Chronicles The Northeast: Ravaging Paradise

The 1991 census recorded the highest rates of urbanization in Northeast India between 1981 and 1991. Against the average urban growth of 36.09 per cent in India, the seven Northeastern States notched up 49.79 per cent. The most spectacular growth was in Mizoram, where the urban population almost doubled, and the number of towns almost quadrupled, from six to 22, during this period. Yet, what has this actually meant for the State? Today, there is unchecked and rampant construction in Aizwal, an ecologically sensitive zone prone to landslides, which has yielded utter urban chaos. The town, with just 22.15 kilometres of roads, has 1,026 vehicles for every kilometre, one of the highest motor densities in India, and the one, and seemingly only, avenue for a decent livelihood is to find employment with the State Administration. There are no industries, and, beyond traders and service providers to the bloated bureaucracy and its dependents, little potential for entrepreneurship or gainful work. And this State, which has experienced almost 50 per cent 'urbanisation', sees its capital city shut down at 6 pm sharp, by which hour it is time for dinner and bed. The city abruptly morphs into a ghost town, boarded up till dawn.

Mizoram certainly did not arrive at its current level of urbanization through a gradual process and is not the result of a rural economy naturally giving way to an industrialized and prosperous modern conurbation. In fact, the urban condition of the State is substantially the result of completely outrageous and skewed decisions undertaken by the Government of India: the 'reorganisation' of the districts of Mizoram and the forced 'regrouping of villages' in a bid to deal effectively with the insurgency of 1966-1986. Thus village populations were moved en masse and regrouped into what became urban centres. And the secret behind the six o' clock shutdown? The outcome of two-decade-long curfew which forced a people to completely change the way they lived.

Yet, today, the State gets categorised as the most highly 'urbanized', since its various settlements fit into the census criterion of one or another category of 'urban area'.

The fact, however, is that, today, most towns and cites in the Northeast are nothing but 'overgrown villages', or trading centres along surface routes, with some administrative offices for rural development, which, by virtue simply of the size of population, become 'urban settlements'. Most of these towns and cities are like extended slums, with no civic amenities, and no educational, health care, and modern sanitary facilities. There is hardly any agricultural surplus to sustain the urban life and social development, or any industrial output to generate the employment that would ordinarily attract migration into a city. Comparatively worse social and economic conditions lead people to migrate to urban centres, where a majority lives in abject poverty. Other contradictions compound these incongruities. Mizoram, for instance, has the second highest literacy rate in the country (after Kerala) - and the Northeast at large has a higher literacy rate than the average for the country - but is unable to provide gainful employment to its people.

What has led to this state of affairs? The 'Northeast' comprises seven states - Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur (Sikkim has now been added to these) - each of which is endowed with a bounty of natural and forest resources; between them they hold 37 percent of the country's river waters, which account for 42 per cent of the entire country's hydroelectric power potential; 20 per cent of India's hydrocarbon (oil and gas) reserves, large quantities of low ash coal, limestone and dolomite deposits, in addition to a number of other minerals that are yet to be explored.

This is a land crafted out of paradise, a true Eden on earth. On witnessing the beauty of the region, Mullah Dervish of Herat, who accompanied Mir Jumla, the Mughal Commander sent by Auranzeb to conquer the Northeast, was moved to comment, "It stands outside the circle of the Earth and the bowels of the enveloping sphere./ It has been separated from the world like the letter aliph."

Yet today this ancient and gentle land reveals a ravaged soul. Battling several decades of malfunctioning administration, compounding the disastrous impact of Partition that destroyed the natural economies of the region, and of debilitating multiple insurgencies, all seven States today find themselves on the brink. The per capita of the Northeast region stands at Rs. 3,530, as against the national average of Rs. 5,440. The region also lags well behind national averages in terms of roads, railways, irrigation, per capita consumption of electricity and fertilizers, and a number of other indices of development.

The failure of the Northeast to emerge as an economic power centre is rooted in the inability of planners to grasp and comprehend its uniqueness. There has been a total failure to transform even existing village economies into profitable urban industries. As an example, take Bamboo - a material that has long been worked on in a large proportion of the households in the region. Out of 90 million tons of bamboo available for commercial utilization in India, the Northeast accounts for 54 per cent, worth Rs. 5,000 crore in raw form. According to one estimate, a modest value addition of a factor of two could create an industry worth Rs. 10,000 crore. Yet, little has been done to realize this enormous potential.

With 32 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, the region is one of the least developed in India. Despite the poverty and absence of industry and opportunities for employment in the cities, the past two decades have seen astonishing rates of urbanisation. Although the urban population varies significantly across the constituent States, it totals about six million people in 254 urban centers across the region. The State capitals are experiencing among the fastest rates of expansion, primarily as a result of migration from infrastructure-deficient rural areas. The skewed character of this development is reflected in the fact that nearly 28 per cent of the urban population is concentrated in just nine of the region's largest cities. On the other hand, 185 towns account for just 35 per cent of the urban population.

Variations of the tragedy of Mizoram repeat themselves with a saddening regularity across the region. Acute housing shortages in Meghalaya, with teetering concrete houses built along seismic faultlines, and without concern about natural water channels or the stability of the hills, marring the ethereal natural beauty, create conditions for a tragedy waiting to happen; Shillong, located near the wettest place on earth, Cherrapunji, faces chronic water shortages; Manipur, buffeted by an unfortunate and bitter ethnic war, dealing with the twin problems of drugs and AIDS, once had thriving urban centres, which have, today, degraded into chaotic and patternless concentrations of people. Assam today experiences the slow loss and disappearance of its Class One towns, as urban infrastructure disintegrates. One by one, across the cities of the Northeast we see vibrancy, vigour and fortitude give way to helplessness and despair. The big towns and cities have not lived up to their promise as centers of hope and productivity, but are hopeless cul de sacs.

It is time we set the whole warped notion of 'urbanisation' straight. Numbers alone cannot provide the sole definition of the 'town' and the 'city'. The patterns that prevail in India's Northeast are corrosive and counter-productive; these are not reflections of a vision of progress and prosperity; unplanned urban development is creating an acute threat to fragile eco-systems; and there is, in the urban rampage in the region, no sense of the emergence or creation of a civilization freeing itself from the shackles of its past.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, October 05, 2005



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