The northeastern states of India – Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, the Seven Sisters, as they are called, with the addition of the little brother, Sikkim, are remote from the rest of India, and not very well-connected by road or rail. Yet they are among the most beautiful places in India and contain among them more diversity – biotic and ethnic – than the rest of India.
I was lucky to have spent about two years of my youth , between 1976 and 77, in this region as a marketing management trainee 0f Philips, the Dutch multinational electronics company. I traveled extensively and developed an abiding love foe the region and its people. This got a natural fillip when in 1992, Mr Sam Palia, then Executive Director of the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI) decided to step down from the IDBI and establish a foundation for catalysing development in the area. This was called the Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi (RGVN), headquartered in Guwahati. Mr Palia asked me to join as a Trustee in the RGVN and help him set up operations. I spent a fair amount of time doing this.
The first Executive Director of RGVN was the late Rahul Bhimjiani, my brilliant but eccentric classmate from IIM, Ahmedabad. Another early team member, whom I helped recruit in RGVN was the late Prabhab Datta, a dynamic Assamese youngster, who had worked as a spearhead team member in the Operation Flood, the project launched by Dr Kurien of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), to establish cooperatives along the lines of the highly successful Anand Milk Union Ltd (AMUL) in Gujarat. Prabhab had picked up all the good lessons from this experience and was ready to try out new development ideas in the northeast, Rahul’s brain was a factory of new ideas for development.
With the leadership of Mr Palia ensuring funding support and creditibility, it was go, go, go! In its first ten years, the RGVN had identified over 1000 small development projects – mostly for income generating activities baaed on agriculture, horticulture, forestry, animal husbandry, fishery, handicrafts and services like eco-tourism. RGVN did this by identifying over 700 small NGOs, some near start ups., and giving them support and guidance, but most importantly, reposing faith in them, which was rarely done by outsiders to north-easterners. In addition, the RGVN also incubated the Credit and Savings Program (CSP). This was based on the Grameen Bank , Bangladesh (GBB) model. Prabhab had come for a visit of the GBB along with me in 1995. Within a few weeks of coming back, he launched the RGVN CSP, which I am told is the biggest microfinance program in the northeast.
Alas, neither Rahul Bhimjiani, nor Prabhab Dutta, were there to meet on this trip. Rahul succumbed to cancer a few years ago, Prabhab to a massive cardiac arrest many years before. Nor was a third friend. Sanjoy Ghose, who was abducted and killed by the cadres of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). My trip to the Northeast was a silent remembrance to all of them, and though I had planned to visit Sanjoy’s last work centre, the Bhrhamaputra river island of Majuli, eventually I could not.
With me on this leg were Sushil Ramola, my IIM-Ahmedabad 1979-81 class mate and now co-founder and CEO of the BASIX Academy for Building Lifelong Employability (B-ABLE); Pragnya Seth, a close family friend who again has known my development career since 1981 like Sushil; Amit Mehta, CEO of BASIX Sub-K i-Transactions Ltd, who was to join us in Dimpaur, but eventually did so in Imphal;
We also had with us (only for the first day and a half), Dilip Sarma, an Assamese post graduate in social anthropology from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who left his job in the State Bank of Hyderabad to come back to work for the development of the northeast ten years ago. He started off as the person to run the CSP of the RGVN, but soon decided that he did not want to be constrained to be a banker. So he started the Centre for Humanistic Development (CHD), an NGO, based in Guwahati. Through CSD, Dilip has don done a number of studies and projects to understand the youth of the northeast.
Dilip Sarma on training the militant youth of the NorthEast
Sushil, Pragnya and I landed in Guwahati at about 10 am on 19th March which was a Saturday before Holi, the colour throwing festival of north India. Dilip Sarma had come to the airport to pick us up and we were to drive straight to Shillong since there was little influence of Holi up there. Along with Dilip came Shubrajyoti Bharali, a post-graduate of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA), the A coming from Anand, where the Anand Milk Union lTd (AMUL) was such a success. I had met Shubhra during bhis IRMA dyas and had encouraged his plans to come back to Assam and had given him some early exposure to microfinance and development work. He came back an set up Axomi, an NGO which is doing some very good work in microcredit as well as in the dairy sector. See more at: http://www.asomi.co.in/2/index.html Shubhra had come to the airport just to welcome me and he did it in traditional Assmese style, by putting a fresh gamocha (hand-woven piece of cloth), lily white, with dash of pink weft design.
Then we headed to Shillong, but as it had rained very heavily the previous night, the journey, instead of being four hours, took seven. We were lucky there were no formal meeting on the other side, but I had told a whole lot of people that I will meet them. Given that it starts getting dark by 5.30pm, we decided to call all of them to one place. But where is there a place to be found at such short notice that 20-30 people can fit in? Eventually, we asked Sanjib Kakoty, faculty member at the Indian Insititute of Management, Shillong, whom I was going to see, if we could ask the others to also assemble at hos home. Sanjeeb and his charming Naga-Kuki wife Chong were not only incredibly gracious in permitting that at such a short notice, but they gave everybody a sumptuous repast and warm cup of tea.
After every body had their refreshments, I announced that I was going to have some serious video interviews – one with Patrcia Mukhim, Editor of the Shillong Daily who had recently become a member of the BASIX Holding Board ; another with Sanjib on the Gandhian tradition in the northeast, and one with Dilip on his work with unemployed, militant Bodo youth,
I did manage to get these wonderful people to speak on camera, and I advise the intersted reader to log on to the following links:
Patricia Mukhim explains development challenges of Northeastern states
Sanjib Kakoty on Gandhians in the Northeast
When Sanjib was talking he mentioned that his father was one of the people who walked with Vinoba Bhave in the northeast and indeed, Vinoba’s shoes for this stretch were htus lying with the family as a memento. Sanjib took us upstairs to his father amd mother’s stidy to show us the shoes, neatly displayed in a glass case. It was very touching for me to once again come so close to Vinoba!
It was already 9pm and we thanked our gracious hots, Sajnib and Chong and made our way to a nearby lodge for the night stay. Escorting us was Chris Cajee, a Khasi young technocrat, who has set up a BPO in Meghalaya and also a solid waste management facility in both Shillong and in Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh. Chris was very helpful to BASIX as well when we were setting up the common service centres in Meghalaya – we have nearly 200 of them all over the state.