Development through Trade: Re-examining India’s Act East Policy and the Northeastern Region

By Thongkholal Haokip

in Rakhee Bhattacharya (ed.). Developmentalism as Strategy: Interrogating Post-colonial Narratives on India’s North East. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2019.

This chapter has laid down a critical alternative to understand ‘development through trade’ by relocating India’s Northeast in its highly debated Act East Policy. The Northeast which was ‘a meeting ground, a transit point and the southern trials of old trade routes’ became a frontier region for various ‘invading forces’; and was experimented by various post-colonial State initiatives, development packages and political measures to ‘reduce the frustration and schizophrenic alienation’ , which was created in the space. The chapter has argued that such state-led and bureaucracy managed ‘developmentalism’ created unintended consequences in the region with inherent red-tape, economic stagnation and nexus of corruption. By the 1990s, India’s open economic policy started to promote external trade with emphasis on immediate neighbours, and directed its Look East policy to connect with several East and Southeast Asian countries through its Northeast having cultural affinity with these neighbours. The State therefore shifted towards the strategy to cultural diplomacy for interdependent global and regional cooperation and to explore the potential of geo-economics of the Northeastern region as a ‘gateway’, and accordingly repositioned the space to ‘prepare’ for a conducive trade, investment and entrepreneural growth. Currently there has been another shift in policy strategy from cultural diplomacy to cultural economy with the renaming of ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’  in 2014, and the Northeast once again is at the centre with its historical roots to these neighbours. While raising concerns about such policy shifts on livelihood issues of individuals, the chapter has proposed long term policy for sustainable development of the region by exploring comparative advantage in trade and giving stimulus in local partnership and entrepreneurship through a convergence of State and market, which also needs to bring all elements of ‘resistance’ and ‘rebellions’ to a ‘settlement’ for sustainable peace at this periphery.

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