Record representation of the eastern and northeastern States in Modi cabinet

Pratim Ranjan Bose

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The latest cabinet reshuffle in Delhi has had extraordinary outcomes for the economically less prosperous eastern and northeastern India, which generally miss the national attention. Of the 78 central ministers including the Prime Minister; 20 are from the eastern and the northeastern States. Bihar (6), Jharkhand (2), West Bengal (4), Odisha (3) and northeast (5). This is a record. 

What is more impressive, of the 20 ministers from the region, nearly half (9) are cabinet ministers. The Union council of ministers has 30 cabinet ministers, excluding the PM, and two ministers of state with independent charge. If representation is one of the cornerstones of democracy and federalism, for the first time in the 74-year history of India since independence, East and North-East are duly represented in the Union council of ministers. 

For the records, eastern and northeastern states together cover roughly 21 per cent of India’s geography and 25 per cent of the population. Northeast India – comprising eight States - is particularly large, spread over 8 per cent of the country’s landmass but less than 4 per cent of the population. Odisha is 4.7 per cent in the area for a more-or-less similar population as in the northeast. Jharkhand shares 2.4 per cent area and 2.5 per cent population. West Bengal and Bihar are highly populous, each sharing roughly 2.7-2.8 per cent of the area but 7-8 per cent of the population. 

In a close similarity to their combined share in the country’s total area and population, these States together cornered roughly 25 per cent of the central ministerial berths. This is awesome. 

That’s not all. A more critical look will tell that many important ministries are practically centred in the East.  In high-profile ‘ports, shipping and waterways’, the cabinet minister is from Assam and, one of the two junior ministers is from West Bengal.  In ‘education’, the cabinet minister is from Odisha and the three ministers of state are from Manipur, Jharkhand and West Bengal. 

From external affairs to home or law, the region has representation everywhere. Home ministry deals with internal security and is among the most important ministries in any country. Of the three junior ministers in the home ministry, one is from West Bengal that shares over a 2000 km border with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan and is India’s link to the northeast. 

A big question is if the distribution of ministries has anything to do with the comparative advantages of the eastern and northeastern regions. More precisely, can the ministers contribute to the progress of eastern and northeastern States? 

In a federal government, all ministries cannot have a ground presence. The law ministry, for example, works as the backroom boys. ItsIt’s an extremely important ministry for the success and smooth running of the government. Every proposal, every new scheme is vetted by the law ministry, to ensure that they are in accordance with the constitution of India. It should be of tremendous aspirational value to northeast India that for the first time in history, the law minister (Kiren Rijiju) will be from the region. 

However, the selection of Dr Rajkumar Ranjan Singh as the junior external affairs minister is significant. Singh is from Manipur, which is emerging as India’s gateway to South-East Asia. Manipur shares border with the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) economy of Myanmar, where India is pursuing several projects as part of the Act East programme. 

The most important of such projects is a highway (Trilateral Highway) that will connect Manipur with Thailand, offering India wider access, particularly the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) region. The landlocked northeast may be the biggest beneficiary of this initiative. Expectedly Singh will play a key role in making Act East more relevant to the regional economy. 

Barring the local area development fund that is allotted to each member of Parliament to take up smaller development projects in his constituency, a central minister cannot conceive projects at his/her whims and fancies. The State governments have to take a lead role in identifying prospects and seeking central support. The central support is crucial in large projects that have inter-state or national ramifications. Also, central support is essential in dollar-denominated projects financed by multilateral agencies like Asian Development Bank (ADB) or Japan Bank for International Cooperation. 

Having said that having local representation in respective ministry helps in many ways than one. For example, as Finance Minister of India, Late Pranab Mukherjee ensured the spread of banking infrastructure in the backward Murshidabad district in West Bengal. More active participation and parlaying by the State could have helped expand such infrastructure in other backward districts. 

From this perspective, the recent ministry distribution will help the region in at least one area: connectivity. It is assumed that poor connectivity is one of the main reasons behind the economic backwardness of the east and the northeast. India has already focused its attention on this area. Huge investments are directed into the highway sector under the Bharatmala project. Rail connectivity is established in every state in the northeast and UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik) is ensuring better regional air connectivity.

The new thrust should be in developing waterways across the east and the northeast. The region is highly endowed with water resources. Bihar, West Bengal and Assam in particular are full of rivers, including the two biggest rivers of India – Ganga and Brahmaputra. However, the use of waterways in inland-water transport (IWT) has been minimal post-Independence due to policy oversight. 

The Narendra Modi government has already taken the first step by rolling out a Rs 5300 crore Ganga Jal Marg project that will connect Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh with Kolkata. Plans are afoot to develop the waterway through the Brahmaputra in Assam, to ensure connectivity between Kolkata and Assam through Bangladesh. Now that both the senior and junior ministers are from the region, there can be greater attention to this area. The aim should be to develop the tributaries of the major rivers as transport corridors. 

The ultimate goal should be to give multi-modal transport a chance and ensure a cheap and efficient transport system that will trigger growth. The whole initiative should be topped by setting up a seaport in Kolkata. As India’s oldest metropolis and the only one in the region, Kolkata has an enviable amount of soft infrastructure but the river port is a major hurdle for cheap transportation. If the dots are joined Kolkata can emerge as a logistics hub and may fuel growth in the entire east and northeast.

**Pratim Ranjan Bose is a commentator, researcher and corporate consultant. He is an  an expert on India’s eastern neighbourhood**

Disclaimer: views expressed in the content belong to the content author and not the organization

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