Dialogue  January - March, 2006 , Volume 7  No. 3

Demystifying Northeast

Gulshan Sachdeva

 “Complex, mysterious, unique’’ the Northeastern region of India continue to be referred to in these terms in academic, media and policy circles. Indeed, the region’s history, geography, ethnic composition and culture have given it a distinctive character. And selective academic research on disparate subjects like tribal customs, community ownership, gender equations etc, have generated interest. Even the Central government deals with these states as “Special category States”. Global focus on environment, ethnicity, gender and human rights etc has helped some research in these areas. Otherwise rest of the story is filled up by anecdotes of retired and serving bureaucrats and journalists.
    Although, over the years, the region has undergone tremendous changes but certain stereotypes have remained. For most people in policy circles, media and academia, it still remains a tribal, neglected, backward, insurgency prone remote frontier. The time has come to question some myths surrounding the region. This will help create a meaningful ground for future policy making.
    The North eastern region comprising of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, covers around eight per cent of the country’s geographical area and four per cent of its population. Their combined contribution to the national economy is around two per cent. Recently, Sikkim has also been included in this grouping.

Tribal Region?

    Any discussion regarding the region starts with its tribal nature. It is almost unanimously accepted as a tribal region. Surprisingly, facts on the ground are totally different. According to 2001 census, only about one-forth of the population of the region is tribal ( table 1) . It is always emphasized that in the four States — Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh — tribals are in majority. But tribal majority in these states does not make the whole region tribal. Moreover in today’s northeast, tribals are not “head hunters”; on the contrary, a large number of them are educated and have adopted western dress and modes of living. It would be misleading to equate them with marginalized tribals in other parts of the country.

                                                        Table 1

                    Proportions of SC, ST Population in the North East, 2001

                    State                  Total                Scheduled          Proportion           Scheduled          Proportion 
                                      Population           Tribes (ST)             of ST                 Castes (SC)             of SC  
                                                                     Population          population           population          population


Pradesh           1,097,968         705,158                  64.2                   6,188                      0.6  
Assam             26,655,528      3,308,570                12.4            1,825,949                      6.9  
Manipur*        2,166,788        741,141                   34.2                60,037                       2.8  
Meghalaya      2,318,822        1,992,862                 85.9                11,139                       0.5  
Mizoram         888573              839,310                 94.5                     272                       0.0  
Nagaland        1,990,036          1,774,026               89.1                                              0.0  
Sikkim            540851              111,405                 20.6               27,165                        5.0
Tripura          3,199,203           993,426                   31.1               555,724                    17.4  
Northeast      38,857,769        10,465,898            26.93           2,486,474                       6.3  
All India     1,028,610,328      84,326,240               8.2         166,635,700                   16.2

                *   Excludes Mao-Maram, Paomata and Purul sub-divisions of Senapati district of Manipur  
                Source: http://www.censusindia.net/t_00_005.html  

    Since independence, Indian policy makers have been very sensitive to the tribal nature of the region. To protect their interests, policies of less interference with the cultural traditions and customs of the tribal people are being followed and additional political and administrative framework has been provided for the region. Under the sixth schedule of the Constitution, the concept of Autonomous District Councils has been applied. 1 The councils are responsible for looking after the social, economic and minor criminal and civil matters of the tribal people. More specifically these councils are empowered to make laws with respect to: a) Land; b) Forest; c) Water course; d) Shifting cultivation; e) Establishment of village and town and its administration; f) Appointment of, or succession to chiefs or headmen; g) Inheritance of property; e) Marriage and divorce and matters relating to any other social customs.  
    Restrictions have been imposed on the rights of people from other states/non-tribals to acquire landed property in these areas. The regulation of Inner Line Permit prohibits entry of outsiders into Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland without a permit, and debars a non-native to acquire any interest in land or the produce of land. Tribal belts and blocks have been constituted in the plains areas to prevent land alienation from tribals there.
    Earlier many scholars critically looked at this protective policy as they found that it had failed to stop alienation of tribal land.
2 Prof B K Roy Burman asserted that as a result of this policy, a process of “state or bureaucracy sponsored neo-feudalisation” was taking place in the region.3
    In recent years, this policy framework has been under attack from different reasons. Although tribal population constitute about one fourth of the population of the region, about two-thirds of the land is owned, controlled or managed by them.
4 As a result, the policy of protective discrimination for Scheduled Tribes in the region raises serious questions of justice, and equality for the non-tribal population.5 As Sanjib Baruah argues, this kind of policy “effectively compromises the constitutional right to free movement of Indian citizens”.6 Moreover, rigid barriers -which aim at restricting outside penetration –are contrary to the processes of contemporary globalization. In these circumstances, it would be more productive and useful if we start treating Northeastern economic problems in a normal way rather than in a “special tribal way”. First, the region is not a “tribal region” and secondly, “special solutions” have created more problems than solving it.             

 Neglected Region?

    Second myth about the region is about its neglect. It is often cited as one of the main reasons for discontent. There is obviously some neglect of the Northeast in Delhi politics and national media. There could also be some knowledge deficit. But most vocal writings and speeches regarding “neglect theory” often cite economic figures to show the neglect. Respected national institutions like the Planning Commission are of little help. In fact, some of its main publications have created more confusion. For example, the National Human Development Report7 uses poverty ratios of Assam for Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura. As a result, poverty ratio of States like Nagaland, Mizoram etc is shown very high, although other indicators like infant mortality ratios and consumption expenditure surveys of the National sample Survey Organistions tell a different story altogether. While using these kind of figures, many scholars have created theories of neglect and underdevelopment.  
 In the “mainstream” economic thinking on the Northeast, it is frequently suggested that to end this neglect, massive developmental assistance from the Central government is required, which in due course would also end discontent, insurgency and terrorism in the region. There could be some political or psychological neglect but the facts about devolution and transfers of resources from the Centre reveal entirely different story. Between 1990-91 and 2002-03, the region received about Rs 1,08,504 Crores. Assam received about Rs 43,000 Crores from the Centre. Arunachal and Manipur received about Rs 9,900 Crores and Rs 11,500 Crores respectively. Meghalaya received about Rs 9,000 Crores and Tripura’s share is about Rs 14,000 Crores. Similarly, figures for the same period for Nagaland and Mizoram are about Rs 12,000 Crores and 9,000 Crores respectively. These are gross figures. A portion of that money is also given back to the Central government as repayment on loans and interest payments. Still, the cumulative net devolution from the Centre to the North-East for the period between 1990-91 and 2002-03 is about Rs 92,000 Crores . Only grant portion to the region during these 13 years is about Rs 65,000 Crores. So the lack of development could not be because of shortage of funds. In fact, as economist and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh has recently argued that this kind of public expenditure has become very much part of the problem of the Northeast.

                   Table 2: Devolution & Transfer of Resources from the Centre to NER, 1990-91 to 2002-03

                                   1990-91   91-92     92-93    93-94    94-95    95-96    96-97     97-98    98-99     99-00      00-01      01-02      02-03     1990-2003



Gross Devolution      351       415.5       472.3      485.2     553.5      702.9       780.5       822.1        907         954.3     1049      1246.9     1172.6      9912.85

Net Devolution          329.2   385.8       452.9      459.8     543.8      675.9       748.1       782.9      859.4      899.4      985.48   1173.5     1095.6      9391.83


Gross Devolution     1955.9 1873.13 1874.2 2756.5  2512.1   3002.8      3211.5    3734      3522.4    4261.6     4047.2  4781.2    5541.5     43073.8

Net Devolution         1399.4   1256.8  1236.8  2046.8 1730.5   2298.5      2416.4    2789.3    2910      3076.4     3207.1   3679.6   4383.8    32431.32


Gross Devolution      413.8   430.8       494.3    604.5    541.2      641.9       768           919.5      981       1080.1      1198.3   1753.2    1648.7   11475.32

Net Devolution           388.6       393       418.7    513.6    575.7      613.4       714.3       804.8      849.6     1012           1063    1342.1    1274.8    9964.59


Gross Devolution       326.1  359.3       388.4   529.3    472.9      571.6      634.15      632.8     741.8       807.6        971.2    1177.6    1281.1     8893.79

Net Devolution           307.2   330.5      363.8    423.6   441.3      537.1      595.99      590.6     694.5       752.9       911.17     1109     1210.2     8267.75


Gross Devolution      355.3  380.3     400.2    487.3   519.1        607          644.3       700.8     726.5       951.4      1084.5     1096.4   1003.5    8956.62

Net Devolution          191.1   366.7     384       471.2   500.3      588.3        621.4         673       694.5       913.5      1046.7     1051.9    951.13   8453.85


Gross Devolution      446.07 509.88  659.09  712.5  596.44    754.9     835.33         955     1170.5     1245.7     1394         1569.9   1598.6  12447.78

Net Devolution          402.06   438.8    444.1   585.8    560.9    725.86     796.6      912.2       940.2      1140.7     1331         1402.9  1502.7   11183.83


Gross Devolution      519.5   551.8    592.8    614.3   709.6     883.8      987.8      1065.4    1260.4    1419.3    1499.5       1748.2    1892    13744.32

Net Devolution          477.98   506.2    540.6   563.2   656.1      833.9     932.7      1001.1    1183.3      1325      1392.1       1627.4  1756.7   12796.27

NER total

Gross Devolution      4367.7  4520.7  4881.3   6189.6  5904.8 7164.9 7861.6   8829.6   9309.6    10720      11244         13373  14138   108504.5

Net Devolution          3495.5  3677.8  3840.9     5064    5008.6  6272.9  6825.5 7553.9   8131.5     9119.9    9936.5        11386  12175   92489.44

Source; Author’s calculations based on Reserve Bank of India and CMIE data.

High Literacy?

    Third myth is about high literacy levels in the region. Although the region has done well due in education because of many socio-historical factors but the importance of literacy level should not be overemphasized. Despite some pockets of high literacy, the combined literacy rate in the region is 64.5 per cent which is below the national average. Even in the neighbouring West Bengal, the literary rate is 69.22 per cent. Low literacy rates in Arunachal, Assam and Meghalaya are responsible for this. According to 2001 census, 35 out of 72 districts of the region record literacy levels below national average.

                                Table 3 : Literacy Rates in the Northeast, 2001

                                         State                         Literacy Rate                                                              
                                        Arunachal Pradesh             54.74
                                        Assam                               64.28
                                        Manipur                             68.87
                                        Meghalaya                         63.31
                                        Mizoram                            88.49
                                        Nagaland                           67.11
                                        Sikkim                               69.68
                                        Tripura                               73.66
                                        Northeast                           64.48
                                        All India                             65.38

                            Source: Census of India 2001.

    Even high literacy rates in other districts are accompanied by low educational levels due to high dropout and low standards. Active student politics the culture of bandhs in the region have created havoc with the education system. There are enough teachers in the region but many of them are not trained. According to sixth NCERT survey only 45 per cent of total school teachers in the region are trained. The corresponding figure for the national level was about 87 per cent. The situation was particularly bad in Assam and Nagaland where only about 30 percent teachers at the secondary and higher secondary levels were trained. Latest figures from the Ministry of Human Resource Development also indicate that except Manipur, all the states in the region has high gross drop out rates at all stages. Even in a state like Mizoram, which has almost 90 per cent literacy, about 76 per cent students could not complete high school.

Table 4

Gross Drop-out rates in the Northeast for the Year 2002-03

                                State                   Classes I-IV     Classes I-VIII        Classes I-X                                   
                                Arunachal Pradesh     37.94                  58.01                  71.66
                                Assam                       61.17                  68.76                  74.91
                                Manipur                     25.60                  32.93                  60.54
                                Meghalaya                 56.51                  71.67                  80.93
                                Mizoram                    56.38                  58.31                  75.68
                                Nagaland                   51.80                  53.38                  77.47
                                Sikkim                       52.06                  69.66                  75.12
                                Tripura                       42.97                  65.19                  74.27

                              All India                     34.89                  52.79                  62.58

                Source:  Annual Report 2004-05, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, p. 262.

Labour Surplus Region?

    Another factor which has to be understood is that major parts of the region face labour scarcity. This is perhaps one of the main reasons for the failure of various labour intensive government schemes like animal husbandry, Jawahar Rozgar Yozana etc. Despite all the talk of outside invasion, labour ( both skilled and unskilled) is a big problem with the possible exception of Brahmaputra valley and Tripura. Already outside labour (mainly from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and other parts of India) is a crucial factor in both agricultural as well as non-agricultural activities. With any increase in economic activities, the problem of labour shortage is expected to be aggravated. Unless the Inner Line restricted areas are opened for outside labour, economic development is going to suffer. Or worse it would be an open invitation to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

Remote Frontier?

    Another standard argument is its disadvantageous geographical situation. This has been argued in writings as one of the main stumbling block for its economic development. This isolated, landlocked region shares less than 1 per cent of its borders with the rest of the country, and the rest with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China. For the most part this international border has been artificially created. The result has been the elimination of the region’s trade, commerce and other linkages which existed in the pre-partition days. Using the region’s two per cent perimeter as a major linkage point with the rest of India and at the same time checking the inflow of goods and people from across the remaining rest of 98-99 per cent has been a gigantic task.  
    In the last few years, there have serious discussions on converting this locational disadvantage into a boon because of an increasingly integrated world economy.
9 This is particularly so when all the States of the region are on international borders. In addition, these States are very close to the dynamic South-East and East Asian economies. Most policy makers in the region are excited and optimistic about the idea of linking their economies with dynamic Asia. There are even suggestions that if for security reasons the Government of India is reluctant to open up the natural trade routes, the North-East States should ask the Central government to compensate them for the loss of trade.10  
    It is imperative to develop a coherent policy thinking in this area. The reason being that there is not only a failure of the economic policy framework in the region but also a weakness of country’s foreign policy which had ignored Southeast Asia for a long time. As a result, the North-East region was not only cut off from its natural economic partners but also encircled by unfriendly countries.
    So far the major border trade activity of the region with Bangladesh and Myanmar is ‘unauthorised trade’. The State authorities are fully aware of these activities which function smoothly through unofficial channels. China is an important player in the border trade even though its trading activities are mainly through Myanmar. The major policy issue, therefore, would be to synchronise these realities into Indian trade policies. With a well thought-out long term policy, this region has the potential to emerge as a strategic base for domestic and foreign investors to tap the potential of contiguous markets of China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia as well as Malaysia, Indonesia and beyond.  
    However, there is a danger that the hype of linking Northeast with Southeast Asia becoming another myth if we do not prepare the region step by step. While keeping the long term goal in mind, at this point the emphasis should be on creating conditions, both at the policy level and at the ground level, on converting the unauthorised trade into authorised trade. This is not a simple task. The genuine trader will have many practical problems. The unauthorised trade works on the basis of a strong network which involves traders, police, forest departments and, of course, many underground groups and each has its own share in the pie. Apart from infrastructural problems at Moreh, the large number of checkposts on National High Ways 39 and 53 would a create problem in switching over from illegal to legal trade. In most cases, the State governments turn a blind eye to the border trade in illegal items because it creates a lot of economic activity in the region. But since these commodities are not declared legal officially, there is corruption at every turn. It would a good idea to declare certain areas in the region as free trade areas officially since for all practical purposes they are free trade areas anyway. After declaring certain areas as Free Trade Areas and creating a minimum infrastructure, the second major step would be to devise an aggressive strategy to form a Growth Triangle or Quadrangle involving neighbouring regions. But first of all the region should start producing globally competitive products. Otherwise the region would be a transit point of goods which may create further discontent.  
    In conclusion, the failure of economic strategy for the region is not because of any so-called economic neglect but because of inappropriate socio-economic policy framework, which has created an unbalanced economy and destroyed the basic institutions of market economy. There is no land market for two thirds land area which is under community or clan ownership. There are restrictions on labour movement due to inner line regulations in Arunachal, Nagaland and Mizoram. We need to demystify the region, create basis institutions of the market economy and start working towards linking it with dynamic Asian economies.


    1.  See Arvind K Sharma “ District Councils in the North-East” in T N Chaturvedi, ed., Fifty Years of Indian 
: Retrospect and Prospect. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Public Administration, 1998.
2.   B N Bordoloi,‘ Land Alienation Among Tribes of North-East India: Problems and Policies” IASSI Quarterly, Vol 12, 
           Nos. 3 & 4, 1994, pp. 17-48; M N Karna, “The Agrarian Scene”, Seminar, No 366, February 1990, pp 30-38. 
3.   B K Roy Burman, “ Land and Forest Rights”, Seminar, No. 336, pp.25-29. 
4.   For details see Gulshan Sachdeva, Economy of the North East, Policy, Present Conditions and Future Possibilities, 
           New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 2000. 
5.   Sanjib Baruah, “Protective Discrimination and Crisis of Citizenship in North-East India. “ Economic and Political 
           Weekly, April 26, 2003. 
6.   Sanjib Baruah, Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 
           2005, p. 51.   
7.   See table notes at pp. 164-166 and Technical Appendix page 133 in the National Human Development Report 2001, 
           New Delhi: Planning Commission, 2002. 
8.   Jairam Ramesh, “ Northeast India in New Asia”, Seminar, No. 550, June, 2005. 
9.   Latest in the discussion see Gateway to the East : A Symposium on Northeast India and the Look East Policy in a 
           special issue of Seminar, No. 550, June 2005. 
10.  Report of (Jayanta Madhab) Committee on Industry, Volume 1, Dispur; Government of Assam, 1996, p.6.

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