By Riddhi Mahanta
Advantage Assam’, the Assam Global Investor’s Summit held in February 2018, was the largest ever investment promotion initiative by the government of Assam. It opened with much fanfare and was covered extensively by the media.
This commentary assesses the summit’s development programmes that broadly align with India’s Act East Policy (AEP) through the lens of the tourism sector. It will highlight how the government’s tourism policy could benefit other development agendas, and tackle illegal migration, by making a case for both ‘inclusive’ and investment-oriented development. This approach could have positive benefits not only for Assam but also the other Northeastern states because of their close proximity and interdependence.
Tourism and Environment
India’s Northeast is an ecologically-sensitive region where the environment needs to be kept at the centre of development projects. A major reason for this is also the dependence of indigenous, tribal communities on forest land and locally-found natural resources. For centuries, they earned their subsistence through traditional methods of production for local consumption.
In recent times, however, disruptive activities like deforestation have disturbed the ecological balance of the region by intensifying endemic natural disruptors, like floods. This has, in turn, been a major set-back for the construction of roads and trade. The government of Assam proposed ‘responsible tourism’ (RT) as part of its agenda to preserve the delicate eco-system. For thid, the government needs to also ensure sustainable development through afforestation measures that involve the local communities. This will increase trust and regional amity by keeping environment conservation at the very centre of the tourism policy.
Local to Global Connectivity
A strong human resource base forms the bedrock of a lucrative tourism industry. In this context, creating employment and generating income in rural and urban towns is at the centre of the tourism policy document.
By linking local associations with modern industry and technological know-how, the government is attempting to create employment in rural towns within Assam by promoting ‘rural tourism’, which entails tourist visits to villages, thus strengthening local connections, globally. The government has proposed the Dr Bhupen Hazarika Samannay Kshetra, a multi-community tourist village, and the Dola-Sadiya bridge in Assam to showcase the co-existence of different communities to promote community-level participation. Dr Bhupen Hazarika was a legendary singer and brought the different communities of Assam together through literature and poetry.
Further, in keeping with the Act East Policy, the government aims to collaborate with Southeast Asian nations by instrumentalising their commonalities with Assam. This will increase local to global connectivity.
Migration and Human Capital
The government’s tourism policy deems human capital as central to the efficient operation and growth of tourism and related industries. This is because tourism is a labour-intensive sector. The aim is to transform human resources into human capital with effective inputs in education, health, and other such sectors.
The tourism sector can offer pragmatic solutions to resolve the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh. One way to do this is to enable their transformation into a strong human resource base, for which the tourism sector can step in.
The government aims to conduct skill training programmes for the indigenous youth which can also be extended to immigrants. For example, in the US, youth residing in the country illegally are granted access to public K-12 education and benefits regardless of citizenship status. This template can be adapted to the Assam context to provide unskilled immigrant youth access to educational benefits in the field of tourism.
The task to deport illegal migrants, if considered realistically, is impossible. To include them as a strong labour force in the tourism industry by enhancing skill training can help strengthen Assam’s human capital. Thus far, there is an overwhelming structural demand in the labour market for unskilled immigrant labour in jobs that natives have not traditionally sought. Skill training can thus enhance the quality of the labour force and broaden the horizon of employment options.
Skill development must be given top priority. The government of Assam aims to conduct skill development certificate programmes in the hospitality and tourism sector along with foreign exchange programmes with Southeast Asian nations. The government of India’s ‘Skill India’ and ‘Hunar Se Rojgar Tak’ initiatives are sought to be actualised through these platforms.
Implementation of a policy requires cooperation and stable political alliances within and beyond a state. The creation of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) reflects a positive and common pattern in government thinking and policy frameworks across the region.
The Assam government’s tourism sector, by cooperating with other states, will only boost this collaborative framework. By implementing India’s ‘Make in India’ initiative to strengthen localised production, the government’s emphasis must remain on strengthening regional connectivity and ensuring community-level participation in development initiatives.