Why this new book on India's northeast is a must read

Why this new book on India's northeast is a must read

The 13 chapters in the book flesh out the region’s problems with governance, and leadership, where corruption, negligence, apathy, and underdevelopment have long demanded meaningful attention and purposeful intervention from New Delhi.

Book review on 'A Resurgent Northeast' Book review on 'A Resurgent Northeast'

Where can you find the world’s “sweetest and juiciest orange”? Ask Ashish Kundra, for he has, he claims, tasted one in Dambuk – that quiet little town in Arunachal Pradesh known as the Orange Bowl. In his just-released A Resurgent Northeast, serving bureaucrat Ashish Kundra brings alive a no longer lesser-known part of India that’s nursing a deep and long wound: a wound of the past caused by isolation and accompanied by neglect so acute that only those who wear those shoes know of its brutal pain.

We can only understand the present and visualize the future of a people if we have an awareness of the tumultuous past that they have had to endure. Kundra sets the tone when he uses the past of each Northeastern state as a peg to weave his narrative of change and the future course of action in the region. And in doing so he not only shows empathy but also urges readers to be understanding when judging a people, they may see as “different” or perhaps even unwelcoming or distrustful of “outsiders. There are always legitimate reasons, a history, for why a group exudes a certain behaviour that might make the rest of us uncomfortable, if, of course, we are willing to be dispassionate. Kundra gives us that nudge when for instance, he reminds readers of the decades of repression that the Mizos in their now-peaceful state had to face at the hands of the Indian army during the peak of insurgency.

Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju (L), Bureaucrat Ashish Kundra (R)
Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju (L), Bureaucrat Ashish Kundra (R)

What stood out for me, a native of Manipur, in 'A Resurgent Northeast' was Kundra’s clear-eyed look at the region, a way of seeing that you can, perhaps, only have if you come from a completely different culture and are willing to embrace anything new and different. Kundra, a Punjabi from Chandigarh, was posted as a young bureaucrat in Mizoram in 2000 and it is then that he says, the idea of his book started taking shape.

The honesty, authority and passion with which he writes makes his work arguably the best book written by a bureaucrat posted in the Northeast, and it owes much of its appeal to Kundra’s ability to navigate, without bias, the political and cultural complexities of the region and to assess its strengths and weaknesses.

A Resurgent Northeast
A Resurgent Northeast

The 13 chapters in the book flesh out the region’s problems with governance, and leadership, where corruption, negligence, apathy, and underdevelopment have long demanded meaningful attention and purposeful intervention from New Delhi. In particular, he minces no words when it comes to the issue of corruption. He also provokes women of Northeast to reflect on their own status in the society. Where is her place in what appears to be a very ideal egalitarian society? What happens to women in Arunachal Pradesh particularly, when, in the garb of age-old practice like polygamy, their husbands bring home another woman?

Kundra is Northeast India’s well-wisher, which means he has not only studied the region’s problems minutely but has also put forth several implementable suggestions for the region’s progress – suggestions that a serious policymaker would be foolish to ignore. Take, for instance, his examination of the North Eastern Council (NEC) headquartered in Shillong. NEC came into being just a year after the Northeast Areas (Reorganisation)Act in 1971 where statehood was granted to Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura and the new Union Territories of Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram were carved out of Assam. Though the primary purpose of the council was the development of the region, the author rues that “unfortunately the NEC over the years became a venting forum for chief ministers and governors of the region, who present a laundry list of demands before the Central leadership in an annual ritualistic meeting.” He stresses the need to remodel the NEC by taking a leaf out of the successful transition of the erstwhile Planning Commission to Niti Ayog, now a policy think tank. He suggests an integrated market in the Northeast, with three regional hubs: Guwahati, Agartala and Imphal with integrated cold chains and warehouses. The NEC could take the lead in formulating a plan for such a market.

Kundra’s discussions throughout the book are based on his own experience in the region not just as a bureaucrat on duty but more so as someone who became a part of the people. His examination of the infrastructure development in the Northeast stems in large part from his travels (it took the author six arduous hours from Mizoram’s Siaha, a district headquarters along an 80 km road to Palak Dil or Swallowing Lake). He points to the Centre’s allocation of funds for rail, road and air connectivity projects in the region despite inter and intra-state connectivity in the region remaining abysmal.

Senior bureaucrat Ashish Kundra (L), Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu
Senior bureaucrat Ashish Kundra (L), Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu

“One of the major reasons for infrastructure projects not taking off in the Northeast in the past was the non-allocation of the Non-Lapsable Central Pool of Resource,” he says.

Why has generous resource allocation in the region not translated into tangible development? State governments end up creating posts way beyond their requirement, eating away at resources meant for development expenditure. Government contracts are doled out for petty construction works, overlooking execution ability and quality. Patronage, nepotism and corruption rule as the Centre turned a Nelson’s eye in the interest of “peace”, the author says. But indeed, not just for peace, but sadly for vote banks which the people of the Northeast are increasingly looked upon in the present context.

Kundra’s observations on infrastructure development must serve as a lesson for policymakers, as must his commentary on Governance where he decodes all the complexities of culture, identity etc and how they go on to influence administration and governance, and his discussion on trade, tourism and horticulture where he underlines the need for sustainable development and citizens’ consultation. He suggests the setting up of a Regional Foreign Trade authority to harmonise conflicting goods but then points out rather ruefully that there is no shortage of such bodies. Education and healthcare, in particular their shoddy state, are two other areas that Kundra weighs into. All of his discussions and critiques are backed by statistics and other information that are in the public domain, which is why this book makes for a great reference tool for those who are professionally interested in the region, in particular researchers and policymakers.

But more than anything, I was moved by the stories of his encounters with the ordinary, everyday folk for instance those he met at a local market in Aizawl or on a crowded ferry in Bogibeel Ghat in Dibrugarh. I took vicarious pleasure in his sketches of brave local entrepreneurs. They all felt like they were my stories.

The winds of change that’s sweeping across the Northeast is for real. More than 70 per cent of youth in the region are connected on social media. Kundra lyrically weaves a story of how the old is slowly being surpassed by the new, thus, making it seem like all roads now lead or points to the Northeast especially in the larger context when the region is pegged as a major growth engine in the country.

It is in that change that a new Northeast is born. But to imagine that India or the power that be, would try and make up for all the lost decades by dolling out rampant and mindless development funds, in my mind, would be a dangerous proposition as the author writes: “For then they run the risk of losing everything that makes them so special.”

Bureaucrats come and go - some squander away our assets and wealth in connivance with our very gatekeepers, some attempt to write but none from the heart nor with an intent as sincere as Kundra.