5 challenges faced by entrepreneurs in India’s North East region

The eight states that form the North Eastern nook of India has more or less remained indiscernible in the country’s map for decades despite being a reservoir of resources, talent, and untapped potential. Weighed down by issues such as insurgency, lack of awareness about government policies, and isolation by the national media had crippled the region for ages. The concept of entrepreneurship was neither visible nor encouraged, and the neighbourhood retail store was pretty much what owning a business meant.

Thankfully, times have changed! With people of all ages coming forward to explore possibilities, entrepreneurship has received a facelift in in North East India. Although the economy continues to be largely agrarian in nature, globalisation has pushed entrepreneurship towards an ascending curve. In the recently-concluded ‘Advantage Assam: Global Investors’ Summit 2018’, nearly 200 MoUs worth Rs 1 lakh crore was signed. While this is a very encouraging sign, a lot is yet to be achieved amid the challenges that entrepreneurs in the region need to battle with.

Here’s a look at some of the challenges and how we can overcome them.

Challenge #1: Unavailability of Quality Real Estate

For companies to grow and prosper into a large scale enterprise, incubation centres are of utmost importance. Ideal office spaces, manufacturing units, warehousing, management guidance, and capital firms are advantageous and catalytic to the success of early stage companies.

This lack of infrastructure has been a huge hindrance for a long stretch of time.

Solution: Things are however shaping up for the better because as of November 2017, North East Institute of Advanced Studies (Northeast-IAS), an institute for promoting leadership in the North-Eastern region launched a business incubator centre. This was done in collaboration with Ashden India Renewable Energy Collective (AIREC) and Ekoenergy and Climate. This effort is a huge leap forward and holds a strong promise towards the future of startups in North East India.

Challenge #2: Stereotyping

The lack of awareness about its people and culture has often turned North East India into a victim of prejudice. While people in general have learnt to shrug it off, entrepreneurs cannot help but feel the brunt of it. Jokes such as North Easterners are imports from China, or notions such as not enough people speak Hindi in the region, or the entire North East is but a jungle may seem trivial in nature but are deeply detrimental to the economic health of the region.

As a result of this paradigm, investments are hard to come by and not many skilled resources or companies are willing to relocate to the North East.

Solution: Media can play a major role in breaking these stereotypes by highlighting the potential of North East India. Efforts are already being made through social media and tourism to give outsiders a glimpse of what these eight states are really about, and how much they can contribute to the nation’s growth. Government-hosted events (cultural and business) can create a welcoming vibe and showcase how it’s worthwhile to invest in the North Eastern states.

Challenge #3: Insurgency

 It is anything but obvious that insurgency has had a crippling effect on the socio-economic development of North East India. The tenuous bridge (Siliguri) between North East and the rest of the country certainly has contributed to a deep-seated sense of alienation post-independence thus subsequently giving rise to agitation and armed rebellion. There are nearly fifty rebel groups in the region – while a few have demanded political autonomy and economic freedom, others are fighting for ethnic identities and homelands, and some even utilising insurgency as a ‘get rich quick’ plan without any political ideology. As a result, North East has earned a bad reputation with alarmingly high reporting of abductions, extortions, and mindless violence.

Needlessly to say, people from other states or countries inch away from visiting the region, let alone consider opportunities for investment and work. But, the situation has changed to a large extent today and majority of the states can claim to be as peaceful as any other Indian state. The need of the hour is a change in perception towards the region by the rest of India.

Solution: There are roadmaps suggested by thinkers, researchers, academicians that include better control over law and order situation, ethnic reconciliation, and protection of land for indigenous people. Besides competent political leadership, favourable economic policies could be a durable solution for the insurgency issue which can in turn create avenues for the much-needed socio-economic reforms.

Challenge #4: Infrastructure

The rich natural and human resources of North East India have not been utilised to its full extent primarily due to the geo-political condition. It is bad enough, that the North Eastern states have felt alienated from the rest of India for long, but what makes matters worse is that despite roads being the primary inter-state travel option, the conditions are rather disappointing. Although airports have been developed in states aside from Assam, there aren’t enough railroads to facilitate convenient travel.

The lack of proper infrastructure has not only ruined the prospects of economic development but also created a rift among various ethnic groups. This has affected the fabric of social harmony in the region and set it back by half a century! It is an unfortunate but universal truth that underdevelopment breeds insurgency and insurgency cripples development. The two are mutually reinforcing.

Solution: In order to bridge this widening gap, promote trade and commerce, and more importantly foster a bonding between the various ethnic communities, infrastructure like transport, communications, electricity, and banking must be developed adequately. That would not only shift gears for economic growth, but also enhance inter-state cooperation which will be an engine of growth for the North East.

Challenge #5: Border Trade

Exploring the vast Asian market could be a huge opportunity for the North East in terms of creating visibility of the otherwise peripheral North Eastern region. The ‘Look East Policy’ of 1991 was established with this very vision, however, it has not been fully recognised by the state and central governments. Therefore, even after close to three decades of implementation of border trade agreement, it hasn’t quite succeeded to invigorate the region’s trade with their neighbouring countries. Industrial development continues to be a farfetched dream except for a few small-scale demand based industries. The land borders with other countries have gained infamy for illegal trade, and not adequate trade happens via Bay of Bengal which could serve as a great trade route.

Solution: Sturdy diplomatic and political relations with neighbouring countries and opening legitimate and well supported trade routes could be the key to solving this problem.