The northeast region comprising India’s eight northeastern States (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim) is undergoing dramatic change. It has overcome several (but not all) security challenges and is now heading toward economic development. Political changes have been helpful. So is the extensive web of linkages with neighbouring Bangladesh. Besides, Japan has emerged as a significant development partner for both India and Bangladesh.
The third India-Japan Intellectual Dialogue (April 11–12, 2023), hosted by the Asian Confluence (ASCON), in Agartala, Tripura, was an ideal opportunity to assess the evolving thinking of experts and policymakers. It showed that the current decade may produce path-breaking changes in the northeast, bringing the troika of Bangladesh, India and Japan closer.
One of the most important projects is the development of Matarbari Deep Sea Port (DSP) on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh. It is being constructed with Japanese assistance and is scheduled to be operational in 2027. A recent ASCON study envisages this port to be “a game changer”. To be optimally viable, the port will have to cater to the needs of Bangladesh and India’s northeast. The long-term vision is for Bangladesh and the northeast to become a hub and key industrial corridor of this region, serving a population of 220 million.
Hiroshi Suzuki, Japan’s Ambassador to India, emphasised at the conference that while increased connectivity of roads and railways is important, it is not enough without the creation of regional industrial value chains. Hence, rapid industrialisation in the sectors where the northeast enjoys competitive advantage assumes significance. This plan is sound because it ensures that the new connectivity links will be fully utilised and productive. Roads and ports must be accompanied by job opportunities that can come only from new industrial enterprises set up with national and foreign investment. A joint focus on comprehensive connectivity and accelerating industrialisation in Bangladesh and the northeast is likely to be a priority.
The northeast is blessed with vast natural resources. Its strategic location, sharing borders with Nepal, Bhutan, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar, is an asset. Creating value chains and manufacturing products should encompass diverse sectors such as agro-processing, man-made fibres, handicrafts, assembly of two-wheelers and perhaps mobile phones, and pharmaceuticals. The population, with its good education, already excels in the services sector drawing potential investor attention.
Of course, there are challenges that can be addressed by expanding policy convergence and taking people along. Also, Japan as a single investor in the northeast is unworkable. Indian companies too must invest. India must ease restrictions on the flow of investments from Bangladesh. The three governments should also forge closer linkages of economic cooperation.
An important argument was advanced by Bangladesh’s Shahriar Alam, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He stressed that Dhaka and New Delhi have succeeded in “almost restoring” the pre-1965 infrastructure connectivity between India and Bangladesh and are now going beyond it. But, Mr. Alam added, Bangladesh which has facilitated so much connectivity, now needs “reciprocity” from other countries (read: India) so that it is better connected with other neighbours (Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar). By facilitating it, India can assist Bangladesh in becoming an integral part of the Act East Policy.
Two additional points require consideration. First, when issues of regional cooperation and integration are discussed, scant attention seems to be paid to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which is self-defeating. This must change so that the grouping progresses towards its vision of establishing the Bay of Bengal Community (BOBC).
Second, the goal of connecting a large part of South Asia with Southeast Asia requires an astute pilot. This leadership can come from the triad of Bangladesh, India and Japan (BIJ). A BIJ Forum should be launched first at the level of Foreign Ministers, a move that will be welcome in the northeast.