The Northeastern states of India account for almost 10 per cent of the country’s geographical area but with just about 4 per cent of national population, the region has a comparatively low population density. It is also blessed with an abundance of natural resources and has adequate availability of water. Despite the above, political and ethnic conflicts have led to chronic underdevelopment especially in the field of education, health care, communications and energy with many areas lacking the most basic amenities of life. This has further fuelled the feelings of neglect and contributed to increased instability and volatility.
Manipur which should have been the Manchester of India is plagued by six decade old insurgency. Industrialisation is still a distant dream and lack of job opportunities has forced many a youth to fall prey to terrorist organisations. Extortion, drug trafficking, illegal logging and cross border smuggling from electronic goods to weapons appear to be the main source of livelihood and political bandhs, economic blockades and kidnapping for ransom the new way of life. In the above milieu, the voice of the people has been subdued and it is the terrorist outfits and various frontal organisations having self-serving agendas that are calling the shots. Grey territories across international border continue to be safe havens for terror organisations and this in large measure contributes to keeping the insurgency alive.
Land linkages from the Northeast to two ASEAN states can if exploited contribute to changing the face of the entire region. Policies of drift and neglect now need to give way to cooperative ventures between India’s Northeastern states and ASEAN which is energy surplus. A step towards change could lie in removing economic disparities and creating new opportunities for employment among the burgeoning youth. The people want to liberate themselves from the clutches of the nexus of terror and political vendetta but have not been able to do so since there is no way to go. Constructive engagement is therefore the key to make the state self-reliant and economically sustainable.
Manipur an Energy Corridor
Manipur borders the oil and natural gas rich Myanmar which has estimated hydrocarbon reserves of2.5 trillion cubic meters (TCM) of natural gas and 3.5 billion barrels of crude oil. It could thus become the natural energy corridor for India through which prosperity to the Northeastern Region in general and Manipur in particular could flow. India is in negotiation with Myanmar for import of natural gas through Bangladesh. But why should this energy not flow through Manipur? By 2013, China will import 400 million cubic feet of gas a day from Myanmar’s off shore fields. India as of now is still at the negotiation stage of an oil and gas pipe line through Bangladesh which will always be hostage to the prevailing political situation in that country. We need to rethink our strategy and route the pipeline to Manipur through the Imphal Valley; thereafter, further distribution could take place either by pipeline or in the form of liquid gas by having bottling plants located in Imphal. Part of the gas could be used to produce electricity to make up the needs of both Manipur and Nagaland, the requirement of the former being about 120 MW. Manipur can become a power surplus state, looking into the power needs of the entire Northeast. This would also facilitate the industrialisation of the state, leading to economic empowerment, creation of jobs and wealth. Imphal Valley can become an IT, sports and educational hub centre. Agriculture too will get a boost and from single cropping pattern the farmers can move to multiple cropping promoting potential for agri based industries in the state. It is ironic that inspite of high water table the farmers are unable to exploit this resource in the absence of electricity.
A natural gas bottling plant could concurrently come up in Thoubal in Manipur to supply natural and liquid gas to Nagaland and other states in the Northeast. The cost of a gas cylinder in Manipur currently is in the region of Rs 800 per cylinder and even at this rate it is not readily available to the people. A bottling plant with gas being supplied from Myanmar can get these costs down to a third of the prevailing rate. Lack of cooking gas has forced the local people to depend on firewood and in the process the country is losing its forest cover at greatenvironmental cost.
Bringing gas to Manipur is far easier than taking it across Bangladesh to Bengal. From Manipur, subsequent distribution is simply a matter of detail. Lack of energy and power is holding back the economic empowerment of people in Northeast India and a reversal of this trend will have positive economic and security outcomes for India. It will light up not only the houses but the lives of the people here. Manipur and other states of Northeast India need energy more than the rest of the country. Economic empowerment of Manipur is perhaps the way to go in seeking a solution to the decades of insurgency that has plagued this region. We can bring stability to the Northeast through the energy route and should proceed on this line as a viable policy option and alternative.
Trade and Transit Route
Imphal is also ideally suited to be the dry dock for import and export to and from Myanmar. At the moment it is connected with other states through NH 02 and NH 53. It is expected that by 2014 Manipur will be connected by rail making it ideal for trade. India can export consumer goods, heavy engineering machines, all types of vehicles, medicines and processed food items which are in great demand in Myanmar. Similarly India could import pulses, vegetables and oil seeds from Myanmar apart from natural gas and crude oil. Trade and transit will open up employment avenues on both sides of the international border. Another aspect which will get a boost is tourism. Youth will get engaged and large employment generation will take place even in agriculture sector. This will by itself dry up the availability of youth which could be recruited by militant organisations. The state will earn revenue and will be less dependent on the Centre for development and employment generation. It will also resolve two important issues of unemployment and terrorism.
India should move fast to import gas and oil from Myanmar before China and other South Asian nations corner major share of energy resources. Manipur can move from fragmentation to integration once industrialisation and educational institutes proliferate in Imphal valley and hill areas. This will halt the out flow of job seekers to other parts of the country and lead to Imphal becoming an important educational, industrial and agricultural hub. We have no time to waste. We need to act now.
The Author is a defence analyst
Views expressed are personal