The World Bank Group met with representatives of the state governments of the North East Region and the North Eastern Council (NEC) at the NEC Secretariat in Shillong on 14th February, 2018.
Mr. Ram Muivah, the Secretary of NEC, thanked the World Bank for holding CPF consultations in the region for the very first time. Chairing the meeting, Mr. C.K. Das, NEC member, said that apart from Assam, the Bank had a very limited presence in the region, but the particular development challenges faced by the region warranted a special focus by the WBG. Among the challenges he highlighted were:
1. Average annual incomes were low compared to other states, and essential commodities needed to be brought in from the mainland.
2. The population of all the NER states together made up a little over 3% of India’s total population (2011 census). This was less than the population of states such as UP or Rajasthan.
3. About 60% of the region was hilly and two-thirds of the plains remained unsurveyed.
4. Commercial banks were unwilling to extend credit to the farming community because, due to historical and traditional factors, establishing ownership of land remained complicated. The updation of land records was, therefore, one area where the World Bank could support the NER states.
5. Although a substantial percentage of land was under agriculture, productivity was very low. Less than 25% of cultivated land was irrigated; moreover, cropping intensity, fertilizer use, and access to credit were all very low, and hardly any warehouse facilities existed.
6. The low per capita consumption of pulses was affecting the health of small children.
7. Penetration by the banking sector was very low – the region had around 2,500 bank branches in all. Arunachal Pradesh, the region’s largest state, had only 136 bank branches.
8. There was dire need for a river transport system which could facilitate movement of goods to and from the region. However, this needed study and surveys before a suitable plan could be formulated.
The representative from the Government of Meghalaya said that the state needed to build its capacity to better implement programs and initiatives. Towards this end, the World Bank’s new community-led landscape management project had begun working to build the capacity of village employment councils to manage natural resources more efficiently.
He said that community mobilization was equally vital, and the World Bank could play a role in this. There was much to learn from traditional institutions which had so far not been used for development. Moreover, it was necessary to understand a state’s cultural and social norms before launching any initiative.
Meghalaya’s 500,000 farmers needed help to double their incomes, he said. A proposal was being prepared for the WBG to help mobilize farmers to adopt low-cost organic farming. In addition, he asked whether the WBG could provide innovative solutions to bring financial inclusion to Meghalaya’s villages, 74% of which were unbanked. It was also suggested that the WBG help in building last mile connectivity in the villages and create an integrated transport network.
The representative from the Government of Mizoram requested that the World Bank consider the state as “a strategic partner” as it was doing well on human development indicators but lagged in the economic sphere. Literacy levels were high and female contribution to the labor force was reasonable. Nonetheless, the state needed a huge skilling effort to make its youth employable.
The lack of infrastructure remained a binding constraint for further economic development in the state, he said, suggesting that the WBG support the Central government’s flagship infrastructure development programs in the NER. Moreover, private investment was very low, and the region would benefit from WBG support to attract private sector finance. It was pointed out that the WBG’s diagnostic had missed out digital connectivity, although it was as important as physical connectivity.
He added that capacity building was vital at every level of government to achieve development outcomes. Moreover, traditional knowledge was a valuable resource that could be used productively to promote development. While the Govt. of India had initiated the “Act East” policy, he suggested that the WBG consider pursuing an “Act Northeast” policy for extending support.
Participants from Assam stressed that fostering biodiversity was vital for Assam and the NE region. Assam was particularly interested in containing man-animal conflict through habitat upgradation, real time alert systems, strong wildlife conservation measures, and the strengthening of the forest department. Another top priority was mitigating floods through the better management of water resources. In addition, the issue of arsenic and fluoride in the Brahmaputra valley needed to be addressed on a priority basis.
The team from the Government of Assam also proposed some specific priorities for the state:
· Promoting clean and sustainable development for towns like Tezpur, Jorhat and Dibrugarh
· Decongesting Guwahati through satellite townships
· Replicating the World Bank-supported rural water supply project across other districts
· Improving road infrastructure; for this, the PWD had already prepared an annual maintenance budget and vision for the next 15 years
· Promoting an integrated tourism circuit for the entire northeast region
· Improving the livelihood of fish farmers through aqua-culture development
· Boosting higher education, especially R&D in Science and Technology
· Building the capacity of government across multiple sectors
· Placing special focus on the seven most backward districts of Assam as identified by the Niti Aayog.
The government representative from Manipur said that, for the last seven years, the state was the third poorest in the country. He said that Manipur was keen to receive external assistance and urged the WBG to take up at least two or three projects in the state. Moreover, supporting an integrated water supply project in the Imphal area was a priority, as this could help relieve the city’s water shortage and provide safe drinking water to its citizens.
The Nagaland representative stated that, traditionally, land in Nagaland was held by both individuals and communities. But in the absence of documentation to prove ownership or size of land holding, individuals were unable to borrow from commercial banks. Unemployment was also a problem, he said, with the number of unemployed persons, including graduates and under-graduates, reaching over 60,000. Nagaland had failed to attract private business, and bright students often left the state to work elsewhere. While the WBG was already engaged in the state -- a multi-sectoral health project and another on vocational training were underway - the state did not have the capacity to monitor these projects, and regular updates were not being prepared. He urged the WBG to help build state capacity in multiple sectors and to attract private finance.
The representative from Arunachal Pradesh pointed out that the state had some very low-density areas – such as the Dibang Valley district with just 1 person per sq. km – as well as pristine biodiversity, with large wildlife sanctuaries. The World Bank could look at these areas for possible intervention in the state as well as in other states in the region which had substantial forest cover.
Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland could benefit immensely if the WB could help bring in the latest bamboo technology from China, as recent changes in law had thrown up the possibility of increasing the region’s bamboo cultivation to produce bamboo lumber as a substitute for wood. Moreover, the World Bank could help improve connectivity and road infrastructure in the foothills where the state was trying to bring development by creating an industrial corridor.
Participants also pointed to tourism as another possible area for WBG engagement. They said that a master plan had been prepared to develop tourism in the region and circuits and schemes identified for investment.