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North East - The Heart of Indian's Act East Policy

India's Act East Policy focusses on the extended neighbourhood in the Asia-Pacific region. The policy which was originally conceived as an economic initiative, has gained political, strategic and cultural dimensions including establishment of institutional mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation. India has upgraded its relations to strategic partnership with Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia, Singapore and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and forged close ties with all countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Further, apart from ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and East Asia Summit (EAS), India has also been actively engaged in regional fora such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Act East Policy has placed emphasis on India-ASEAN cooperation in our domestic agenda on infrastructure, manufacturing, trade, skills, urban renewal, smart cities, Make in India and other initiatives. Connectivity projects, cooperation in space, S&T and people-to-people exchanges could become a springboard for regional integration and prosperity.
The Objective of ''Act East Policy” is to promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop strategic relationship with countries in the Asia-Pacific region through continuous engagement at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels thereby providing enhanced connectivity to the States of North Eastern Region including Arunanchal Pradesh with other countries in our neighbourhood. The North East of India has been a priority in our Act East Policy (AEP). AEP provides an interface between North East India including the state of Arunachal Pradesh and the ASEAN region. Various plans at bilateral and regional levels include steady efforts to develop and strengthen connectivity of Northeast with the ASEAN region through trade, culture, people-to-people contacts and physical infrastructure (road, airport, telecommunication, power, etc.). Some of the major projects include Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, Rhi-Tiddim Road Project, Border Haats, etc. The ASEAN-India Plan of Action for the period 2016-20 has been adopted in August 2015 which identifies concrete initiatives and areas of cooperation along the three pillars of political-security, economic and sociocultural. India continues with stepped up efforts to forge closer partnership with concerned regional and Multilateral organisation such as ASEAN, ARF, EAS, BIMSTEC, ACD, MCG and IORA. On the Civilizational front, Buddhist and Hindu links could be energized to develop new contacts and connectivity between people. On Connectivity, special efforts are being made to develop a coherent strategy, particularly for linking ASEAN with our North East. Measures, including building transport infrastructure, encouraging airlines to enhance connectivity in the region, contacts between academic and cultural institutions are underway. Our economic engagement with ASEAN has been stepped up – regional integration and implementation of projects are priorities. The ASEAN-India Agreement on Trade in Service and Investments has entered into force for India and seven ASEAN countries from 1 July 2015. The ASEAN-India Trade Negotiating Committee has been tasked to undertake a review of the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement. India has also invited ASEAN member states to participate in the International Solar Alliance which it has co-launched with France on 30 November 2015 at COP-21. On strategic issues, we have increasing convergence on security interests with key partners both in bilateral and multilateral format. Closer cooperation in combating terrorism, collaborating for peace and stability in the region and promotion of maritime security based on international norms and laws are being pursued.

Historical Perspective

Before independence the North Eastern Region of India used to have multi-modal transportation networks (i.e. roadways, railways and riverine waterways) through the territories which are now Bangladesh and Myanmar to several ports [e.g. Chittagong, Sittwe and Yangon (then Rangoon)] as well as to what is now termed as Mainland India. Thanks to the enterprise of the British colonialists, trade from the region used to flourish; and in fact, tea and petroleum used to reach the Chittagong and Kolkata (then Calcutta) ports through the Brahmaputra-Padma-Meghna riverine waterway, as well as through railway lines passing through present-day Bangladesh. The then undivided Assam therefore used to be one of the richer provinces of the country, and had a per-capita income higher than the national average upto 1950. With the onset of freedom and the simultaneous partition exercise, along with the creation of Burma (Myanmar) as a separate country a decade prior to that; the age-old trade routes and transportation linkages of the region were suddenly snapped rendering it land-locked. As a matter of fact, security concerns prompted the gradual conversion of the 4500 odd kilometers length of international border that the region shares with no less than five countries of the subcontinent into a fortress-like formation. The artificial closure of the primeval trade routes and transportation links with and through the neighbouring countries of South and South East Asia, along with the trade and transport bottlenecks which thwarted the region from getting properly integrated into the economic system of the Mainland India, together resulted in economic stagnation of the region with serious consequences like social strife and insurgency. The response of the then Central Government was the imposition of further trade and travel restrictions – engendering a vicious cycle of psychological disconnect, sporadic violence and extortion, and skewed development in the region. The region thus came to be looked upon through the prism of internal security. The scenario of looking at the region from that angle underwent a paradigm shift in 2001 with the setting up of the Department of DONER, specifically for the development of the North East Region. Meanwhile, another policy shift of the Central Govt. occurred a decade earlier with the adoption in 1991 of the Look East Policy – whose basic objective was to take advantage of the physical proximity of the fast developing economies of East and South East Asia. Over the years, the efforts did fructify with India being accepted as one of the strategic partners of the ASEAN bloc. Yet the endeavour cannot be said to have been properly inclusive of North East India.