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India's Northeast Seeks Improved Infrastructure, Support for Trade

India's northeastern states - geographically and culturally distant from the heart of the Hindu majority country - are referred to as "the seven sisters." Official attempts to improve the economy of the isolated region have largely been a disappointment and several of the states are beset by serious insurgencies. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in New Delhi visited a trade fair intended to promote the region's products and improve its business prospects.

For the majority of Indians, the country's northeast is stereotyped as exotic, home to several backward tribes. In reality, the region - sandwiched between Tibet and Bangladesh in the west and flanked by Burma to the south - produces some of India's most educated youth, who have no difficulty mainstreaming into a multi-cultural environment in India and abroad.

But at home, job opportunities commensurate with their skills and aspirations are scarce. Many have migrated to India's urban centers to work in the service industry, where they are readily hired for their English-language skills and strong work ethic.

For years the central government has been trying to integrate the isolated states, the so-called "Seven Sisters," into the national economy. There is little indication of significant progress.

Substantial money has been poured into exploiting the region's natural resources that are much in demand by the rest of India, which is experiencing a booming economy and a shortage of energy. But such projects have been of little benefit to the indigenous population.

At the Northeast Trade Expo in the Indian capital, Kevitsabi Savino mans the booth displaying samples mined at Nagaland's fledgling, lone, marble quarry. The manager of the state's mineral development corporation, is meeting with prospective clients who traditionally buy from the state of Rajasthan, the source of 95 percent of the marble produced in the country.

"We are a small state and still very backward to be very frank," said Savino. "So we have got a long way still to catch up even within India itself."

Savino says he appreciates the support shown by India's central government to promote Nagaland's resources, but for the state to be even marginally competitive with Rajasthan it will need massive improvements to its poor infrastructure.

"I feel the government also is trying their best because slowly we are also seeing certain development coming up," he said. "Infrastructure is a problem, like good roads, communications and electricity. All those, slowly, it has to come up first."

The potential is huge, even for exports beyond India's borders.

Nagaland is believed to hold one-billion tons of high-calcium limestone, which can be used to build roads and to help make a wide range of products, including chemicals and steel. But without a cost-efficient way to get the rock from the landlocked state to distant ports, foreign markets remain out of the question.

What Savino does not mention is Nagaland's other major barrier to development - namely, one of the world's longest-running insurgencies that has been the catalyst for rebel movements throughout the restive northeast.

Merchants from the region joke half-seriously that insurgencies are the northeast's biggest industry with the rebels far more successful in making money through extortion and kidnappings than in propagating revolution or ideology.

As Assamese silk weaver Hriday Moral sits at his small loom at the trade fair, the terrorist violence in his resource-rich state seems far away. He boasts that manually woven premium Moga silk makes for far superior shirts, saris, and shawls than those spun by machines.

Moral says he does not see much support from the government in promoting his high-end product. A once-a-year trade fair in New Delhi will not accomplish much, he bemoans. Moral says government agencies tasked with promoting local crafts such as his need to do more.

Many of the stalls of the seven northeastern states feature similar low-end products, such as simple wooden toys, wire flower vases, and cane mats made by grassroots cooperatives. It is unlikely these sorts of items of little distinction could ever compete with the cheap, mass-produced made-in-China products now ubiquitous throughout India and the world.

There are exceptions, such as some of the products from the only Indian state at the fair not among the Seven Sisters, Sikkim. An independent kingdom until forcibly annexed by India in the 1970's, Sikkim is displaying colorful carpets and other handicrafts that, even to the unskilled eye, stand out.

The director of Sikkim's handicrafts directorate, Namrata Thapa, also mentions infrastructure challenges. She says this is a barrier to promoting and selling her state's handmade products, including the much sought-after knotted woolen carpets using one of the world's oldest forms of weaving on an upright wooden-frame loom.

"In spite of so many obstacles, hindrances, we are all trying to give our best so that our handicrafts of my state get a proper place in the global market," said Thapa. "And in the process it becomes sustainable also so that we do not have to depend on our state government, so that we do not have to depend on ministries also."

But for now, many craftsmen and traders from the northeast are appealing for additional support from state governments and ministries.

Many economists and some state planners warn dependence on the government for welfare handouts, including public-sector jobs, poorly thought-out development plans, and low-interest loans prevent the Seven Sisters and Sikkim from fending for themselves and achieving self-sustaining growth.