Mukherjee in Arunachal: Of China and Other Matters

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, Doing Business with the Dragon’, Hindustan Times (New Delhi), 4 December 2013, p. 14.

Another high-level official visit to Arunachal from New Delhi and another protest from China. So what’s new, one might ask.

As President Pranab Mukherjee noted in his convocation address at the Rajiv Gandhi University in Arunachal, the state “is on the threshold of a major economic transformation.” This transformation has both domestic and international implications and the Sino-Indian contretemps around the President’s visit provides an opportunity to examine these in some detail.

From the domestic point of view, New Delhi which usually gives its minority-dominated, electorally insignificant Northeast states the short shrift, has some important reasons to pay special attention to Arunachal. While Arunachal does not have an indigenous ethnic insurgency movement – its Tirap and Changlang districts on the border with Myanmar are affected because of the presence of Naga insurgents – its domestic politics is becoming increasingly complicated due to the rapid economic and social changes that are underway in the state.

The economic transformation the President talked about has in large measure to do with the huge infrastructure development programmes – in the form of dams and roads – that are being introduced in the state. The focus really is on some mega-dams being proposed on the major rivers in state as well as the ambitious Trans-Arunachal Highway that will connect all the district capitals with each other.

However, some weeks ago, Arunachal Chief Minister Nabam Tuki, expressed his frustration at the slow pace of progress in the construction of the state’s many dam projects. Sections of the many tribal communities that live in Arunachal’s river valleys have been opposed to dam and other infrastructure because of their potential negative environmental consequences. Further, as communities with no written history and whose traditions and cultures are usually tied to a specific physical environment, infrastructure development despite its development objectives can also mean not just physical displacement but cultural and social displacement.

In calling on the students to “conduct research on challenges to hill economy [and] conflict between traditional and modern institutions”, as President Mukherjee did in his convocation address, it is clear that the political and social consequences of these development projects have begun to exercise policymakers in New Delhi, at least.

That said, let us reexamine why Arunachal in particular has become the site of such mega infrastructure projects. Besides of course, the immense hydroelectric potential of the state that would make a major contribution to the national grid, the China factor too looms large.

the Dibang River as it enters the plains, eastern Arunachal Pradesh

the Dibang River as it enters the plains, eastern Arunachal Pradesh

The building of dams on Arunachal’s major rivers is tied to the business of establishing first-user rights so that China cannot later build similar infrastructure upstream and jeopardize Indian access. Further, all along India’s border regions, there is a strong feeling among border communities that they have been hard done by the Indian state in terms of access to basic physical infrastructure, and by extension, to social infrastructure such as health and education. Developments across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Chinese side are often referred to enviously by many border communities from Arunachal to Ladakh.

There is thus, a challenge for both New Delhi and Itanagar to back up the advantages of an open, democratic polity with the equally important imperatives of social and economic goods for the masses.

It is perhaps the failures in this latter regard that also explain the belligerence across the Indian political spectrum, and particularly in Arunachal, when it comes to China’s territorial claims. In the last few years, the Arunachal state government has become increasingly vocal in expressing its displeasure about Chinese statements about the state. In their simplicity and complete dismissal of the opposite point of view, Itanagar’s reactions mirror those of Beijing when the latter blithely ignores, say, Japanese control or claims over disputed territory.

And yet, just as the Chinese continue to do business with the Japanese, so also do Arunachali political and community leaders wish to increase economic and social interactions across the LAC. Once again, President Mukherjee acknowledged this when he referred to “border trade opportunities and integration of the North East economy with the national and global economies.”

Clearly, the China factor has many shades in Arunachal.

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