After nearly two decades of the new push in India’s South East Asia foreign policy, often referred to as “Look East Policy”, which created such a lot of optimism in the region when it was first spelled out, it has hardly left any substantive mark in the Northeast. Nobody can say 18 years is not a long enough time to see at least some visible evidence of its fruits. The question that beggars an answer for those of us in the region at this moment is, what happened? There are of course some developments which can be seen as preparatory measures, as for instance the ongoing construction of the super highway which would connect Silchar to the rest of the super highway network in the country, the upgrading of airports in the northeast, in particular the Guwahati, Imphal and Agartala airports. These airports now even have modern night landing facilities. If the extended deadline is not extended again, Imphal would be in the railway map of the country by 2014. The Silchar highway and the Imphal rail line, it is anybody’s guess, will not culminate either at Silchar or Imphal, but ultimately be extended to link up with the road communication network in South East Asia. Still, even as these preparations are being made, there ought to have been also some parallel activities that ensured the optimism of the policy did not die in the region.
A lot of initiatives however have been happening elsewhere as part of the Look East Policy. Free trade treaties have been signed, multilateral business and policy summits held in various capitals of South East Asian capitals where important decisions were taken etc. Indeed, statistics show a substantial increase in the trade volume between the ASEAN and India during the period. Most of these trades however have been happening by the sea route. The point is, in all these activities, either towards policy framing process or their execution, there has been very little involvement of the Northeast region and its minds. This is unfortunate, although the fault must be shared by the intelligentsia and political executives of the Northeast. They have been simply allowing this very important issue, which are predicted to come to have very important bearing on all of their lives ultimately, to pass by without paying much attention. The guilt must also be equally if not more, borne by our so called enlightened academia. What have they been doing as this very important caravan continues to pass by the region? They should have taken the lead in correcting perspectives.
This is not to say trade under the Look East Policy must be made to happen only through the Northeast. This will not be possible as like water, trade will also normally take the route of least resistance. It must be remembered traders are looking for profit and not philanthropic social service. Hence, the sea route normally would be preferred wherever feasible, as transportation cost as well as effort needed for transportation, is much less by sea. Perhaps this is an indication that the Look East Policy must have two components. One should concentrate on trade alone, and the other to the uplift of the Northeast region through studied opening up of suitable trade potentials. In the framing of the roadmap for the latter, it is vital that the intelligentsia and political establishment of the Northeast are made major partners. As for those in the Northeast who are sceptical about the Look East Policy per se, let them reassess the matter from the standpoint that this opening up is a process which cannot be halted, not only because it is being pushed as a policy, but precisely because it is a natural process as well. Since this is something which would happen with or without our participation, it is better we participate and be in the driver’s seat of the affair so that only the right windows and doors are opened, and those which should not be opened are left unopened. Traditional trade routes had become dislocated and shut on account of another geopolitical shift of political paradigm in the wake of the decolonisation process of a large part of Asia and the drawing of new national boundaries in the mid-Twentieth Century. Natural economic region thereby became fragmented and disjointed. The second proposed component of the Look East Policy designed to have a relevance to the Northeast is precisely about reopening and revitalising these ancient trade routes and economic spheres for the benefit of the region.