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Gorky Chakraborty and Asok K Ray
Date of Publish: 2015-08-18

The Look East Policy and people’s perception: A study on Mizoram


Gorky Chakraborty and Asok K Ray


The Look East Policy (LEP) is a post-Soviet construct of the Indian foreign policy that initially did not concern the Northeast. The region became critical for the LEP only after the proclamation of the North Eastern Region Vision 2020 in July 2008. The vision document provided a roadmap for the region’s development and became an animated version of the LEP. The policy makers highlighted the rich natural resource, strategic location and higher potential for economic growth of the region to draw the attention of investors.

Three aspects of NE became critical for the LEP: connectivity and physical infrastructure for continental trade facilitation to Southeast Asia; trade and investment protocols, bi-lateral/ multilateral cooperation and; trade-related governance. The Vision 2020 factored a new dimension of people-to-people contact in the LEP, stating some modus operandi but the list can be extended to include many others based on field inputs.

Does the trade potential along the international border depend only on bilateral agreements or does people-to-people contact and ethnic cooperation play a major role for better trade facilitation as well as good governance? To find out, this study focussed on the easternmost part of the Mizoram-Myanmar border for a reality check on both LEP and the vision document. The places chosen were Zokhawthar in Mizoram’s Champhai district and Zokhamawii (Rikhawdar) market across the border in Tedim district of Myanmar’s Chin state.

The petty trade that involves the border residents essentially occurs in the community space whereas international and/or bilateral trade is a state process. People-to-people contact in these areas if promoted can also strengthen the mega trade regime under LEP and ensure peoples’ participation in trade and governance. The official view on LEP ignored this fact in the beginning and belittled the region’s community space. Efforts were made to be more accommodative but it did not show after LEP was renamed Act East Policy.

Three research questions were raised for the study: how people perceive the LEP; is there a perceptual gap in the region regarding trade space and the ethnic space and; do the people see a future under the policy. The answers were sought through primary and secondary sources such as field survey and interview of key informants at various government departments, Zokhawthar Land Custom Station (LCS) and petty traders at the border markets. Champhai district was selected since Mizoram’s boundary with Myanmar is the longest there. And the markets of Champhai and Zokhawthar on the Indian side and Zokhamawii in Myanmar enabled gauging the perception of locals both communitarian and state trade process besides noting the ‘everyday life’ of the borderland inhabitants.

The gender dimension in the region did not attract attention of LEP till the NE Vision 2020 made it explicit. This study therefore factored in the gender dimension as a critical component. Respondents, all literate and mostly youth, to the questionnaire were Mizos along with Paite, Ralte and Hmar tribes. Nearly half of them were females.

A majority of the respondents had never heard about LEP. Those who did related it only with trade and infrastructure building. But their perception of trade and commerce and the gains from these were different from those of the state and the policy framers. They perceive trade as petty and informal in nature and rooted in the communitarian ethos of economic and non-economic gains.

On the other hand, they thought trade for the state routed through LCS is a strictly continental concept and the gain from it is essentially economic. While the people perceived trade as an ‘inter’ (if not ‘intra’) community petty trade with ethnic participation and inter-ethnic co-operation, they were sceptical about their gains from continental trade. Their apprehension was that continental trade would benefit the vais (non-Mizos or outsiders) although some felt that increase in formal trade with better infrastructure would simultaneously boost informal trade.

The community choice for a more open border with Myanmar was based on their perception about non-economic gains in terms of trans-ethnic co-operation and economic gain in terms of easy availability of petty goods and food grains from across the border. This is amply reflected in responses of the women. Most of them also considered the Myanmarese migrants as their kinsmen, who did not pose any major threat. People in Mizoram felt they gain from Myanmarese migrants, their biggest source of cheap labour. The Myanmarese, without much option for livelihood in their country, said they benefit from wages by providing services in Mizoram. Clan patronage played an important role in this scenario of mutual gain. But some Mizoram respondents were wary of unscrupulous elements among the Myanmarese migrants.

Women respondents, though literate, were unaware about various development schemes in the state. Their participation in male-dominated community meetings was also very poor, and many women favoured greater assertion of their rights in the public space.

LEP needs to be in consonance of NE Vision 2020 to bridge the perceptual gap on its projected future as well as the chasm between the state and the community. A common agenda for greater people to people co-operation between Mizoram and Myanmar, otherwise separated by political boundaries, holds the key. But framing a common agenda in the region is yet residual.

Following are the reflections from the study:

  • Gap in understanding of space: The state focuses on the cartographic  boundaries while the people believe in the pre-existing clan boundaries. This in turn complicates the trade component of LEP across the region.
  • Chasm between container and petty trade on the border: The perception of petty trade on the border is ideational as well as of mutual commodity exchange. This is deemed incompatible with the international container trade promoted by the state.
  • Fear factor: The mega-trade promoted by the state is perceived to exclude the community, force them to either be spectators or take up rent-seeking activities leading to violence and mis-governance. Better infrastructure for formal trade is also perceived to push illegal trade in narcotics and small arms.
  • Gender issues: Most of the women are still unaware of various social schemes and their rights. Their optimism about people-to-people contact is also stymied by different threat perceptions from both state and community.
  • Policy-practice gap: The people do not foresee much beyond petty border trade that mainly involves goods for subsistence. A scenario where the community and civil society might act as co-players with the state in improving conditions is yet to emerge after almost a quarter of a century of LEP. The state-church-society symbiosis is an initiative in this direction in Mizoram but this too has not transcended the ‘limits’ set by the state thereby restricting people-to-people co-operation.

 [This is the summary of a study supported by The Northeast Desk, National Foundation for India, New Delhi and conducted by Gorky Chakraborty and Asok K Ray at Institute of Development Studies Kolkata]




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