The Changing Face Of North East India

India's North East has long been neglected in terms of both economic and social development. Hasina Kharbhih, Ashoka Fellow and founder of Impulse Social Enterprise, and Sanjana Janardhanan write about the challenges and opportunities for enterprise in the North East.


 

For decades, the North East has been a black-hole for business and enterprise. The sustained conflict, geographical isolation, militarisation and migration have led to a drying up of investments, and the lack of economic and social development in the region. This is despite the richness of natural resources in the region, presenting a huge opportunity for investment, and the growth of enterprise in the region. 

The North East is situated in a geographically vulnerable zone.  Almost 98% of the North Eastern borders are international ones – connected to Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. A major risk associated with this unique geo-political location is that of cross-border human trafficking. Adding to the vulnerability are factors of unemployment, gender-based violence, armed conflicts, and oppressive social structures. 

Additionally, the region is suffering from abject poverty. Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, and Tripura have been suffering from ethnic violence for decades. Such sustained violence led to a lack of opportunity for people to exercise their entrepreneurial spirit. 

The verdant mountains of the North East conceal not only the odd militant, but also a rich culture of art and handicrafts passed on from generation to generation. The eight states stand out individually, both in terms of geographical distance, but also in cultural diversity. In addition, the markets in each State differ considerably - from consumption patterns to the kinds of goods and services produced by that region. Seasonal variations and demand fluctuations also determine the activities that people are engaged with. Depending on these factors, people work in areas of art and crafts, agriculture or tourism.

Energising the ecosystem

With the increasing intensity of the emergency in the North East, there is a deep need to devise long-term, sustainable solutions for the region. A large part of the emergence arises from economic need, and hence the solution lies in economic (and social) development of the region. However, for economic development to take place, several key players need to step up and take initiative in the region. 

The government will have to facilitate an ecosystem where business practices can occur smoothly and without hassle. Despite several attempts by the Government and Planning Commission to enhance local development, the current strategy has led to a distribution-oriented, politically-led economic process and not the efficiency-led process envisioned. This has resulted in natural resources and savings moving away from the region to other high productivity regions. The dependence on the Central Government for both funds and employment has led to a passive attitude towards development in the States. The onus should be shifted to the local government agencies for a sense of responsibility and ownership over economic activities to develop.

Also, business and social entrepreneurs should take the lead in building enterprise which involves the local community. For the self-sustained growth of a region, there needs to be a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem which is able to take business strategies, contextualise them for local needs, and create systems of demand and supply for the area. 

There also needs to be the existence of a market – where entrepreneurs can target their goods and services and consumers can find the things that they need. By focusing on economic factors (but not ignoring political and cultural factors) like labour cost, comparative advantages, technology, and efficiency, such a market can be developed within the North East. 

While the hidden talents stored in the North East have recently been highlighted through a range of platforms, set up mostly by civil society actors, the market in the North East however comes with its challenges. With cheap Chinese imports having flooded the market, as well as a lack of demand for local products, local artisans are slowly losing ground. For example, a local woman would buy a shawl from an artisan only once – this will last her for a whole lifetime. There is no steady need for local handicrafts in this region.

Thus, these products, emerging from a tradition of arts and crafts, have less value within the region, as compared to the rest of the country and for that matter, the world. To allow local entrepreneurs to reach such emerging markets, there needs to be a significant thrust towards the development of a relationship between the rest of the country and people from this region. Such a long-term relationship will not only lead to the creation of a dependable marketplace for local artisans and entrepreneurs but will also help in creating employment opportunities among the masses.

Efforts are ongoing

The emergence of such an ecosystem will achieve several things – not only will it compel migrating populations to contribute their skills to the development of the region but also reduce instances of human trafficking in the region. This is not a phenomenon of the future; several efforts are already prepping the region for full scale development. The Impulse Social Enterprise is just one of them. Founded by Hasina Kharbhih, it is a social business venture, it is comprised of a variety of brands, products, and services that uplift communities and advance the mission for equitable human rights. Its socially focused business practices develop rural livelihoods and the capacities of their partners, and strive to fulfil the social and economic market needs of communities and stakeholders.

The work of Pranjal Baruah and Rakhee Choudhary are other examples of the same. Pranjal’s Mushroom Development Foundation works closely with mushroom farmers in Assam, putting them in control of their produce through his land-to-lab strategies, training and support, thereby creating ‘mushroom entrepreneurs.’ Not only is he creating livelihood opportunities for thousands of unemployed youth and landless farmers in Assam, he is also developing a whole new market for mushroom consumption. 

Similarly, Rakhee works closely with Assamese women, revitalising the weaving industry in the region. With weaving being the second largest economic activity in Assam, she organises women weavers into cooperatives, connecting them directly to the market. She builds entrepreneurial skills in these women, and encourages them to deliver quality products to the market. The weaver entrepreneurs she has trained then train others, thus creating groups of entrepreneurs across the region.  Thus, she also advances an industry that has great cultural significance for the people of the North East. 

These are only a few examples of several such market-oriented initiatives in the region. The current need is to evaluate these models and see how they can be made relevant for all eight states of the North East. By bringing all the stakeholders together and evolving a comprehensive road map for development, the North East can become the new hub for social enterprise in the country. 

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(This article is part of the February 2012 edition of FellowConnect. Please click here to read more articles from the edition)