This international seminar, held on 5 and 6 October 2016 at the Mizoram University (MZU), Aizawl, was urgently needed since India’s “Look East Policy” had not benefited the North East Region (NER) of India. Analyses indicate that the new policy to “Act East” will only succeed if the north eastern states work out their own local solutions towards development, ensuring peoples’ ownership and active participation.
Report on International Seminar
Conducted and Conceived by
Research Centre for Eastern and North Eastern Regional Studies, Kolkata
In conjunction with
Mizoram University, Aizawl, Mizoram,
At Aizawl on 5 and 6 October 2016.
Government of Mizoram, Confederation of Indian Industry,
and the Numaligarh Refinery Limited.
The aim of the seminar was to examine the question of “Mizoram becoming India’s Overland Gateway to Southeast Asia,” and to recommend “What needs to be done?” to the central and state government, and to Mizo civil society. It was very well attended, with eminent participants including His Excellency, the Governor, Lt.-Gen. Nirbhay Sharma (Retired), PVSM, UYSM, AVSM,VSM; Minister of State, Ministry of External Affairs, General (Dr.) V K Singh (Retired), PVSM, AVSM, YSM, VSM; the Hon’ble Chief Minister, Shri Lal Thanhawla; Minister of State for Water Resources, Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, the Hon’ble Mr. Muhammad Nazrul Islam, MP, Birprotik ; Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, former Ambassador of Singapore to India and presently Director of Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore; Mr. Jitendra Chaudhury, Hon'ble MP and Chairman, Tripura Industrial Development Corporation, and other eminent participants.
IMPORTANT ISSUES AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The seminar strongly recommended Mizoram as India’s Overland Gateway to Southeast Asia. Further, if there is to be a start to India’s “Act East” policy, connectivity through Mizoram is the only functional option, as it provides the most peaceful and shortest route. Current connectivity, planned through Manipur, is unlikely to succeed due to the unrest in Manipur which will not be resolved in the foreseeable future. The central government would need to facilitate infrastructural and other development. Mizoram will need to interact more closely with Bangladesh and Myanmar, and the Indian north eastern state of Tripura.
Recommended Routing for Trans Asian Highway (AH1): The routing recommended is: Kolkata-Dacca-Agartala-Mamit-Aizawl-Champhai-Zowkhathar-Rhi (Myanmar)-Tiddim (Myanmar)-Kalewa (Myanmar)-Mandalay (Myanmar)-Yunnan (China)/ Yangon (Myanmar)/ Southeast Asia/East Asia, with a northern loop running through Gauhati-Shillong-Silchar-Aizawl on to AH1. The route recommended would use improved Indian, Bangladesh, and Myanmar National Highways (NH).
Kaladan Multi Modal Transportation Project: The project may take five years or more, as Myanmar is still to start road construction and dredging of the Kaladan River; there are political disturbances in Rakhine state (Myanmar); Mizoram is still to resolve issues of land acquisition for stretches of the new highway; there are still seven bridges to be constructed; also the simultaneous construction of hydroelectric projects on the Chhimtuipui River is posing technical problems. Sitwe, on completion of dredging, would at best be a coastal craft port. The plan requires transhipment from shipping onto coastal craft to Sitwe port; then onto Inland Water Transport (IWT) route to Paletwa (Myanmar); transhipment to trucks at Paletwa to Zorinpuii (Mizoram border); and breaking of bulk at Lawngtlai (Mizoram). As this is not cost-effective, it is recommended that the plan be modified by using heavy duty IWT from Kolkata/Bangladesh via Sitwe to Paletwa—this would reduce two transhipments. Further, all out efforts need to be made for Bangladesh to permit the North Eastern Region (NER) states to use the IWT route from Kolkata/Bangladesh to Ashuganj River Port (Bangladesh) and then to Agartala (Tripura)-Aizawl (Mizoram)/South Assam/Manipur.
National Highways (NH): Almost all NHs in the hills of the north eastern region are in a deplorably rundown condition due to heavy rains, extensive landslides, poor construction, and inadequacy of funds. In Mizoram, other than the World Bank funded NH 54 to Lunglei, all the NHs are in a rundown state. An increase in rates for road maintenance in the hill sectors has been recommended, as also assistance in resolving the problem.
Bangladesh China India Myanmar-Economic Corridor (BCIM EC): It was strongly felt that there should be no objection to the use of Chinese investments for the BCIM EC running the route Kolkata-Dacca-Agartala (Tripura)-Aizawl-Champhai-Zowkhathar-Rhi (Myanmar)-Tiddim-Kalewa-Mandalay (Myanmar)-Kunming. It would reduce the investment load on India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar and facilitate industrial development of Tripura, Mizoram, and South Assam.
BG Rail connectivity—currently operating through Gauhati-Lumding-Silchar-Bhairabi—is being extended to Sairang, near Aizawl. Extension is recommended to Agartala to link Akhaura (Bangladesh) and Ashuganj Port. Sairang should also be linked to Champhai-Tiddim (Myanmar)-Kalewa-Mandalay onto China or Southeast Asia.
Airports: Lengpui airport (Mizoram) should be made an international airport for tourist traffic, and exports of floriculture and horticulture. A second airport also needs to be constructed in South Mizoram.
RELATIONS WITH NEIGHBOURS
Though a Central subject, it is imperative that Mizoram, sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar, establishes good relations in order to facilitate connectivity and trade. Myanmar has not yet forgotten sanctuary given in Mizoram to rebel Chin National Army men. Myanmar also noted that Mizoram showed little sympathy for Buddhist Chakma refugees, fleeing the Bangladesh Army. Also, the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government in Myanmar has not forgotten the fact of Indian support to the State Peace and Development Council (SDPC) military government. Consequently, a lacklustre attitude is observed in Myanmar for developing connectivity towards the Indian NER. The Indian and Mizoram governments, therefore, need to make a concerted effort to improve relations with the NLD government and the Myanmar Army.
Mizoram “Opening Up” means an influx of non-Mizos to create infrastructure, set up factories and tourism. Cheap labour will have to be imported, the work culture will have to change, and workers will have to be encouraged to work on Sundays. Land reforms will be needed to facilitate acquisition for creation of infrastructure. Mizo society and culture would come under stress. If the political leaders, the Church, and the NGOs do not prepare the people for change, there would be discontentment and maybe even violence.
ASSETS OF MIZORAM THAT NEED TO BE EXPLOITED
TO FACILITATE MIZORAM “ACTING EAST”
Highly Literate People: Mizoram’s exceptional literacy of 92 per cent and the presence of a fair number of English speakers in the state must be exploited to develop its service sector (hotels, call centres, spas, restaurants, tourism, and so on). Mizoram must invest extensively in education and the service sector and make private investment in these sectors attractive. With its salubrious climate, it should be developed as an educational and service sector hub for the entire region. Attention needs to be paid to skills developing and language training.
Exploiting the Service and Tourism Sector: Mizos must intensify efforts in getting tourists to stay in their homes, cottages, and farms, and in developing ecological and adventure tourism, as well as golf and health tourism. Digital connectivity must be improved and the call centre industry must be developed rapidly. More emphasis must be placed on education in Information Technology, and the private sector should be invited to invest in this field. With the connectivity planned, there is need to create a large transportation service industry including motels, restaurants, medical services, vehicle parking, refuelling stations, vehicle repair shops, godowns, and cold storage services.
Availability of Land: With an asset of about 21,000 sq. km. of land, there is a tremendous scope in agriculture, horticulture, and floriculture. Tea production has started. Strong incentives need to be offered to draw investors into these fields. Mizoram would need to carry out major land reforms as most of the land is the property of the community.
Forests and Environment: Mizoram has 70 per cent forest cover, and the largest bamboo reserves in India. Unfortunately, a large amount has been harmed by slash and burn, or jhooming, cultivation. While the new land use policy has reduced jhooming, the practice still needs to be further regulated and controlled. Infrastructure projects have also laid vast areas bare and prone to landslides. The problem needs to be addressed immediately by carrying out extensive afforestation . It is strongly recommended that two Assam Regiment Ecological Territorial Army Battalions (one for South and another for North Mizoram) be raised immediately for afforestation work. Forest wealth must be judiciously exploited to set up plants to produce bamboo and wood ply, corrugated sheets, and brooms. The availability of medicinal plants should be exploited by pharmaceutical companies setting up factories to produce drugs.
Hydroelectricity: Mizoram has suitably located hydroelectricity potential much in excess of its requirements which needs to be exploited to generate power for Mizoram and for export of surplus to Bangladesh and Myanmar. While a number of hydroelectricity projects are under construction, the balance exploitable projects need to be executed.
Gas and Oil: Surveys indicate considerable natural gas deposits in South Mizoram. Exploration work has been extremely tardy, and needs to be resolved. There would also be a need to lay pipelines to evacuate the gas from the production sites to the required locations which may include Sitwe port. Oil deposits have also been reported in North Mizoram. Exploration here has also been slow and needs to be expedited.
Urbanisation: Mizoram is now excessively urbanised with uncontrolled construction. This has put tremendous pressure on the land and services, and has created disasters such as landslides and loss of life within the city. Action needs to be initiated to curb the urbanisation.
Entrepreneurship, Industry and Investment: While Mizoram has recorded a high economic growth, it has little or no industry or entrepreneurship. Incentives need to be given, and entrepreneurs trained. A new industrial and investment policy is required to attract both investment and industry. Sectors such as power, tea, agriculture, tourism, services, pharmaceutical, food processing, hotel, infrastructure creation, transportation, gas, oil, forest produce, and handicrafts offer such scope. There is a need to relax the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system (a travel document issued by the government of India to allow Indian citizens to travel to these areas) and to evolve a more workable work permit system, as there is an acute shortage of labour. New labour laws will also have to be enacted. A concerted effort needs to be made by the state to attract external investment in almost all the fields.
Medical facilities: Mizoram is ideally suited to be developed as a medical care and health tourism centre for the region. This would require creation of the necessary infrastructure and training of its people.
BORDER MANAGEMENT (BM) OF
THE BANGLADESH AND MYANMAR BORDERS
India needs to evolve its own model of BM to ensure a secure border that prevents the cross-border movement of insurgents, arms, drugs and smuggling and yet permits legal trade through soft border crossing points. The present trading arrangements are totally unsatisfactory; consequently, there is a tremendous quantum of illegal and unrecorded trade. This issue needs resolution. Border haats, or markets, have proved extremely successful. Creation of haats on the Bangladesh and Myanmar borders needs to be given impetus.
Setting up of Experts Committee: It is strongly recommended that the governments of India and Mizoram immediately set up a committee of experts to work out a time-bound ten-year plan, coupled with a financial analysis of what needs to be done, to make Mizoram India’s overland “Gateway to Southeast Asia,” and thereafter make concerted efforts to execute plans. Either the Prime Minister’s Office or the Ministry for the Development of North Eastern Region (DONER) needs to be the nodal central government agency to coordinate the activity of all the ministries in New Delhi to bring the Act East Policy through Mizoram to fruition.
The seminar concluded that “Mizoram must be developed as India’s Overland Gateway to Southeast Asia.” It presented a clear recommendation that for this goal to be attained, and for the Act East policy to succeed, a tremendous amount of work needed to be done by all stake holders, the central and state governments, civil society, and by the people of Mizoram to facilitate these objectives, the government must immediately convene a committee of experts to work out a time-bound ten-year plan in order to guide the government through a clear roadmap.
The international seminar welcomed the participation of experts from Mizoram, and subject experts from other parts of India. They discussed connectivity, industry, energy and power, trade and commerce, transit, value addition on primary goods, culture, ecology, border management and security, improvement of foreign and interstate relations, and soliciting of views, particularly of the youth, on the entire matter. The seminar assumed special significance in light of the recent efforts being made to “Act East” as directed by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.The international seminar, held on 5 and 6 October 2016 at the Mizoram University (MZU), Aizawl, was urgently needed since India’s “Look East Policy” has not really benefited the North East Region (NER). Analyses by experts indicate that the new policy of the prime minister of India to “Act East” will only succeed if the states of the NER work out their own local homegrown solutions towards development and towards “Acting East,” thereby ensuring peoples’ ownership and active participation. The aim of the international seminar was to examine the feasibility of “Mizoram becoming India’s Overland Gateway to Southeast Asia” and to recommend “What needs to be done?” so that this goal bears fruition, to the central and state governments and the Mizo civil society.
The event was very well attended by important personages in the government, the intelligentsia of Mizoram, professors, staff and students of the MZU, the media, representatives from the Indian Army, Assam Rifles, Border Security Force, Police, NGOs, the Church, business, oil industry and the CII. There were a number of very eminent speakers and participants, including His Excellency the Governor, Lt. Gen. Nirbhay Sharma (Retired),PVSM,UYSM, AVSM,VSM; General (Dr.) V.K. Singh (Retired), PVSM, AVSM,YSM,VSM, Minister of State, Ministry of External Affairs; the Hon’ble Chief Minister, Shri Lal Thanhawla; the Hon’ble Mr. Muhammad Nazrul Islam, MP, Birprotik, Minister of State for Water Resources, Government of Peoples Republic of Bangladesh; Ambassador Krishnan Srinivasan, former Foreign Secretary of India; Ambassador R. Mitter, former Ambassador of India to Bangladesh; Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, former Singapore Ambassador to India and presently Director of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, along with a five-member team from this reputed Singapore research institution; Mr. Zokey Ahad, Deputy High Commissioner of Bangladesh based in Kolkata; Mr. Jitendra Chaudhury, Hon'ble MP and Chairman, Tripura Industrial Development Corporation; Mr. Prasenjit R. Gupta, Deputy Consul General of the United States based in Kolkata; Mr. Dipankar Chatterji, former Chairman, North East Council, CII; Mr. Arvind Kumar, Distinguished Fellow, the Energy and Resources Institute and Senior Adviser, Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, New Delhi; Mr. Subir Bhaumik, former BBC Correspondent and author; Mr. A. Dasgupta, President, Independent Power Producers Association of India; Mr. S.C. Sethi, Chairman, SPML; Lt.-Gen. J.R. Mukherjee (Retired), former Chief of Staff Eastern Command and President, CENERS-K; Maj.-Gen. Arun Roye, AVSM, VSM (Retired), Executive Director, CENERS-K, and a host of other distinguished participants and scholars.
The seminar was conceived by CENERS-K, a premier think-tank based in Eastern India to provide a forum for research, discussion, and debate concerning development, and peace and security in the eastern hemisphere as a whole and the eastern and north-eastern states of India in particular.
IMPORTANT ISSUES THAT EMERGED AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Mizoram Recommended to be India’s Overland Gateway to Southeast Asia
From analysis of the “Act East” policy it is apparent that access routes to Myanmar, China, and Southeast Asia, from the NER run either through Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur, or Mizoram. Of these, the only state that is peaceful and likely to remain so is Mizoram. Thus, connectivity to Myanmar and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whether it is from the NER or from Bangladesh-Tripura, would in reality be best enacted through Mizoram, with communication linkages to it from the other NER states, and also because this is also the shortest route to the ASEAN countries from Kolkata. There should, in addition, be loops from the other NER states linking onto this corridor. Action, therefore, needs to be initiated to convince New Delhi, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and the neighbouring NER states of these realities. If there is to be a start to the “Act East” policy, connectivity through Mizoram is the only functional option for good reason: although the current connectivity planned is through Manipur, the Manipur problem is most unlikely be resolved in the foreseeable future. There would also be the issue of creation of value addition/levy of cess on goods that would be exported and imported through this economic corridor, and consequent infrastructural development is needed to facilitate Mizoram becoming the Gateway to Southeast Asia.
For this to happen, Mizoram will need to look much more outwards and also “Look West” in order to interact much more closely with Bangladesh and Tripura than has been the case in the past. Mizoram will also need the active support of Assam, Manipur, Tripura, and for that matter West Bengal, and may have to modify its policies in order to make this happen.
Consequent to detailed discussion there was unanimous, positive civil society consensus that Mizoram be developed as India’s Overland “Gateway to Southeast Asia.”
PHYSICAL CONNECTIVITY ISSUES TO BE ATTENDED TO ON PRIORITY
Recommended Routing for Trans Asian Highway (AH1): The shortest routing now recommended is: Kolkata-Dacca (Bangladesh)-Agartala (Tripura)-Mamit (Mizoram)-Aizawl (Mizoram)-Champhai (Mizoram)-Zowkhathar (Mizoram)-Rhi (Myanmar)-Tiddim (Myanmar)-Kalewa (Myanmar), linking to the Indian constructed Friendship Highway in North Myanmar to Mandalay (Myanmar) and then to Yunnan (China)/Yangon (Myanmar)/ Southeast Asia/East Asia. The route recommended above would utilise suitably improved Indian, Bangladesh, and Myanmar National Highways (NH).
This should also be considered to be the modified routing for the Trans Asian Highway (AH1), with a northern loop running through Gauhati-Shillong-Silchar-Aizawl onto AH1 and should be given the highest priority for development.
The Manipur loop from Silchar via Bishenpur-Imphal-Moreh-Tamu-Kalewa (that was the original routing planned for AH1) should also continue, but be activated fully only when the political and insurgency problems are resolved, as this would take quite some time. For the interim period, Imphal-Churachandpur-Aizawl NH needs to be activated as another loop to AH1.
Kaladan Multi Modal Transportation Project: After detailed discussions, it was assessed that the project would still take quite some time to take off (five years or more), as Myanmar is still to start road construction and dredging of the Kaladan River; there are also major political disturbances continuing in Rakhine state (Myanmar) which hamper construction; Mizoram is still to resolve issues of land acquisition for stretches of the highway linking Lawngtlai to the Myanmar border at Zorinpui; there are still seven bridges to be constructed; and the simultaneous construction of hydroelectric projects on the Chhimtuipui River (Mizo name for Kaladan River) is posing technical problems that may cause further delays.
The shallow water port at Sitwe, even after completion of dredging would at best be a coastal craft port. The existing plan is not cost-effective as it would demand transhipment from deep sea shipping off the coast onto coastal craft to Sitwe port; then transhipment to IWT for river transportation to Paletwa (Myanmar); then again transhipment to trucks at Paletwa to the land customs stations at Zorinpuii (Mizoram border); then breaking of bulk and further transhipment at Lawngtlai (Mizoram) for onward transportation. Also, in view of Rakhine state having major political disturbances, the use of this route may well be fraught with the same sort of problems that India faces with Manipur. Unofficial discussions with experts reveal that at the time of conception, the experts had argued that the plan was uneconomical. They were, however, shot down on grounds of so-called strategic necessity.
It is, therefore, strongly recommended that the above plan be modified by using primarily heavy duty IWT craft from Kolkata and Bangladesh via Sitwe to Paletwa, thereby reducing two transhipments. The route should be used primarily for oil and gas exploration (major gas reserves have been discovered in South Mizoram near Saiha in Mizoram), and for the evacuation of these resources by laying pipelines to Sitwe and further. It could also be used for tourism (as the area is beautiful and untouched); to supply goods to South Mizoram; by the forest and bamboo industry; or for strategic purposes, when cost is not the major criteria.
It is further recommended that all out efforts be made to convince Bangladesh to also allow Mizoram, Manipur/Nagaland and South Assam to use the heavy duty IWT route from Kolkata/Bangladesh to Ashuganj River Port (Bangladesh), and thence to by road/rail via Agartala (Tripura)-Aizawl (Mizoram)/South Assam, and onwards to their destination. This routing would be much shorter than the one via Sitwe, and is more cost-effective, as only one transhipment is involved.
State of NHs in the Entire NER including Mizoram
Almost all NHs in the hill and mountain sectors of the NER are in a deplorable condition due to heavy rains, particularly during the monsoon, extensive landslides, poor standard of construction and inadequacy of maintenance funds with the states. Unfortunately, the Indian Border Roads Organisation (BRO)-maintained roads are in fact in the worst shape. In Mizoram, other than the World Bank-funded NH 54 to Lunglei, all the NHs are in an atrocious state. They need to be refurbished on priority. The NHs in particularly bad condition in Mizoram are:
In addition, the BRO is delaying the handing over of NH6 (AH1) from Seling to Champhai. It was recommended to the state government that civil society take on the social responsibility of keeping the drains clear and the removal of undergrowth from the NHs in their particular sectors, thereby allowing the Public Works Department (PWD) more funds for repair of roads and landslide clearance which is fairly extensive. Further, a case should be taken up with the competent authority for increase in the rates for road maintenance in the hill sectors.
Bangladesh China India Myanmar-Economic Corridor (BCIM EC)
While from the security and strategic point of view, connectivity with Yunnan (China) through Arunachal, Nagaland, and Manipur was not recommended, it was strongly felt that there should be no objection to employing Chinese investment for the BCIM EC running through Kolkata-Dacca-Agartala (Tripura)-Aizawl (Mizoram)- Champhai-Zowkhathar (Mizoram)-Rhi (Myanmar)-Tiddim-Kalewa-Mandalay (Myanmar)-Kunming (Yunnan, China). It would reduce the investment load on India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The investment would also facilitate industrial development of Tripura, Mizoram and South Assam.
Broad gauge rail connectivity for Mizoram is currently through Gauhati- Lumding-Silchar (Assam)-Bhairabi (Mizoram foothills) and is being extended to Sairang (Mizoram) close to Aizawl. It needs to be extended to Agartala (Tripura) from where it could link onto Akhaura (Bangladesh) and thence to Ashuganj Port, from where goods for Mizoram could be pumped in from Kolkata and Bangladesh. This would be the shortest route to Aizawl and reduce cost of goods in Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, and South Assam tremendously.
The above railway network should also be extended from Sairang, alongside proposed alignment of AH1 to Champhai (Mizoram)-Tiddim (Myanmar)-Kalewa- Mandalay (Myanmar), thereby linking onto the Myanmar Railway network, from where it could run onto China or Southeast Asia.
The Lengpui Airport in Mizoram needs to be upgraded and converted into an international airport to facilitate tourist traffic and exports for local floriculture and horticulture industry, and other industries. A second airport is required to be constructed in South Mizoram. All major towns also need to be connected by a greater frequency of helicopter services.
RELATIONS WITH NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES AND STATES
TO FACILITATE PHYSICAL CONNECTIVITY AND TRADE
While foreign relations is a Central subject under the Indian Constitution, it is imperative that the regions and states that have extensive international borders develop and maintain good sub-regional relations with their neighbours. In the case of Mizoram, which is sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar, this is most essential. Mizoram needs to be proactive in this respect and should follow the example of Tripura which is almost surrounded by Bangladesh, and has developed excellent relations with Bangladesh, and as a result their connectivity to mainland India is now much better through Bangladesh. Mizoram needs to improve its relations and connectivity with both Bangladesh and Tripura so as to facilitate connectivity and trade with both Bangladesh and mainland India along the shortest possible routes.
While Mizoram enjoys the advantage of having the same ethnic groups located on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar border in the Chin Hills (Myanmar) and Mizo Hills (Mizoram, India), and while this should have facilitated better relations, this in reality is not necessarily so. The majority of Myanmarese is yet to forget the sanctuary given by India and the Mizos to the rebel Chin National Army (CNA) personnel against the Myanmar Army and government. Also, Myanmar, being predominantly Buddhist, has not forgotten that a Christian Mizoram did not sympathise with the Buddhist Chakma tribes, who were forced out of the Chittagong Hill Tracts by the Bangladesh Army operations against Chakma insurgents. There is also the issue of the new Myanmar NLD government not forgetting the fact of Indian support for, and dealings with, the earlier SDPC military government. Consequently, a studied, somewhat lacklustre attitude is observed in Myanmar developing connectivity towards the Indian NER and Mizoram. The Indian and Mizoram governments, therefore, need to make a concerted effort to improve relations with the NLD government and the Myanmar Army to facilitate India’s “Act East” policy.
Mizoram also needs to improve its relations with Assam, resolve its border dispute with them, and soften its border to facilitate movement to and from Assam, and trade and commerce in the area (Cachar District of Assam). Mizoram also needs to mend fences with the majority Meitei government in Manipur in order to ensure better treatment of Mizo ethnic groups in Churachandpur and Chandel Districts of Manipur.
NEED TO PSYCHOLOGICALLY CONDITION THE MIZOS
TO OPENING UP AND CONNECTIVITY TO “ACT EAST”
While there was a unanimously positive consensus to becoming the “Gateway to Southeast Asia” amongst the audience, this was easier said than done. Acting East and being a Gateway implies Mizoram’s “Opening Up” would require an influx of non-Mizos to create facilities, infrastructure, set up factories and develop tourism. As there is a shortage of cheap labour in Mizoram, cheaper labour will have to be imported from Manipur, Assam, Bangladesh (though cheap labour is now also difficult to come by in Bangladesh) and Myanmar. Work culture would need to change, more discipline would be needed.
“Act East” and being a Gateway means that there can be no totally closed holidays on Sundays as at present, as trade and movement of traffic must continue along with all support services, even on Sundays, a crucial condition that the Church and NGOs would have to accept. Land reforms would need to be implemented to facilitate acquisition of property for infrastructure creation. The existing Mizo society and culture would resultantly come under a fair degree of stress. If the political leaders and the NGOs do not prepare the people for the reform and change, there would be discontentment and maybe even violence. The government, NGOs such as the Young Mizo Association (YMA) and other civil society leaders all have a major role to play, hand in hand with each other in deciding “What Needs to be Done?” and, how and when it would be done, in conjunction with the people. If the psychological preparation is not done, the “Act East” policy would undoubtedly not succeed.
ASSETS OF MIZORAM THAT NEED TO BE EXPLOITED
TO FACILITATE MIZORAM “ACTING EAST”
Highly Literate People
The 2011 census assessed Mizoram’s population to be about 1.1 million, which should now be in the region of about 1.5 million, with about 92 per cent literacy and a fair number of English speaking people. The advantage is currently being exploited in the rest of India in the service sector (hotels, call centres, spas, restaurants, and tourism). Mizoram, with its highly organised and relatively disciplined civil society and the NGOs, needs to exploit this uniqueness to the optimum not only by investing heavily in education and the service sector but also by making investing in Mizoram attractive to the private sector. With its salubrious climate throughout the year, the big towns should be developed as educational and service sector hubs for the entire region, on the lines of Shillong and Darjeeling. This development would facilitate provision of educational facilities for northern Myanmar, Bangladesh, Tripura, Assam, and Manipur. A great deal of attention needs to be paid to skills developing and language training as there is need to increase and improve the number of English, Bengali, Hindi, and Myanmarese-speaking people in order to facilitate trade and business.
Exploiting the Service and Tourism Sector
While many more hotels will undoubtedly be required, Mizoram’s educated and relatively affluent population must intensify their efforts towards enticing tourists to stay in their homes, cottages, farms, and to participate in ecological and adventure tourism. Golf and health tourism also offer a lot of scope for development.
Digital connectivity must be improved dramatically and the call centre industry must be developed rapidly in Mizoram. Much more emphasis must be placed on education in information technology. The private sector should be invited to invest in these fields.
There is great scope in creating a large transportation service industry by proper planning and construction of the kind of connectivity suggested above. The new developments would include motels, restaurants, medical services, vehicle parking, refuelling stations, vehicle repair shops, godowns, and cold storage services.
Availability of Land
With a small population and an asset of about 21,000 sq. km. of land, there is tremendous scope for land-based productivity and exports in the fields of agriculture, horticulture and floriculture. It is encouraging that tea production has started. Unfortunately, the counter-insurgency operations-based grouping of villages has severely harmed Mizoram’s agricultural economy and has led to over-urbanisation in the state, with very few people now devoted to agriculture. The damage now needs to be undone by offering strong incentives for going back to farming, so as to grow more food and become self-sufficient in the production of basic commodities (Mizoram has to now import a large proportion of its food).
In order to accomplish the goals listed above, Mizoram would need to carry out major land reforms after psychologically attuning its civil society, as most of the land is the property of the community.
Forests and Environment
Mizoram theoretically has an asset of 70 per cent forest cover with a large proportion being bamboo forest, the largest bamboo reserves in India. Unfortunately, a large amount of the forest cover has been damaged by indiscriminate “jhooming” (slash and burn) and felling of trees. While the new land-use policy has reduced jhooming, it is still fairly extensive, and needs to be further regulated and controlled. Projects to construct roads, connectivity, and infrastructure have also laid vast areas bare and prone to landslides. The problem needs to be addressed immediately by carrying out extensive afforestation. To carry out afforestation work, it is strongly recommended that two Assam Regiment Ecological Territorial Army Battalions (one for South and another for North Mizoram) be raised immediately, with funding from the Ministry of Environment.
Forest wealth must be judiciously exploited, particularly for the bamboo, plywood, and medicinal plant-based industry. There is tremendous scope to set up bamboo and plywood processing plants to produce bamboo and wood ply, corrugated sheets, brooms, and paper which could then be used domestically and exported. Pharmaceutical companies should be approached to set up factories to produce drugs.
Mizoram has been assessed to be richly endowed with hydroelectricity potential, and it is suitably located for transmission purposes, much in excess of its requirements. The potential needs to be exploited to the maximum to facilitate provision of power to the entire state of Mizoram and export surplus power to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Export of power would bring income to facilitate investment in infrastructure which is so badly required. While a number of hydroelectricity projects are under construction, they need to be expedited and the other exploitable projects need to be executed.
Gas and Oil
Surveys indicate considerable natural gas deposits in South Mizoram in the vicinity of Saiha. Exploration work for exploitation has been extremely tardy: apparently the firms employed to do the exploration lacked the necessary technical and financial capabilities to do the job. The problem needs to be resolved on priority. Once the gas is under commercial production, Mizoram would gain from royalties and from export to Bangladesh and elsewhere. There would also be a need to lay pipelines to evacuate the gas from the production sites to the required locations, which may include Sitwe port.
Oil deposits have also been reported in North Mizoram in the vicinity of Kolosib. Exploration here has also been tardy, and exploration and commercial extraction need to be expedited.
Mizoram is now excessively urbanised, primarily Aizawl where the majority of the population resides. Totally uncontrolled construction has put tremendous pressure on the land and services and has created disasters such as landslides and loss of life within the city. Necessary action needs to be initiated to get people back into rural area and to spread out the urbanisation.
Entrepreneurship, Industry and Investment
Notwithstanding Mizoram’s fast economic growth in the past few years, it has little or no industry, or entrepreneurship. Incentives need to be given to resolve the problem by training entrepreneurs. The Hon’ble MoS, MEA, Gen. (Dr.) V K Singh must be taken up on his offer to train entrepreneurs at the institute in his constituency near Faridabad.
The CII has made a commitment to set up a “Skills Training Facility” at Aizawl, and the CII needs to give it the highest priority.
A new industrial and investment policy must be evolved to attract both investment and industry in lucrative areas such as power generation, tea, agriculture, tourism, services, pharmaceuticals, food processing, hotels, infrastructure creation, transportation, gas, oil, forest produce, and handicrafts. If Mizoram wishes to progress, it will have to relax its Inner Line Permit system and evolve a more realistic work permit system, as there is an acute shortage of cheap labour. New labour laws will also have to be enacted to facilitate the much needed development in order for Mizoram to flourish. The state needs to make a concerted effort to attract external investment in almost all economic fields.
Medical facilities, Health and Drugs
With its salubrious climate, Mizoram is ideally suited to develop itself as a medical care and health tourism centre for the region. To accomplish this goal, the state would need to create necessary infrastructure and train its people. In addition, much greater effort is required to stop drug and tobacco abuse in order to have a healthy and efficient working population.
BORDER MANAGEMENT OF THE BANGLADESH AND MYANMAR BORDERS
While several international border management models are available, India needs to evolve its own particular model to ensure a secure border that prevents the cross-border movement of insurgents, arms, drugs, and smuggling, and yet permits legal trade through soft border-crossing points. A resolution to the problem is needed as the present trading arrangements are totally unsatisfactory; consequently, there is a tremendous quantum of illegal and unrecorded trade.
Border haats have proved extremely successful on the Bengal, Assam, and Meghalaya borders. Creation of such haats on both the Bangladesh and Myanmar borders needs to be given impetus.
EXTERNAL ADVICE AND ASSISTANCE
Mizoram has done splendidly in the last 30 years since the Mizo Peace Accord brought peace and harmony back to Mizoram with a very high current rate of growth of gross domestic product. However, it now needs to develop rapidly and carry out extensive preparation to meet the challenges and competition that would inevitably be unleashed upon opening up to the world and becoming a gateway. Mizoram should not hesitate to learn from Tripura, other states of India, Singapore, China or Bangladesh. A tremendous amount of preparatory work is required to take on these challenges.
It is strongly recommended that the Government of India and the Government of Mizoram immediately set up a committee of experts to work out a time-bound, ten-year plan, coupled with a financial analysis of what needs to be done to make the NER the overland “Gateway to Southeast Asia.” If possible, the committee should be established conjointly (if not possible, it should be done by Mizoram separately). The committee should submit its report to the Government of Mizoram and the Government of India within three months. Either DONER or the Prime Minister’s Office needs to be the nodal central government agency to coordinate the activity of all the ministries in New Delhi to bring the “Act East” Policy, through Mizoram, to fruition.
The seminar succeeded in its endeavour by reaching the conclusion that “Mizoram must be developed as India’s overland Gateway to Southeast Asia.” It, however, also clearly emerged out of the discussions that for this to truly happen, and for the “Act East” policy to succeed, a tremendous amount of work needs to be done by all stake holders—the central and state governments, civil society and by the people of Mizoram. The convening of a committee of experts is essential to achieve this overarching goal.