NE Bandhs and ASEAN: Will we make it?

What do bandhs have in common with ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, that conglomerate of the energetic nations of SE Asia (although three are LDCs or Least Developed Countries – Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos)? Obviously bandhs and ASEAN don’t go together, although there are some from time to time and Thailand, of course, is disrupted by political agitations frequently. But, take a look around the other countries, there’s little disruption of their economic surge or commercial production by strikes.

I’m not saying that this is a good or bad thing. I’m merely intrigued by the gap in understanding among intellectuals, editors, scholars and politicians in India, especially its North-east, who are desperately pushing for connectivity to SE Asia, but are unable to say or do anything about the frequent bandhs which disrupt daily life and the economy in our region, called by students, political parties and even insurgents.

So the question is not as strange as it appears. There also a gap in credibility, apart from governance. I write this from Jorhat in Upper Assam, one of the main centres of tea production in the country, which has been shut down all day by a bandh called by journalists to protest an alleged threat to one of their own from the relative of a politician. There’s another bandh called by the All Assam Tea Tribes Students Association (AATTSA for short).

No businessman or women worth his or her salt will invest in a place where, in addition to the problems of delivery and security, you also have a constant worry that shipments, production and attendance of workers and staff will be disrupted by a sudden strike, however justified. These are the issues, which as much as anything else – and certainly not big talk — will make an impact on ASEAN visitors and shape the pace of our connectivity. It’s not good enough to hark back to the past but also to show, on the ground, that we have the will to ensure connectivity, not disrupt it.

Last week, the ASEAN show rolled into Delhi, and it was pretty formidable. Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, the ASEAN Secretary-General, and one of the most brilliant intellects of Asia, captured the audience with his powerful inaugural address (he’s a hard act to follow: External Affairs Minister SM Krishna spoke after him and, naturally, as is his wont, put everyone in the room to sleep).

Dr. Pitsuwan said that the NE was ‘naturally connected to South East Asia” and noted that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a seat from Assam. He was making a political statement – that the connectivity was important also because the country’s top political leader had a constituency there. That evening, the Thai Foreign Minister was even more elaborate: “The foreign ministers of ASEAN propose a trip by road to Myanmar by road and then to Assam,” so that they could understand the opportunities and challenges in traveling through this region. This is part of the “evolving architecture” of Asia, where road and rail connectivity will make travel from Vietnam to Turkey or any part of the world in between — including Central Asia and Russia – a reality. But a top engineer tells me that the new Assam highways are about six years behind schedule: i.e. we are completing 2005-06 roads this year!

The contradictions in our approach to South East Asia were visible at the ASEAN-India partner event in Delhi; not a single political leader from the North-east which is the only part of this country with a direct land and historical link with SE Asia, was there. Agatha Sangma, billed as the “youngest Minister” in the Council of Minister who is Minister for Rural Development, didn’t turn up at her session.

There is another aspect to the new interest in the North-east: it is seen as one of the last “undiscovered” jewels of the world which can be a huge travel destination. The protection of our environment and natural resources needs to be central to our planning and programme implementation. This has hardly found space in all the conferences, summits, seminars as well as the vision documents quoted so extensively.

Sanjoy Hazarika / North by North-east

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  • Photos from the field:

    image004.jpg image006.jpg The Centre for Security Analysis, Chennai and C-NES workshop on 26th/27th July 2010 in New Delhi on the Internal and External Impacts of Conflict in the NE. Home Secretary GK PIllai, IAS, who spoke on range of issues seen here at the workshop The river goes dry with little or no rainfall .