Dr. Jitendra Singh, Minister of State (Independent Charge), Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, has been busy promoting business opportunities in Northeast India for a while now. In an interaction with The Dollar Business, he shares his insights on the business potential of the region and the roadmap to develop it further.
INTERVIEW BY AHMAD SHARIQ KHAN | February 2018 Issue | The Dollar Business
TDB: What is your vision for the North East? Could the region potentially be a trade hub for the entire subcontinent?
Dr. Jitendra Singh (JS): The North East is a fast-growing market with untapped opportunities for investment, trade and tourism. I have no doubt that it is set to become a nodal point of India’s growth story. It is abundantly endowed with natural resources, mineral and forest wealth, diverse flora and fauna and fertile land for cultivation of exotic fruits and vegetables. It is truly a blessed land. To add to that it has also has enormous geographical advantages. The region is considered to be the bridge between Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Given its apt geographic location, long international borders, and proximity to ASEAN countries, I am certain that the region can become a trade hub not just for India but for the entire subcontinent. But to actualise this dream, it is imperative that we develop the market potential of the North East. For this, we are making efforts to improve inter-state connectivity and market integration. We are aware that the region lacks adequate infrastructure and is in need of significant
investment across sectors. Investments in connectivity – roads, railways, airports, waterways, etc., are a must to realise the region’s potential. In the last three years, we have been focussing on improving connectivity, transport and infrastructure facilities to bring increased investment to this part of the country.
TDB: What else is the government doing to develop the North East?
JS: The main problems plaguing the region are infrastructural inadequacies and connectivity issues. Headway has been made in improving connectivity, transport and infrastructure facilities in the past few years, but still a lot needs to be done. In the last few years, we have initiated numerous measures aimed at helping the region realise its trade potential. The follow-through on these initiatives will determine the future. To speed up policy decisions for the region, we have created an exclusive forum at NITI Aayog to prepare plans for the development of the region. The forum’s job is to look at various proposals, both at the central and state levels, and prepare plans for the speedy development of the region. Another notable measure is amending the 90-year-old “Indian Forest Act of 1927”. This is going to be a gamechanger for generations to come as it opens up new avenues for job creation and entrepreneurship by allowing bamboo cultivation and bamboo use by non-farmers on non-forest land. The centre’s seriousness about this region can be gauged by its decision to completely fund all central projects in the North East India. Earlier funding was on a centre-state sharing basis. Under the Bharatmala Pariyojana, 5,301 km of roads have been approved for improvement. Out of this, 3,246 kilometres have been marked for development of the Economic Corridor in the North East. The bidding process for the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is also underway. Furthermore, construction of the new greenfield airport at Pakyong (Gangtok, Sikkim) is complete and now only a licence from the DGCA is awaited. Going forward, I believe, the new airports at Pakyong, Itanagar and Shillong, along with a timebound plan to lay broad-gauge rail track, will further help businesses. In terms of rivers, development of the Barak river is being taken up in two phases for shipping and navigation purposes. The latest budget provides an impetus of Rs.1,014 crore for the upcoming financial year. These funds will be used for the revival of 50 airports and to improve aviation infrastructure in the region under the regional connectivity scheme. 129 of the 325 air routes under the second phase of the regional connectivity scheme are for North Eastern and hill states. This will be a big boost for the aviation industry in the region.
TDB: What role do you envisage the North East region playing in India’s Act East policy?
JS: As the region lies in a strategic location it can act as a key player in India’s Act East-centric endeavours. To India’s east lie all the ASEAN nations, which offer a plethora of trading opportunities. Of late, the bilateral trade between India-ASEAN has not only increased, but grown manifold. As per the Ministry of External Affairs, currently, ASEAN is our fourth-largest trading partner. India’s trade with ASEAN increased by about 10% to $71.6 billion in FY2017. Exports increased by 24.3% to $31.07 billion in FY2017. On the other hand, imports increased by 1.8% in FY2017 to $40.63 billion. Going forward, partnering with ASEAN is going to be vital for economic development. We need to remember the USP of the region. India and the countries that share borders with the North East constitute about 2.81 billion people, which is roughly 40% of the world population. This locational advantage also strengthens our belief that the region could be transformed into an economic corridor connecting India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, ASEAN and beyond. Once actualised, the benefits of such a transformation would be multifaceted, impacting not only India but the entire sub-region. It will also usher in a new era of social prosperity in the North-East.
TDB: The region boasts of a diverse agricultural products basket. What is being done to promote their exports?
JS: The North East offers phenomenally varied flora and fauna. Horticultural opportunities in the region must be explored to the fullest extent. Under the present government, Sikkim has been declared as the first organic state in India. This is the first step towards developing the entire region as an organic hub for India. There is also a need to develop the agro-horticulture ecosystem in the North East.
Traditionally, the North East is known for tea, but it could also offer plantation and export opportunities for a wide range of crops including oil palm. Similarly, the region has about 50 species of bamboo, 14 varieties of bananas and 17 varieties of citrus fruits. North-Eastern states also have a huge production of fruits such as pineapples and oranges. It is appalling that in the region, huge quantities of fruits and horticulture products like pineapples, kiwis, oranges, mushrooms, etc., go to waste because of lack of proper storage and transportation facilities. If these issues are solved, the region can become a major exporter of fresh fruit and fruit products to the rest of the continent and beyond. For example, for the first time, pineapples from the North East are now being exported to Dubai! High transportation costs have always been a major constraint for shipment of perishable cargo from this part of the country. APEDA is encouraging domestic carriers to charge competitive freight rates for shipping perishables from the region. Such initiatives could be a gamechanger in the region. North-Eastern textile and handloom products are also unique and have an original value. Outsiders, however, are not aware of the rich culture and history of the region and thus these products do not find too many takers. To overcome this, in 2017, we set up a permanent stall at ‘Dilli Haat’ in New Delhi to showcase the unique textile and handloom products of the region.
TDB: What are your thoughts on the region as a start-up destination?
JS: With the improvement in connectivity and transportation over the last three years, coupled with concentrated administrative focus, the North East has become a desirable destination for entrepreneurs. More youngsters than ever before are headed to North-Eastern states to explore the region’s untapped potential. Businessmen are also making the most of the government’s North East Industrial Promotion Policy and the budgetary support offered to the industry. The creation of North East Venture Fund (NEVF) for the region, with North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd (NEDFi), is meant to provide capital to startups in the region and attract outside investments.