E-Pao! Feature - Mani Shankar Aiyar on North East Indias

Mani Shankar Aiyar on North East India

By:- Rajkumar Sushan Singh *

'North-East is neither alienated nor neglected'
- Mani Shankar Aiyar

Regarding himself a very fortunate person for having an opportunity to visit the North-Eastern states of India during the last 20 years, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs, Panchayati Raj and the North-East, says, "I regard myself an unlucky person because the first 45 years of my life I hardly had any opportunity to visit the North-East, but during the last 20 years I have been given the opportunity of traveling very extensively in the North-East."

He speaks this on the occasion of releasing Manas National Park, a pictorial handbook, recently at Statesman house, New Delhi. The book is written by Sivasish Thakur and Dushyant Parasher.

Considering the North-East is a wonderful part of India and the world, Mani Shankar says that the Bio-diversity in the North-East region is among the highest in the world. Appreciating the beauty of nature and the weather, he adds, "North-East is a region of diverse typography. There is a variety of scenery that is difficult to comprehend into such a small area.

The total physical area of much of the inhabitants of this region is not more than that of Tamil Nadu. And its population is lower. So given the compact area it is really quite astonishing the abode of nature. Its greenery is difficult to find in other parts of the country. It rains a great deal there, which is what makes it so version. And at the same time the weather, in most part of the North-East, most of the year, is extremely pleasant."

Stating that the kind of disturbances to the environment due to demography is not happened in the North-East, Mani Shankar says, "The population in the North Eastern region is relatively little. The huge amount of the population is concentrated in the Bhramaputra and the Bharak valleys. So the hills and the mountains tend to be sparsely populated. Therefore, the kind of destruction, which demography reacts upon the environment is fortunately not yet provided in the North-East."

But, the sad fact is that in the developmental front, the North-East has not been progressed well. In connection with this Mani Shankar says, "The sad fact is that the progress of the North-East seriously denies the rest of the country. While the GDP of the country as a whole is growing at 9.2% per annum, the growth rate in the North-East as a whole is under 4." He also states that the population of the North-East is not more than 8% of the total population of the country and the per capita income level in the North-East are also below the all India average.

Mani Shankar Aiyar making some points during the gathering

In fact, there are many reasons why the North-East has been kept as underdeveloped and backwardness as compare to other states, despite India has celebrated its Independence of 60 years. So, it is high time the concerned authorities and all cross sections of the society need to think and acts positively to bring the North-East a prosperous and peaceful region.

According to Mani Shankar Aiyar, the part of the region or the relative backwardness of the North-East is due to lack of connectivity and trade relations with neighbouring countries. He says, "The part of the region or the relative backwardness of the North-East is that nearly 98% of the frontiers of the North-East constitute the international frontier of India and only 2% of the frontier of the North-East are connected with the rest of the country, what in journalistic language called 'Chicken Neck'.

Therefore, there has been great difficulty in accessing the North-East from the rest of India. This has certainly strangled the development in the North-East." He adds, "It has been further serious by the fact that the neighbouring countries by and large do not have trade relations with the North-East. Therefore, the economic life of the North-East tends to be bad."

Mentioning that the strangulation of economic life of the North-East is because of numerous divisions, the Minister states, "There are (North-East) numerous divisions, numerous tribes, numerous linguistic groups, numerous natural geographical frontiers, which have been drawn for political reasons, rather than ethnic or economic reason. And this has also contributed to strangulating the economic life of the North-East."

Over and above the question of backwardness, the more serious issues of the North-East people are the sense of alienation and neglect. In fact, these issues need to be looked closely to make them feel that they are the citizens of the country. But a good news is that, as oppose to the common perceptions, Mani Shankar feels that the North-East is neither alienated nor neglected.

He says, "It almost becomes standard that anybody from the North-East to make the outrageous claim that the people of the North-East are alienated from the rest of India.

Tragically, this is an expression of the mainstream Indian too. I feel that the alienation of the North-East is anymore or perhaps less than the alienation of Tamils." He adds, "Today in Indian Universities I have had a doubtful privilege of attending sports festival in which there are so many Manipuris and other North Easterners."

Mani Shankar Aiyar sharing from Manas National Park

Talking of the advantage of the North-East people in the hospitality industry, Mani Shankar says, "If you explore the hospitality industry of Delhi and many of the metros, there is a huge number of North Easterners who are the preferred employees of the hospitality industry because there is such a long tradition of hospitality in the North-East. So these five star hotels are now festooned with North Eastern people."

"Again down in the deep south whether in Chennai, Hyderabad or Bangalore you will see a large number of North Easterners, who are treated as part and parcel of the local resident population and they don't feel that they are alienated," states Mani Shankar Aiyar. So, he does not accept the argument that the North Easterners feel alienated.

In terms of culture and traditions, the North-East region has also been distinct because of diverse culture and traditions. The diversity in the region is so high that it has been considered as mini India. Praising the diversity in the region, Mani Shankar says, "It is a part of the diverse culture and the diversity in the North-East is so great and moving and is as great as the diversity in the rest of India put together.

So it is some sort of an artificial construct when we talk of the North-East. It not only has eight district states but within each state and particularly within the tribal of the states, there is a phenomenal ethnic variety, which is essential for us not only to preserve, but to salute them. In this circumstances I think to talk of alienation are groundless."

Equally to talk of neglect, which is the word that goes along with alienation, Mani Shankar feels that neglect of the North-East is simply untrue. He says, "It is still talk about that the North Easterners particularly love to describe themselves as neglected."

Defending that the North-East is no longer neglected from the Government side he clarifies that the Government is doing a wonderful job to bring the region a develop states. He says, "For the last five or six years we had a policy in India, which says, that 10% of the gross budgetary support of almost all Central Ministry has to spend in the North-East. When we consider of the total surface area of the North East, it is around 4% of India and their population is 8%. When we see that the Central Ministry to spend 10% of their gross budgetary support in the North-East, it reflects that there is no neglect. In fact, it amounts to affirmative positive action."

As a privilege to the North-East region the Minister says that any Ministry that fails to spend 10% of their gross budgetary in the given year to the North-East, one has to channel whatever money remains to the non-lapsable central corpus that is administered by the Finance Ministry. He adds that unspent money simply disappears for all the States of India, but for the North Eastern region until the last quota paisa is spent the money remain and this non-lapsable central fund of resources is like an untied fund which the Ministry sit and discuss with the North Eastern states on how to spend in their respective states.

On the work of the North Eastern Council, Mani Shankar Aiyar says, "We have North Eastern council, apart from promoting regional planning, whose job is to spend money on projects to increase the economic needs between more than one states of the North Eastern region."

The North-East has also been considered as the paradise unexplored. It has tremendous natural resources and human skills. It needs to be explored to bring the region in a roadmap of development. It requires all sorts of supports from all angles. In this connection, by highlighting the potential of the North-East, Mani Shankar asks the investors to invest in the North-East to take advantage for their bottom line. He says, "In the North-East, there are tremendous natural resources and human skills. And instead of laying your money at the bank account providing a pitiful interest, it is possible to invest in the North-East. And you will extremely rich from it."

Underlining the need of the hour is to support from all angles, the Minister says, "Without disturbing the inhabitants of wildlife or threatening their life, we need to push tourism. We need to produce the right kind of infrastructure in all parts of the North-East. This requires a very imaginative work.

We also need to bring in architect; we need to bring in investors, travel promoters, airlines and roads, etc." He adds that for that matter the present Government is plannning to spend 50,000 crore rupees in the North Eastern in the 11the plan. He also says that his only worry is that perhaps the North-East don't have the capacity to be able to use all this 50,000 crore rupees. Because of all these initiatives he again says that the North-East is no longer a neglect.

By highlighting that the highest airport density in the whole of India would be in the North-East if the present Government' plan is successful, Mani Shankar says, "Our plan is to surplus the present stay where North-East has 226 flights a week to the rest of India and that by having a network of approximately 592 internal flights within the North-East with two separate hubs - one for the Northern part of the North Eastern region in Guwahati and another for the Southern part in Agartala.

And once we to do that the highest airport density in the whole of India are in the North East." He also informs that presently in the North-East there are 11 operational airports. He adds that there would be another 17 airstrips, which are opening in the next 2 years into operational airstrips. "So we need to hotly deny that the North-East is neither neglected and alienated," he advocates.

It is also believed that the North-East is as insecurity as Kashmir. That is why people from other parts of the states are hesitating to visit and explore the beauty of the region. In fact, there are millions of Indian citizens, who do not know much about the North-East. Reacting against the common perceptions that the North-East is insecure, Mani Shankar says that the region is completely safe and secure.

He says, "What many people wonder about when they read newspaper is that there is highly insecurity in the North- East. But the fact of the matter is that the insecurity of the North-East is largely confined to the headlines of newspapers."

The Minister concludes his speech by reading some lines from page 31 of Manas National Park and also highly appreciated the photographs of the book.

* Rajkumar Sushan Singh, Delhi-based Journalist, working in a media house, contributes regularly to The Writer can be contacted at sushanrajkumar(at)yahoo(dot)com . This article was webcasted on July 14th, 2007

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