Reflections on political, social and economic developments in the lives of India and its peoples
Thursday, February 21, 2013
The problem in Northeast India that everyone knows, no one wants to talk about
This piece was written as an editorial for The Thumb Print, a web magazine on Northeast India, in October 2012. It was published in the November edition of the magazine. I am posting it now because I was reminded of it by the arrest of Nagaland Home Minister Imkong Imchen with Rs 1 crore in cash, guns, ammunition, and liquor, during election campaigning in the state Stories of corruption among the high and mighty have shaken India in recent weeks. Even the first family of India, the Gandhis, have not been spared, for once. However no news of that size and shape has emerged from the Northeast. If anyone is saying anything on this it has certainly not made a splash. It seems as though the only honest politicians and bureaucrats left in the country are in the pristine seven sister states. What a joke. It is popularly believed by all and sundry that pretty much the entire government machinery in every state is corrupt. There is bribery from the clerk to the minister level. In the past, when insurgency was at its peak, several ministers in the region were also reputed to be profiting from the extortion rackets run by militant groups. An investigation by the National Investigation Agency in Assam even proved complicity between senior officials and insurgents. Thousands of crores of rupees in development funds disappear into the ever open jaws of the state governments, which do little to justify their existence. The bureaucracies are bloated and there are seemingly three people for every task, but none of the tasks get done efficiently. Ministers whiz around in cars with red lights on top and bodyguards in tow, acting important. When they are not doing this they presumably occupy themselves by doing destructive politics and trying to pull each other down. Or fixing crooked deals. There is no outcry about this because everyone is part of the system. The contractors are of course profiting from it. The insurgent groups, who are often linked to contractors, also get their cuts. They take the money and thereby join the corrupt system. The bureaucrats, politicians, even security force personnel, from every state capital all the way to Delhi are already part of the system. The local media is in many cases owned by political interests, or dependent on them for advertisements and favours. They play along. Even local NGOs often get funding from the system. They are also compromised. The local youths are largely in the pay of one or another of these interests. If they are not, they have no power and no voice. So, no one says everything out loud, though everyone knows what is happening. Sometimes, rarely, some proof emerges in public. The Indian government doesn’t really need to bother about the money because most of it finds its way back into the Indian economy. In any case, Indian politicians are stealing thousands of crores from the public themselves, so it’s no difference to them. The Northeastern public mostly don’t pay tax so they don’t care either. It’s not their money. Yes, so they were supposed to get roads, bridges, schools, healthcare facilities and so on that never see light of day, but they are trained to believe whatever the neta of their ethnic group or tribe says. The neta, like the insurgent, always says only one thing: “It is Delhi’s fault”. If everything is Delhi’s fault, and the state governments are merely decorative, then they are a pointless drain on the economy. It would be far better and more productive to downsize them drastically and give the funds straight to people’s banks in cash. It would still be money for nothing, which everyone loves, and it would be more honest and direct. Why this charade of running offices for the benefit of local people? And don’t let it be said that it is outsiders who are to blame for all this. The outsider may have had some portion of the blame. But for years now it has been the local elites who are cheating their own people. It is the local elites who control governments and hold power. They’ve cried wolf about outsiders for decades but they are the biggest wolves in their own areas. They just dress in local sheep clothing. The region’s backwardness is not the fault of Bangladeshi rickshawallahs or Bihari chana wallahs, or even of Bengali clerks and schoolteachers. The blame for that lies squarely with the region’s rich and powerful leaders, including insurgents. They have had great power for decades. What of the responsibility that came with it? Have they fulfilled their responsibilities? The fact that a good chief minister can transform a state is being proved by Nitish Kumar in Bihar. Why has no CM in the Northeast done anything constructive? If the Northeast, or any part of India or South Asia for that matter, is to progress, it HAS to sort out the issues that plague development. As long as the wealth of the people is being looted by a corrupt elite (who divert attention by pointing to outsiders) the people will remain poor. They must understand that it is in their interest to have clean systems that work work efficiently. It will lead to development for all. The people must also be wary of obscurantist forces that impede development out of fear, just as they must be wary of capitalist forces that try to loot the region’s natural wealth. The world is racing ahead, with or without Northeast India. Even Myanmar, after all these years of being closed and backward, has started to race ahead now. The choice is simple. Join the race, or join the list of places that no one cares about until guns or bombs go off and people die. Think Afghanistan. Living in such places is hell on earth. Respect has to be earned. It cannot be gotten by beating up weak or poor people, or permanently going around with a begging bowl asking for money. There is no glory in that. If the Northeastern economy prospers, if there are fine institutions and great infrastructure in addition to its stupendous natural beauty and rich cultural mosaic, people will actually give Northeasterners respect. Now all they give it is a mix of curiosity and sympathy at best, and active denigration at worst. The only real respect for the region at present is for its musical and sporting talent, which are the only positive things to have come out of there in years. If you are a person who cares about your region, the first thing you need to do is look at it honestly. Don’t let false pride or insecurity prevent you from admitting the truths you know in your hearts to be true. No illness can be cured if the patient denies that he needs medicine. Our systems are sick. They need fixing.