-2021 Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), Nagaland has an unemployment rate of 19.3 per cent.

The politics of NRC and CAA, the devastating impact of Covid-19 coupled with internal conflicts have all affected the economy of the Northeast, says Suhas Chakma, Director of Rights and Risks Analysis Group. “Assam and Meghalaya also are the two states in Northeast India which rely quite a lot on tourism, and during the Covid period, tourism was adversely affected, and apart from the tourism issue, prior to the start of the Covid19, Assam was affected by the politics of NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the entire state machinery was caught in that.”

Even though the seven sister states are endowed with rich natural resources, most of it is still untapped. But even when many states in the Northeast are multi-dimensionally poor, Suhas Chakma says not many people sleep hungry in the region.

Why has a region endowed with rich natural resources failed to participate in India’s growth story? Human rights and social activist Dr Dibyajyoti Saikia says perhaps India has failed the Northeast.

“The tea industry of Assam is one of the biggest Industries in the world. Here, we have thousands of small tea gardens. However, the cultivators are not getting the money they deserve, even after working hard. The green leaf buyers do not pay the actual money the tea cultivators and producers should be getting after putting in so much effort, time and money. The vegetable cultivators also get less money. The ones who make money are the agents or the middlemen. Further, there are several government taxes, due to which common people pay more money to buy vegetables, and the producers or the farmers do not earn anything.”

Most states in the region have hilly terrain, which makes road transport difficult. Poor connectivity is one of the largest impediments to the economic growth of the states. According to Dr Dibyajyoti, Northeastern states will show economic growth once indigenous industries are given an impetus, the private sector, which is sparsely distributed, is given a boost and farmers and cultivators are given a fair price for their produce.

“Firstly, the farmers should be getting subsidised farming equipment and quality seeds. They should also get all farming resources at low prices. Secondly, for the producers or the farmers who work in the field, the prices of their produce should be increased, not only here but also across India. I will give you an example, the price for ladies fingers that we pay here is 120 rupees per kilogram, but the producers only receive 20 to 22 rupees. See, this is a difference of 100 rupees. When the price is around 80 rupees, then these producers have to sell their produce for 18 rupees. Most of the money goes into transportation, government taxes, middlemen and agents. The common people buy the produce at high prices, and the poor farmers who work in the field receive less money. All these things should be taken care of. There are a lot of difficulties involved in tea production. A lot of labour work is involved in this process. If the cultivator only gets a margin of 1 to 2 rupees, then how will the cultivator move ahead?” asks Dr Dibyajyoti.

Northeast India not just has untapped economic reserves but rich human resources. Unlocking the power of the people of the Northeast could just be the way forward, says Karma Paljor. There is immense power in the indigenous communities. A growth of the entrepreneurship ecosystem, skilling up the youngsters, and a relentless focus on tapping the abundant natural resources – could just help the Northeast unlock its true potential.

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