India's Northeast is one of the last 'unglobalised' spaces in the world. That is due to change soon, and I've found myself unable to decide whether it is a good thing or not. The face of change we see now is not pretty. Development looks like felled trees and hills blasted to bits. It looks like naked brick and tin slum houses replacing the old 'Assam type' wood and bamboo ones. It is traffic snarls, and crowds, and plastic waste clogging mountain brooks.
But it is also other things, and I got a sense of this during a recent trip to the West Khasi Hills. We started from Shillong before seven in the morning. By 3.30 in the evening, we had still not reached the village, barely 120 kilometres away, that we meant to go to. There was no road to get there. The four-wheel jeep struggled along over a track cut in the hillside at about five kilometres an hour. We drove over one stream, and a few mini landslides, until we came to a place where the track had caved in completely. Nothing on wheels was going to get past that. We trekked a little further, until we came to another stream. Then we had to return because we couldn't have driven back on that road after dark. In those hills, in autumn, 6 pm is dark.
I spoke to a villager we met on the way there, at the last village we crossed.
"What do you do?"
"A little farming...and some charcoal business."
The trees around had all been felled, to be burnt to charcoal and sold for a few meager rupees.
"What happens if someone falls ill?"
"We carry the person on someone's back and walk to Wahkhaji. It takes one day. Then we stay the night there, and drive to Shillong the next day...if we can find a vehicle. Mostly the person dies on the way."
The man was happy a road is now being built. It's not much of a road, but it means a lot to him.
The people who want to open up this region will bring roads, electricity, telephone and mobile phone services, airports, rail lines, and all the other infrastructure they need to exploit the region's abundant natural resources. They will profit from it, certainly, but the thing is, so will the local people. It may start with outsiders and foreigners cornering all the plum deals, making all the money, while the poor local only gets the road and electricity. However, even that is better than what they have now. Moreover, the outsiders will slowly be displaced by locals over a period of time. That happened during colonialism, and even if we view this as no better, we must concede that we did gain much from being colonised.
The British are long gone but the infrastructure they built has stood us in good stead. The roads, railways, telegraph, telephone and radio were their contributions. So too were the ports. The administrative structure - ICS turned IAS - came to us from them. And much else too.
A lot of what they did was wrong, but barring Partition, I don't think any of those wrongs has had as much lasting impact as the 'rights' they did.