Bricks & Bouquets for the Look East Policy in Northeast India

Back east!

Anybody would love to be a part of a powerful nation. It is human nature to locate our parts in a bigger whole. Nationhood and religion are some of the most common examples. If these parts find themselves in a condition where there are adjustments for space to accentuate growth and progress, there could be no better option. However in Northeast India, promises of the Look East Policy (LEP) have been creating a space for improvement in this region torn apart by armed movements, ethnic issues and multiple crises. The policy has offered some food for thought that invites as many bricks as the bouquets. The deliberations on Asian highways and transnational train services, as examples, are providing fresh hopes but these are just on the surface level.

The first exhaustive deliberation on the LEP with a fresh focus on the natives was initiated by the Centre of Alternative Discourse Manipur (CADM) in three editions of its theme-based quarterly journal, the Alternative Perspectives, which were published around 2006. Even today, the topic has only a few takers, mostly confined to the academic world. Most of the essence is lost in the overly formal tittle-tattle of academese. The background has not changed much but with each passing year, the onus is on us to live with it or without.


First thing first. In the post-liberalisation India, the Look East Policy had its origin in the early 90s in the aftermath of the breakup of Soviet Union and the ending of Cold War. Scholars have judged that India was on the wrong boat during the Cold War days by sailing with the Soviets that broke up for good, disregarding the mostly defunct roles and ambitions of the Non-Aligned Movement. Initiated in 1991–92, the LEP is a strategic foreign policy and a broad framework to integrate India’s economy with Southeast Asia, the region which burst into the economic global power scene during the 1990s. The fact that Pakistan and China started calling themselves a military strategic partner around the same time had prompted India to re-imagine its regional and economic aspirations, while the indispensability of finding new trade partners also left India with no choice but to come up with a newer approach or two. 

For insiders, a bulk of the emphasis was on challenging the Chinese supremacy in the region. A few years ago, a Chinese columnist posed whether India’s ‘Look East Policy’ means ‘Look to encircle China?’ (People’s Daily). Around the same time, India’s defense chiefs of staff chipped in, labelling China as a ‘long-term threat’ comparable to Pakistan. The covert antagonism between the two countries is going to last some decades, or at least until the disputes of territory over some portion of the states of Jammu & Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh are negotiated and solved. Nevertheless, certain objectives have also influenced the policy makers. For instance, they have seen Asia is the emerging market; besides, it is lauded that this century belongs to India and China and hence the enterprises of growth and progress. Opinion-makers have heralded the LEP—in their words, this policy has the potential to become a part of the global economy tripod after North American Free Trade Agreement and the European Union. 

The prospect of this Asian region, broadly included in the LEP, to become a manufacturing hub and a global service provider has shaped the foreign policy of several countries. Earlier, in addition to counter the Chinese supremacy, it was all about connecting with Southeast Asia and the plans to become a part of the literal 21st-century new world order, with no concern whatsoever for the natives, read the gullible Northeast people, despite the fact that this region—occupying the major route for India—is the centrepiece of the policy. The Thai’s equivalent, its Look West Policy also features the Northeast India nowhere in the first few years. This is not a surprise considering the apathy of the union government in every aspect of our life, which is quite evident in our lived experiences too. Even after a dozen of five-year plans, we have failed to make any breakthrough as far as growth and development are concerned. Experts have slammed this Indian outlook, categorically stating the union has been avoiding the harm’s way and pursuing a sinister plan to keep its borders and peripheral areas away from development.

Nevertheless, the rising population of middle class and affordable skilled workforce has reminded India to look for newer and greener pastures. Once again, the fight for regional supremacy demands a calculated integration of economies into the existing network. Besides, the lack of opportunities in the western front from arch-rival Pakistan to volatile West Asia has pushed India to the east.


A former External Affairs minister once remarked: ‘In the past, India’s engagement with much of Asia, including Southeast and East Asia, was built on an idealistic conception of Asian brotherhood, based on shared experiences of colonialism and of cultural ties. The rhythm of the region today is determined, however, as much by trade, investment and production as by history and culture. That is what motivates our decade-old Look East policy. Already, this region accounts for 45% of our external trade.’ (Global Policy Forum) This was a decade ago.
Speak aloud: Deception or development?

Recently, an expert shared the optimism in one of the many obscure discussions on the issue. He is of the view that India’s Look East Policy has moved from phase-one to phase-two by bringing in more issues and countries. He added India now needs to implement the next phase of the Look East Policy, which would introduce innovative and constructive elements in regional politics and be a boon for both India and the region. (Looking Northeast: A Foreign Policy Agenda for the New Government, by Sandip Kumar, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies)

In a conference on the issues and opportunities of the LEP with regards to the Northeast, it has been unanimously agreed that the new geopolitical imagination set off by the new policy thinking envisages a space that apparently refuses to be bound by the present geography of the Northeast as much as it promises to spread across the international borders to the countries of Southeast Asia through such frontline states as Myanmar and Bangladesh. The extended Northeast as being officially imagined now has therefore a mnemonic effect insofar as it offers a significant cue to the alternative modalities of imagining the Northeast. The Northeast is the bridge between two sub-regions of Asia: South Asia and Southeast Asia. Both regions are in the midst of tremendous positive change, spurred by economic growth and development. (From a background note of the Conference on North East in India’s Look East: Issues and Opportunities, IIT Guwahati)

Over the years, so many things have changed for good. India and China are evidently talking on a regular basis, except again in the occasional interruption by the territorial issues relating to Arunachal Pradesh and J&K. The amount of trade has increased manifold. Several organisations, such as Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC, with six member countries: India, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC, consisting of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal) have become more formidable in addition to the traditional ASEAN and SAARC.

Briefly, India has been able to reap the benefits, howsoever limited, as is envisaged in the Policy. The government has been able to maintain the strategic interests as much as the action plan has helped accentuate the multiple free trade agreements. The leaders had even redefined the rhetoric when late last year, PM Narendra Modi mentioned that India’s plan (is) to scale up its ‘Look East’ policy to an upgraded ‘Act East Policy.’

In 2013, the Indian ministry of external affairs listed some of the prominent features of LEP. (The Ministry of External Affairs). This includes:
(a) the phase of high speed with the advent of LEP version 3.0;
(b) economic synergy (India and ASEAN are now confident of scaling the India-ASEAN trade to $100 billion by 2015 and double that volume by 2022) ;
(c) the overt strategic depth (for instance in how India has taken a slew of steps to galvanise relations with this economically vibrant region);
(d) connectivity, which is the reigning mantra as India deepens its diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with its extended neighbourhood; and
(e) cultural affinity: what animates India’s engagement with the region are cultural and spiritual connections, grounded in history and a shared civilisational space.

Map from the website of the Ministry of Development of Northeast Region


In this context, it is worthwhile to see some other perspectives of development. The most outstanding is the Northeast Region Vision 2020. The goals and objectives are stated clearly but the problem is in implementing the lofty ideals. Before we go further, we can see some of the plans mentioned in the vision statement. It could be a lazy way of pinpointing some of the areas where the Northeast is lagging behind and as formalised by the policy makers and administrators. Besides, it shows how India has somehow changed its outlook and scope for the development plan. 

NER Vision 2020
(formulated by the Ministry of Development of Northeast Region)

(i) Empowerment of the people by maximising self-governance and participatory development through grass-root planning: Such planning will help to evolve development strategy based on the resources, needs and aspirations of the people

(ii) Rural development with a focus on improving agricultural productivity and the creation of non-farm avocations and employment

(iii) Development of sectors with comparative advantage agro-processing industries, modernisation and development of sericulture, investment in manufacturing units based on the resources available in the region, harnessing the large hydroelectric power generation potential and focus on developing services such as tourism that will help to accelerate development and create productive employment opportunities

(iv) Maximising self-governance, introduction of participatory planning, rural development and development of sectors with comparative advantage call for significant augmentation of capacity of the people and institutions both in the public and private sectors. Capacity development will have to address the issue of imparting skills among the people to enhance their productivity, generating a class of entrepreneurs within the region willing to take risks. They will also have to be provided with the necessary support through the creation and development of institutions at all levels to undertake planning

(v) Augmenting infrastructure, including rail, road, inland water and air transportation to facilitate a two-way movement of people and goods within the region and outside; communication networks including broadband and wireless connectivity; and harnessing of the vast power generation potential—all of which will open up markets for produce from the region, attract private investment, create greater employment opportunities and expand choices for people of the region. Making the Look East Policy meaningful for the region by connecting it with Southeast Asian markets. Connectivity of NER with ASEAN would require opening up the sea route through the Chittagong port and the land routes through Myanmar and China. In addition, opening up the land route through Bangladesh could enormously benefit both countries and diplomatic efforts should focus on improving relations with the neighbours

(vi) Ensuring adequate flow of resources for public investments in infrastructure, implementing a framework for private participation in augmenting infrastructure and creating an enabling environment for the flow of investments to harness the physical resources of the region for the welfare of the people.

The union government initiated the much-hyped NER Vision 2020 in 2008. This is a grand design for inclusive growth in this trouble-torn region. On paper, it looks promising from economic perspectives and shows the recognition of strategic importance of the Northeast with reference to the LEP. With these hopes in the backdrop, experts have hailed the catchword of culture, commerce and connectivity. Simultaneously the LEP stresses and acknowledges the most pressing issues of the region. One, the country especially the provinces in the region have close affinity to Southeast Asia. In fact, a state like Manipur shares its history and culture more with Myanmar than it does with India. Two, commerce or economic progress seems to be the only antidote to many chronic problems in the region; though in the same breath, it is notable that political will can equally make a huge difference. Three, geographical constraints and the lack of transport and communication facilities have always been a major hindrance that is driving back the region to underdevelopment.

One of the major caveats is in the highly underdeveloped infrastructure that only adds into the conundrum. It is still an open question, now, how much the policy and vision statements are going to engineer a socioeconomic and political change. For what it’s worth, development issues have always been from the prism of national interests and security perspectives. It is understandable in one sense because it is for collective good, but the approaches of the governments are highly controversial as evident from the issues related to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and others. This has unsurprisingly made a lot of room for scepticism.


Political observers have found some drawbacks on a broader level. They cite India is still nowhere near the prestigious Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. The nation is notorious for its inaction: the lack of policy and project implementation has negated the advantages expected from various foreign trade agreements and pacts. In recent past, India has been rebuked for being a paper elephant and for its inability to give a finishing touch to the Indian–ASEAN free trade agreements. It is also an open secret that India is lagging behind countries like China and Japan on several accounts. The observers maintain that the LEP is superficial and suffers from a myopic strategic vision. The New York Times concluded that ‘India, not unlike other rising powers, is often content to free ride on others, making it all the more eager to downplay its own capabilities.’ Besides, if we see that we have never been a part of the national imagination, there is little to look forward to in the near future.

In a report from the Ministry for Development of North Eastern Region, the Northeastern region covers 9% of India’s geographical area and contributes merely 3% to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In relative terms, it is one of India’s economically laggard regions. However, given its natural resources base and strategic location, the Northeast has the potential to become India’s ‘powerhouse’ in terms of trade and investment. Although the Northeast is rich in resources like hydrocarbons and other minerals, and has immense potential to produce hydroelectricity, absence of adequate infrastructure has impeded its development. (Expansion of North East India’s Trade and Investment with Bangladesh and Myanmar: An Assessment of the Opportunities and Constraints, DONER)

‘...the power deficit and lack of power infrastructure...ensure that many areas have no power for days on end. While many point fingers at the Centre, it is interesting to note that the seven states of the Northeast have the highest per capita investment by the Centre, averaging Rs 2,574.98 against an all-India average of Rs 683.94. And while a lion’s share of the state budgets is allocated for development, according to a Finance Commission report, the region has the lowest levels of infrastructure in the country.’ (Look East, but Through the Northeast, by Avalok Langer, Tehelka)

Image: Anonymous ART of Revolution
The problems run deeper into the spine of the natives in the Northeast. Apparently there has been a substantial return on investment for the state/union, however, it is just the opposite for the people. Without the absence of infrastructure, the apparent opposition to the Look East Policy from some corners is justifiable. Most of the provinces in this region had faced annihilation of the traditional economies during the British rule. That was when, for the first time in its history, the local primitive undertakings were put up with the machine-grinding and assembly-lined efficient economies, so to say, of the West. Some observers opine that this integration was one of the major factors for underdevelopment, while the further integration into the Indian economy was the final nail on the coffin.

We could only make haste at any cost but not necessarily to pick up the momentum, which is there for all of us to see: the redefining of failed states, fractured economies, extreme backwardness and what not. We are yet to recover from the onslaught, and in the present condition, the legacy is going to continue in severer ways. If not for the dismal infrastructure, we have a list of nighmares.

Two of the most worrying factors are related to demographic imbalance and environmental concerns. Besides, insurgency has always alleged to be a bottleneck to development plans by the establishment in a sort of offering antidote to the symptoms instead of diagnosing the disease and finding a cure**. The perpetual neglect of the union has left little room to be confident about any master plan for growth and progress. Above all one of the parasites eating into people’s brain is the issue of ethnicity. It is the chief source of our existential crisis, in addition to the army and the state have kept the people and resources under their boots. We can see more elements in detail:


Fear of being reduced to a mere transit point: The combination of dismal infrastructure, lack of transport facilities, multiple conflicts and an incompetent market is lethal: this has aggravated the factors many people are afraid of. What happens if the region is relegated to a mere transit point? Initiatives taken under the North East Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy (NEIIPP) and the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd (NEDFi) on paper do fill the vacuum, however as things stand in the Northeast, apathy and the lack of will—the capability of conscious choice and decision and intention or its lacking—have re-created cynicism all around.

On another level, India has been exporting to the Southeast Asian countries but the problem is that none of these export items are manufactured in the Northeast for reasons that are clear to us now. The sole implication is obvious from reducing this region into a mere transit point that will not only suck up the already deprived economy but also exploit the highly underutilised resources and capital of the region. And the only solution is to place this region at the forefront, not in ‘the’ frontier or the periphery as the condition has always been.    

Armed movements and a weak nation-building process: Development is not all about economic growth. As regards to the LEP, the progress has been measured in terms of increasing GDPs and FDIs, which further the deceptive national interests, while the factors and issues related to the people of this region take a backseat. The history of violence and armed conflicts only aggravate the situation. The Naga insurgency that has its genesis in the pre-independent period has been termed the longest running armed movement in the world, yet it still shows no end in the near future. In Manipur, armed conflicts have torn apart the social fabrics for the last six decades.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), armed conflicts ‘take place in the territory of a High Contracting Party between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organised armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations.’ Insurgency and economic growth are like oil and water. The union, regardless of its motives, intends to place growth over conflicts, articulating growth is the ultimate answer but the ground realities tell a different story. In a region overflowing with the ideals of ethno-nationalism, how is a union going to deliver when the militants have snatched the vacuum of power left in the course of its weak and apathetic nation-building process. (Coincidentally, this filling is no different from that of army’s involvement in civil administration in many parts of the region.) To finish the equation, the successive corrupt regimes are relentlessly adding insult to the injury.  

Demographic imbalance and the tragedy of ethnicity: Among the countless hindrances, ethnicity and race are the poles holding the political canopy. Subir Bhaumik, a noted journalist, asserts that ethnic groups who inhabit the various states of Northeast India, originally migrated from Southeast Asia or southwest China into where they now live in India’s Northeast. That pattern changed when the British started encouraging migration from the Indian mainland into the Northeast after their conquest of Assam in the 19th century. As the flow of migrants from west to east increased from the Indian mainland to what is now Northeast India— the contours of the contemporary ethnic conflicts began to emerge.

We have seen the consequences in present-day politics and in the issues that have snowballed into major crises. The Bodo conflicts in Assam, the agitation over Inner Line Permit systems in Manipur and elsewhere and the exodus of Bangladeshis into Tripura are some of the pointers indicating the fragile politics. In the background is the frustration of the natives over their identities and fear of extinction. Ethnic issues, armed movements and indifferent government are the perfect recipe for a disaster. Above all, a supposedly function LEP implies the coming of more outsiders, read the teeming mainland people in droves. It is highly probable that the issue will become a calamity.

One of the major problems in the region is its hostile terrain. Photo: Loktak Lake, by Roshan Laishram

Geographical constraints: Without a clear investment policy it will go worse as things have been always so. Amongst ourselves too we are cut off from each other. Bandhs and blockades are also as common as the hills and mountains are there in the region. Therefore, artificial and natural constraints on free flow of goods and people, formally labelled as landlocked-ness, have produced only disaster one after another. Sheer negligence and apathy that cannot change overnight are not helping either. The tragedy of this region is its inability to integrate in a global trading system while the prevailing conditions offer no options but to incorporate in it.

The inconvenient mode of transport results only in high transaction costs and reduced competitiveness (50% more in transportation and up to 60% lower volumes of trade, according to a study on landlocked countries by the World Bank). It is noteworthy that some arguments are against India here. For instance, firstly, the erstwhile kingdom of Manipur was in its own centre however its merger into India demoted it—while reducing it to a peripheral economy and a frontier province—but not before labelling it into a trivial part-C territory in 1949 and a little higher into a hierarchical order, offering statehood in 1972 which was already too late and too little. While the 1950s saw the emergence of ethnonationalism in the province, a full-fledged organisation was formed in 1964. Secondly, there are historical accounts of several trading centres, which is now confined to Moreh (Manipur) and Champhai (Mizoram). This indicates there are certainly alternatives and it depends only on the commitment of policy makers and plan executors.

The provincial government of Manipur had announced late last year that three more trade centres will be established in Behiyang (Churachandpur district), Tousumi (Ukhrul) and New Somtal (Chandel) along the Indo-Burma border—as usual with cent-percent assistance from New Delhi.   

A view from beyond the border: The Northeast shares an international border with Burma that extends to 1,643 kilometres. The region also shares its border with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Nepal. This is sheer ironical considering the 21-km Siliguri Corridor, or the infamous Chicken Neck, which links the region to mainland India. The problem is inherent from the most superficial levels on one hand. On the other, the progress of the Northeast depends a lot on the development of these neighbouring countries. However, even if experts have been stating that India needs a deeper engagement with Burma, it has not gone beyond the obvious. In a report on Indo-Burma relations, a writer mentioned that the Burmese military co-operation with the Indian Government in dealing with these (armed) groups (of the Northeast taking refuge in Burma) has been reportedly linked with an Indian government offer to supply a variety of military hardware such as tanks, aircraft, artillery guns, radar, small arms and advanced light helicopters. (Source: Arakkan River Network).

However any casual observer can tell how the rebels are operating in Burmese regions where the junta has no teeth to interfere. Despite India’s call for democracy, it cannot help but flow with the Burmese tide because of helplessness. The highly successful Chinese incursion into Burma is also making the Indian policy makers weak at the knees. Meanwhile, India and Burma are aiming to increase the bilateral trade, with a target of $3 billion by 2015. (Note: China’s foreign direct investment in Myanmar had reached $14 billion in June 2014). It seems to cover up the underlying mess but the realities are still pathetic. An expert claims that cooperation with (Burma) will help transform the Northeast, bolster its LEP, and help it emerge as a major Asian power. In addition, the ability to invest further will be a major step in countering the established Chinese threat. Yet the conditions have not been creating favourable platforms but more confusing areas of underdevelopment and hindrances than one can imagine. The two roadblocks in its frontier and the weakness of Burma should be a primary concern. Beyond Burma and Thailand, there are other seas of opportunities in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and elsewhere.


The union has always maintained that development should come first before peace—it has always reasoned that economic deprivation is the region is the cause of armed conflicts. However, it will need to take a step back and see that after decades of misery, think tank organisations have started recognising the problem is attributed to political issues as well. To quote Louis Althusser, the ultimate condition of production is the reproduction of the conditions of production. In another word, wthe ultimate condition of peace and development is the reproduction of the conditions of peace and development. The LEP, with its equal amount of bricks and bouquets, has offered a path. Only time can tell the result, but for now, there are a plenty of homework to do.

The proverbial existence of ways when there is a will is reflected in some of the prospective moves. For starters it is not a choice but the only way for India is to build stronger ties with countries that have marked their presence in Burma. A cursory glance tells that newcomers like Japan and Thailand are doing better dealing with the military junta. If we consider the healthy Indo-Japan relationship, just to take an example, the Japs own all the requirements to provide investment resources and capital, both in the Northeast and Burma as well as in connectivity assistance. Or for that matter, there are certain weaknesses in China that India can overpass: for a hint, the Chinese has a long history of socialist rule and rigid politico-economical measures. Or as the NYT commented, is India just content to free ride on others, making it all the more eager to downplay its own capabilities? 

For us, it takes no rocket science to see the mistakes are only partly ours: how we have been living in a heavily militarised and repressive state with the least room for flexibility. However, it does point to a collective blunder and this will only aggravate if we keep doing what we do best: ever decking up the room for silence on issues that affect us as a whole. Some of us are relief that we have hit the rock bottom and that the only available space is upwards. We only have reactionary, knee-jerk responses to ceaseless conflicts, from armed movements for the right to self-determination to gross sociocultural decadence. If there is a need for illustrating socioeconomic fragmentation and political deepshittedness, then we are just the perfect example. At the end of the day, all is political.

If we go by the records, unfortunately ever since the merger of the region, the ulterior motives of the union that are anti-people have always been a spoilsport, if not for its ubiquitous myopic handling of the countless issues that bog down this region with a heavy cost. 



* Nongpokthong literally means the eastern gate in Manipuri. There is a prophecy made a few centuries ago that the eastern gate will open one day, while the Nongchupthong, or the western gate, will be closed.

** Breaking News: The Union government will develop the Northeast in 10 years if insurgency comes to an end, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said here on Saturday (14 Feb 2015). He said insurgency remained a hurdle to restoration of peace and development of the region and appealed to the underground groups to shun violence. Mr. Singh and his deputy Kiren Rijiju were on a brief visit to Tripura to review the repatriation of Reang refugees stranded in Kanchanpur of north Tripura for the past 18 years. (The Hindu)

The union home minister has visited Manipur and Tripura. As expected the visit was marked with the rituals of shun-violence-open-development rhetoric.

  1. Look East Policy: The Ugly and the East
  2. The Areas Are Marked in Blood


  1. Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-east Policy, by Prakash Nanda, Lancer Publishers, 2003
  2. India and ASEAN: The Politics of India’s Look East Policy, by Frederic Grare; Amitabh Mattoo, Arabinda Acharya, Pacific Affairs, Vol 75, No 03, 2002
  3. Southeast Asia and the Rise of Chinese and Indian Naval Power: Between Rising Naval Powers, by Sam Bateman (Editor), Joshua Ho (Editor), Routledge Security in Asia Pacific, 2012
  4. The Look East Policy and Northeast India,  by Gorky Chakraborty and Asok Kumar Ray, Aakar Books, 2014
  5. A Neorealist Assessment of Indias Look East Policy, by Johanna Bötscher, GRIN Verlag, 2011



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