I grew up in a small town called Haflong in Dima Hasao District (formerly called North Cachar hills) in Assam, amid the regal Barail ranges. These mountains housed ethnically diverse peoples from the Dimasas and Jemes to the Hmars, Bengalis, Kukis and Nepalis. Haflong was a sleepy hollow, peaceful and tranquil, in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the later years were not kind to this small hill town. Armed insurgencies ravaged it and ethnic rivalry between the dominant community and the minorities created a feeling of distrust and fear mongering. The town has seen little real development since I left it in 1997, and appears caught in a time warp. The weakness of state institutions such as the autonomous district councils have not helped matters much either.
The old and the new
In order to take stock of how much has changed or remained the same in the last 20 years, and to see the visible impact of the Union government’s development and infrastructure schemes announced in the last few years for the region, I visited Assam and Meghalaya recently. I travelled from Guwahati to Kaziranga onto Majuli, the largest river island in the world. The road between Guwahati and Kaziranga has changed for the better, with smooth and wide surfaces, tranquil and lush green tea gardens and clean surroundings. Kaziranga itself has demonstrated entrepreneurial tourism with bamboo cottages for tourists and little use of plastic — an inherent thrust on eco-tourism. The resort was teeming with animals; we spotted Rhinos every few minutes, along with wild buffaloes, deer and elephants.
However, the road to Majuli from Kaziranga appeared as it was in the 1990s: potholed and damaged. Once we arrived at Nimati ghat near Jorhat to cross over to the island traversing the Brahmaputra, the ferries, overloaded with people and vehicles, felt arcane and dangerous. Cars and bikes precariously hung on to them. The ride up to the ferry from the ghat for the cars was extremely risky with some of them nearly toppling over onto the Brahmaputra. Majuli, the land of the ancient Asom Satra tradition, showed some signs of local entrepreneurship with Mishing community-type cottages for tourists and local handicrafts in display. Yet, these were not showcased in a manner that tourists would find easy to view.
What is therefore required is an efficient project with local handicrafts and weaving housed in the same building for wider impact. Local people told us that they are in favour of community tourism — where outsiders come to Majuli and stay with a community in order to absorb better the local traditions and warm hospitality. However, the first step to make this aspiration a possibility is to build an inland river ferry service that is safe, ghats that have bathrooms for travellers, clean surroundings and easy loading facilities. Very few tourists would dare to take the life-threatening ride across the Brahmaputra on rickety ferries; this is a great tourism revenue loss for Majuli.
From Majuli, we travelled back to Guwahati and then took to the hills of Meghalaya. This route was a pleasant surprise — the roads have been widened in this area and a part of the Asian Highway project, in fact Shillong itself, looked spruced up. Some foreign tourists I met on my way to Cherrapunji listed the things that made Meghalaya attractive: clean and frequent toilets in public spaces, attractive tourist sites such as the famous caves that are connected by paths, now beautified and made easy to traverse, and clean surroundings. However, the absence of good public bus connectivity was listed as one of the priorities for the State.
For long, India has discussed and debated the ‘Look East’, now called ‘Act East’, policy, as well as better road and rail connectivity that would boost tourism and investments in the Northeast. However, while the policy discusses what it would include as its goals — development, connectivity to Southeast Asia, more economic growth, etc — very few local people understand why it is important for them, or how it will improve their lives on a daily basis. And as Simon Sinek, in a thought-provoking Ted Talk on ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action’, reminds us, unless people understand why they do what they do, they will not accomplish much.
At this point of time, the ‘Act East’ policy appears to be driven by Delhi, and has perhaps not been able to inspire local people to the extent it should. There is enormous potential in Assam and Meghalaya for development. This is why there needs to be inspired imagination. We can imagine Moreh in Manipur becoming a border town with smart hubs for business buttressed by the concept of eco-tourism. This will generate local employment and attract visitors. Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland are immensely beautiful and people there have great potential, but they often bemoan the lack of opportunity and infrastructure. It is here that long-term vision and imagination are critically required; a state that can develop sound infrastructure and business will benefit its people. Community tourism can assist people who are in dire need of resources. However, this imagination has to be generated and supported by the States which are best equipped to understand local realities. To establish conditions for development and peace, we will have to start locally, today.
(Namrata Goswami is with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.)