The "Look East Policy"’ of India was launched by the former Prime Minister PV Naramsimha Rao in 1991. The main focus of this policy was to shift the country’s trading focus from the west and neighbors to the booming South East Asian countries. This policy continued till the formation of the NDA government in 2014.
The "Act East Policy" was launched at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar in November 2014. The focus of the "Look East Policy"’was to increase economic integration with the South East Asian countries and the area was confined to South East Asia only. On the other hand the focus of the "Act East Policy" is economic and security integration and the focus increased to South East Asia as well as East Asia. The’ "Act East Policy" is a political gesture to increase the pace of "Look East Policy" that is meant to connect North-East India (NEI) to South and South East Asia (SaSEA).The objectives of Act East Policy are: (i)
To promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop a strategic relationship with countries in the Asia-Pacific region through continuous engagement at regional bilateral and multilateral levels. (ii) To increase the interaction of the Northeastern Indian states with other neighboring countries (iii) To find out the alternatives of the traditional business partners like, more focus on the Pacific countries in addition to the South East Asian countries. (iv)To curb the increasing impact of China in the ASEAN region.
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Two way trades between India and ASEAN moved up to 71.6 billion dollars in 2016-17 from 2 billion dollars in the early 90s. In contrast, two-way trade between China and ASEAN stood at 452.31 billion dollars in 2016. Experts say that under the "Act East Policy" the government is relying on three C’s (Culture, Connectivity and Commerce) to develop better relations with ASEAN nations.
In order to ensure the success of the policy, the Modi government is putting steady efforts to develop and strengthen connectivity of Northeastern Indian states with ASEAN region through people-to-people contact, trade, culture and physical infrastructure (airport, road, power, telecommunication etc.). Some of the major projects include Kaladani Multi Modal Transit Transport Project, the Indo-Myanmar –Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, Border Haats and Rhi-Tiddim Road project etc.
The right wing government at the Centre argues that the pace of development during the short life of Act East, when compared to Look East, is very promising. It seeks to further the philosophy of looking east through its focus on ‘connectivity, culture and commerce’. They argue that the bilateral trade agreements have leap-frogged. The Act East policy goes beyond ASEAN countries and now reaches out to Japan, Australia, Pacific Island Nations, South Korea and Mongolia. The optimists even claim that the fruits of such a foreign and trade policy are sweet indeed. Japan’s promised investment in the high-speed railway is shown to us as the shining example of such benefits.
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However, there were many organised oppositions against the consequences of such an extensive infrastructural development and policy by various local tribal bodies, student unions in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, members of the academia, and from the larger civil society. These various concerned groups were asking the basic question—at what cost, and for who is this so-called development?
As much as these questions are moral and ethical in its nature, it is also essentially a reflection of survival of local people and their everyday living. Raising questions to such developmental projects and opposing them can also make life difficult for people. Look East, and subsequently Act East, reduces the entire region's cultural, social and economic spaces into a mere corridor to fulfill the dreams of the policy initiative. It is nothing but ‘politics of self-actualisation’. Policies directed at the region are ‘blind, self-directed and intransitive’.
Between Look East and Act East, the choices of people suffered the most. It is the most undemocratic of its kind. It is only capable of fulfilling the elite, upper caste and Delhi-based politicians. Such bypassing of the locals in arriving at a consensus is a typical example of structural violence orchestrated by the various institutions of the state—a modern micro and macro governmentality complex.
The Look East, by its very name, suggests that the people do not have a vision in life! Manipur is the gateway to Southeast Asia under the flagship program of India’s “Look East Policy (LEP)”/’Act East Policy’’ (AEP), which is a synonym of “Nongpok Thong Hangba” in Manipuri, has many challenges to meet in the near future. There are numerous problems in Manipur. Some of the problems are geo-political, insurgency, civil movement, social unrest, corruption, infrastructural development, transportation, communication, topography and location, etc.
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At the same time the people in NEI, particularly in Manipur, have been looking East and have interacted with the East for centuries. There is no need to even remind us to Act East either. If that is the case, who's looking and acting are we talking about? The nation is not shared equally nor is the market. Act East/Look East leaves everything to the market to achieve—a holy equilibrium of supply and demand. The market in a capitalist state is a site of injustice. This positionality of the state—imposing development and making people thankful about—brings about a typical case of life.
The Act East policy is also a reality of our predicament. It is a question not just of one’s life but of the entire cosmos that surrounds that life—a life world. The state likes the infrastructural ensemble. However, the larger question is—would you like to live in a place where there is an impending danger of your home and hearth being washed away? Or, is it a glass palace the Modi and Ambanis want to build, and not live in it?
(The views expressed are personal)