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Remarks by Foreign Secretary on the “Impact of Neighbourhood First and Act East Policies on the North East”

September 10, 2020

Hon’ble Governor of Sikkim, Shri Ganga Prasad;
Vice Chancellor of the ICFAI University, Sikkim, Dr. Jagannath Patnaik;
Associate Dean, Dr. Pramita Gurung;
Deputy Registrar, ICFAI University, Sikkim, Mrs Sandhya Rani;
Eminent speakers in the webinar;

Ladies and gentlemen

It is a great privilege to be invited to deliver the keynote address at this webinar on "Self-Reliant India: Reimagining the North East India in terms of Employment and Skill”. I would like to congratulate the Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India (ICFAI) University, Sikkim, for organizing this webinar.

2. ICFAI, which began as a modest not-for-profit society in 1984, has gone on to chart an exemplary course in the field of higher education over the last three decades. ICFAI is, in fact, among the pioneers in putting into action the theme of this webinar. Five out of the 11 institutions established by ICFAI are located in states of the North East. These institutions are greatly contributing to the education and skilling of the people of the region.

3. I have a special attachment to Sikkim. The state, though geographically small, is home to a wide variety of immensely beautiful landscapes. Sikkim is also a model state for the rest of India in the areas of organic farming, sanitation and other socio-economic indicators.

4. Our North-Eastern states are known for their natural beauty. But the North East is also a storehouse of Indian talent. From the traditional handicrafts to the cutting edge fields in the services sector, the young men and women from the states of the North East have made their mark everywhere.

5. While it is remarkable that our young people from the North East have a large presence and influence in the services sector, there is need to increase and diversify employment opportunities available in this region. This requires re-thinking and re-imagining the development strategies for the North East.

6. It is in this context that the Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan announced by the Prime Minister assumes great significance, especially for the states of the North East. The Mission for building a self-reliant India and the stimulus package of Rs 20 lakh crores launched under the initiative aims to both reinvigorate the economy and provide a social safety net to our vulnerable sections.

7. The initiative is aimed at boosting the confidence of our businesses and industries; making our manufacturing globally competitive; linking our agriculture and small farmers with global supply chains; and attracting investment and technology.

8. I wish to highlight that a neglected sector with huge potential for employment and development is agriculture. While employing a major share of the population, the contribution of agriculture to State GDPs in the North East region is currently small (15-20% on average).

9. To facilitate contract farming in India, the Government has announced a new framework for farmers to enter into direct contracts with those who wish to buy farm produce. This, combined with the deregulation of several food items, is expected to allow better price realization for farmers by attracting investments and enabling competition in the sector.

10. The terrain and climatic conditions of the North East make it suitable for fruit and vegetable cultivation, plantation crops, including new ones in the region such as coffee, horticulture and floriculture and also medicinal plants. Floriculture and organic farming are the norm in the states of this region, and this again could open up wide markets. Sikkim itself is one of the leading states in the North East in production and supply of flowers. We must encourage our youth to be agri entrepreneurs, take a lead role in agri start-ups and encourage agricultural technology adoption.

11. Keeping in view the geographical proximity and huge demand for agri products and processed foods from Bangladesh, opportunities for land border trade need to be leveraged for enhanced employment and development. This would mean that our agri entrepreneurs focus on moving up the value chain through food processing and value addition.

12. To promote investments in the MSME sector, which forms the backbone of the Indian economy, the Government has brought about several policy changes. Definition of MSME has been changed to attract greater foreign direct investment in the sector. In view of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the MSMEs, all businesses, including MSMEs, are being provided with collateral-free automatic loans of up to three lakh crore rupees. In addition to this, a corpus fund has been set up to provide additional funds to the MSMEs. The North Eastern states also stand to benefit from these measures aimed at building an Aatmanirbhar Bharat.

13. My focus today would be to illustrate to you the efforts to create openings and opportunities for our Noth East region through foreign policy initiatives of the Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is no denying the fact that the North East of India is our gateway to East and South East Asia. In foreign policy terms, we might say that the states of the North East are the link between two fundamental pillars of our foreign policy, Neighbourhood First and Act East.

14. We have a vision for this region that is captured in the 3 Cs – Connectivity, Commerce, and Cultural Commonalities. In partnership with our neighbours and friends to the East, we are working to improve the infrastructure and connectivity in our North Eastern states while also faciltiating greater regional integration.

15. Let us start with Japan which is one of our closest partners in development and economic cooperation. We have set up the India-Japan Act East Forum, which I co-chair with Japan’s Ambassador to India, to take up projects for economic modernization of the North East and regional connectivity. Under this initiative, several projects in the area of connectivity, water and sanitation and forest management – including the Sikkim Biodiversity Conservation and Forest Management Project, are currently ongoing in different North Eastern states.

16. To give you another example, I would like to draw your attention to the work that has been undertaken with Bangladesh. As many of you know, I have had the privilege of serving as Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh. Connectivity between India and Bangladesh directly and positively impacts both the North East and Bangladesh. Four of the six pre-1965 rail links between the two countries have been made operational, and work is underway on the remaining two. The under-construction rail link between Haldibari in West Bengal and Chilahati in Bangladesh will revive the old Siliguri-Sealdah rail route through Bangladesh, taken by the Darjeeling Mail. A new railway link between Akhaura in Bangladesh and Agartala and Tripura is under construction. Nationals of the two countries can not only travel on board the Maitree and Bandhan Express to each others’ countries but on buses plying between Shillong and Dhaka and between Agartala and Kolkata via Dhaka. We are upgrading the infrastructure of Land Customs Stations for enabling smooth cross-border movement of goods and people.

17. There has been considerable augmentation of the inland water transport that links the North East to Bangladesh. You might be aware that twenty port townships are planned along the Brahmaputra and Barak river systems to enhance inland water connectivity. This could galvanize multimodal linkages in the entire region. You might also know that goods are trans-shipped to the North East through Ashuganj inland river port in Bangladesh and further through Akhaura-Agartala by road. Recently the first container of goods was moved from Kolkata to Agartala, using the newly-established India-Bangladesh agreement permitting the use of Chittagong port for India to transport goods to and from North East India. A new inland waterways route connecting Tripura to Bangladesh was also operationalized recently with the first ever export consignment from Bangladesh reaching Tripura through the waterways.

18. The general trend indicated by this listing is also applicable to other neigbhours such as Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. For example, in Myanmar, we are working on the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project connecting the North East with Myanmar and Thailand. The first will give the North East access to the sea. The second will provide land connectivity with South East Asia. Two international entry/ exit points were inaugurated at Tamu-Moreh and Rih-Zowkhawthar to increase connectivity with Myanmar.

19. We work not just bilaterally to promote these linkages but also multilaterally and plurilaterally. I would like to draw your attention to two such configurations – BIMSTEC and BBIN.

20. While road and rail connectivity have improved significantly, we also need to focus on air connectivity in the region. The new set of airports opened and upgraded under the Udaan scheme in the capitals of the states of the North East, cater to domestic travel. The Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi airport in Guwahati is the only international airport in the North Eastern states. However, Bagdogra international airport in West Bengal serves Sikkim. As travel and tourism resumes in the aftermath of the ongoing pandemic, we will have to cater to international flights as well.

21. The positive cascading effects of improved connectivity bring trade and investment. They also bring employment opportunities. The traditional strengths of the North East in the services sector will encourage investment in Business Process Outsourcing, eco-tourism, wellness and hospitality and various other areas. The expanded connectivity will enhance tourist footfalls and give a boost to the hospitality industry. Better connectivity will also reduce the cost of transport. The transport premium borne by the people of the North East until now, for even basic commodities, will steadily fall. This will fuel further infrastructure development in the region and will create a virtuous cycle of prosperity.

22. The potential of mutually beneficially resources and of generating common economic spaces is evident in another area – energy. Bangladesh currently imports 1160 MW of power through adjoining states in India. Hydrocarbons will flow through an India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline. The power of Himalayan rivers has been used for the joint benefit of the North East and its neighbours through hydro electric projects in Bhutan. We are also looking at exporting the surplus hydropower potential of the North East to Bangladesh and Myanmar.

23. A strong, stable and prosperous North East is key to building a Self-Reliant India. The Act East Policy of the Prime Minister provides an effective means to achieve it. The realisation of this dream brings together various Ministries of the Government of India, as also the state governments, which are both implementing agencies and beneficiaries at the ground level.

24. As we focus on timely completion of infrastructure projects, such as roads, railway lines, port upgradation, border check posts and trading points, both in the North East and across the border, in countries in the neighbourhood, the Ministry of External Affairs will continue to support and facilitate all initiatives in this regard.

25. I thank the ICFAI University, Sikkim, for giving me the opportunity to address this august gathering. I look forward to working closely with various Ministries, state governments, and educational and training institutions in this regard.

Thank you!

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