Issues that have impacted development in the Northeast region of India include extractive economy. Since the 1880s, oil and tea extraction from Assam continued with varying degree of profit making besides bringing perceptible negative impact in the economy of Assam. Literally, the Northeast has been a ‘Land Frontier’. With the changing economy, there has also been a shift in the traditional occupations of the people. The concentration of urbanisation and industrialisation in select pockets has also led to tremendous migration of people from the rural areas to the urban areas in search of livelihood. For instance, the people from rural Assam no longer remain traditional cultivators and have now began flocking to urban centres for all kinds of odd jobs. Poor peasants have moved in places of slightly better peasants who have moved out earlier. Along the way, government authorities have encouraged a very rapacious, primitive accumulation and militarisation.
These processes have not benefited the people in terms of general development as well as economic prosperity over the decades. A historical understanding to the issues can be achieved by pointing out the systematic appropriation of natural resources by the British colonial regime by the end of 19th century. Even for resources like tea or oil, the centre of transaction has always taken place outside the state. In the case of Assam tea, Kolkata, previously known as Calcutta emerged as the main trading and transaction centre with most tea companies establishing their offices there. This is true even for tea industry in the Darjeeling area in North Bengal hills. It may be mentioned that during the British regime, company branches in Assam never exercised their administration directly as these branches were run through the managing companies which was the subsidiary companies of the companies in London, United Kingdom. This trend continues till today with managing agencies learning the tactics of operation of plantation, business, credit, marketing and everything. In 1960s and 1970s, Indian business class took best advantage of the opportunities.
After giving a serious thought on the current development scenario and the livelihood of the people of the Northeast region, there is a felt need for innovative solutions to the issues. As one looks for innovations, there is a need to identify key obstacles like the assault on the local economy and the livelihood of people. So far, the scramble for economic benefits has been directed at natural resources. The way, the eastern corridors have been closed for the Northeast by the Government of India smacks of dormant hostility. What most policy makers have done so far is to replicate certain models applied in mainland India without properly assessing the locational advantage of the Northeast. It is here that the people of the Northeast need to search for a new and innovative approach to issues confronted by the people.
These issues now call for a great deal of imagination and management capability. The Northeastern States will need to grow faster if the region has to catch up with the rest of India in terms of per capita income and basic social indices even though it is a huge challenge.
Though states like Sikkim, Meghalaya and Nagaland have attracted many tourists due to their scenic beauty and unique ecosystem, except for Sikkim, the flow of tourists in the rest of Northeastern states are dismal. Given the richly endowed natural beauty of the region, there is a huge potential for eco-tourism in the region and these need to be tapped with adequate caution and planning. However, there are already anxieties over progressive degradation of Northeast’s unique ecosystem due to big-hydel power dams and spurt in wanton commercialism in big cities of the region.
Conservation of nature must remain an important objective. Displacement and submergence from dams in Tripura, uranium mining in Meghalaya, roads and other projects may be inevitable but this must be measured against projected benefits. The stakeholders should be able to convert the disadvantages into advantages so that any projects aimed at developing the region should be able to augment employment, income and revenue generation for substantial local benefits.