Can The ‘Act East Policy’ Boost The Economy Of India’s Northeastern States?

Given the history of foreign policies functioning on the country’s border, there is a general tendency to view the borders more like barriers than entries of opportunity and prospect. As a result, the borders have remained stagnant and economic activities are limited to the central part of the country for years. With the growth and expansion of the economies, it is gradually accepted that cross-border economies need to participate and operate as a single market to realize the full impact of integration.

If we see the geographical location of India, it is strategically positioned in South Asia, which shares 98 per cent of India’s international border with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, and Nepal, which are at the heart of India’s international relations. And it goes without saying that the North East Region (NER) is the focal point for direct physical contact with all surrounded neighbouring countries.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and ASEAN heads of state and government. Presidential Communications Operations Office, Philippines, via Wikimedia Commons

Realising the capacity and the opportunity waiting on the doorstep of the country, a major policy regime is in operation as a part of the economic and strategic partnership with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), namely, ‘Act East Policy’ (AEP). This emphasises the importance of NER states in India’s foreign policy decision-making, and the initiation encourages the partner to engage and act with the northeast.

However, NER, considered remote and landlocked, stands to perform poorly in terms of its key economic indicators; the per capita GDP is much lower than the rest of the country. Moreover, the region suffers from a critical connecting link nationally and internationally and is clearly struggling with security issues, economic stagnation, to name a few. On the other hand, the northeast has the uniqueness in terms of social indicators; the region reflects the national average.

For instance, it has a sex ratio of 943 and an overall literacy rate of 74 per cent, which is quite similar to the figures of the country as a whole. Moreover, this is the region as a whole, consist of the 30th-largest region in population in the world and the 11th largest in India, bigger than Telangana and Odisha. In terms of geography, with 265,000 sq. Km of land area, it is bigger than the United Kingdom and stands the 4th largest in India—bigger than Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.

Therefore, the initiation of ‘Act East’ can be considered as an important milestone for northeast development through which this region can become highly valuable in the context of India’s foreign relations. The advantage of skilled (mostly English speaking) demographic dividend and the abundant availability of natural resources in the region is sufficient to perform as the ‘epitome’ of India’s Act East.

The region has a vast potential to emerge as a hub for education, health and tourism. An education sector boom would bring in considerable returns to the entire northeast economy—if the sector follows suit. Even the tourism sector has a vast potential and once popularised, can provide a great impetus to the regional economy. Similarly, establishing health facilities in the region can attract overseas patients from Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

A man rides his motorised two-wheeler across the Indo-Myanmar border bridge at the border town of Moreh, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Production networks with Bangladesh and Myanmar and the rest of India in agriculture, horticulture, processed food, etc. are other potential avenues to bring in dynamism to the economic sector of the northeast. The northeast states are expanding production networks in cement, processed food and horticulture with countries like Bangladesh. The same is expected with Myanmar with its is rich limestone reserves and cement production.

Northeast India is popular in handicrafts, tea, bamboo, spices, and processed food products. The prospects of NER in reaping benefits from increased trade and economic cooperation between India with Southeast and East Asia critically depend on the availability of products in the NER and their demand in the international market.

The main challenge of the NER is the connectivity, which faces a vast array of logistical handicaps. Of late, this has been taken care of by the government of India under the AEP. The government of India, along with Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Japanese government have started many infrastructural projects of which East-West Corridor, KMMTT (Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport), India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway may be mentioned.

Not only these, the government of India, under sub-regional cooperation initiatives like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal), has initiated various projects to improve the connectivity of the northeast with the eastern neighbours. All these are dedicated to improving connectivity with the mainland as well as with the neighbouring countries.

A recent study by Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), New Delhi, suggests that the completion of current and proposed infrastructural projects, like East-West Corridor (EWC) and other international projects could herald greater economic growth for the connected region and increase its geopolitical importance. The estimation of EWC itself will increase freight volumes by up to 90 per cent in the Indian states that ports, etc., are part of the corridor expected to provide cost-effective and efficient logistical services to promote trade and development.

In addition to road connectivity, railway connectivity has also improved. Most capitals of the NER states are being connected by rail network to major cities of the country. Agartala and Silchar now have a broad gauge railway line and are connected to Kolkata and Delhi along with the other parts of India (Ministry of Railways, Government of India). Agartala-Delhi Rajdhani Express has been launched on October 25, 2018, and is expected to be extended to Imphal and Bangladesh border by 2020 (Ministry of Railways, Government of India).

Recent developments in the railway system have given way to integration and connectivity in the northeast. Railway development has made positive impacts on common people, who are now well connected with the rest of India. Following the vision of the Prime Minister, various state governments have taken up projects to increase people-to-people connectivity. The UDAN scheme of the Civil Aviation ministry is enhancing intra-regional air connectivity.

The economic partnership with neighbouring countries has already started looking towards the east. The northeast has to move smartly to use it. The northeast region is no longer a ‘Gateway’ to the ASEAN under ‘Act East Policy’, it is a hub of geographic, demographic and natural diversity which is largely unexplored and available for use.

In this perspective, the outcomes of the state elections in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura assume significance since the supportive state governments with the centre could roll out the development schemes and infrastructure projects quickly, as has been the case with Assam. The ruling government and its alliance had already secured electoral victories in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur earlier.

Thereafter, NER’s integration with the mainland by providing infrastructure development and better connectivity is likely to offer enough opportunities for the holistic development of the region. The region has bountiful opportunities for investment in the development of various sectors mentioned above. NER is no longer the gateway of South East Asia; once investment picks up, with proper focus and investment, it can truly become the main epicentre for India’s ‘Act East Policy’.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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