Northeast India

Human Development Index Mapped for Greater South Asia and the Southern Himalayan Belt.

A recent GeoCurrents post on Nepal noted that the country has experienced less development than the rest of the southern Himalayan region, which was illustrated with an old map of per capita GDP. A more recent map of the Human Development Index (HDI) makes the same point: Nepal scores worse on this metric than either Bhutan or any of India’s Himalayan states.

The 2021 map of the Human Development Index (HDI) across greater South Asia shows the Himalayan belt in general ranking significantly higher than the adjacent lowlands of north-central and northeastern India. These results may seem paradoxical, as highland areas of rough topography are often much less developed than nearby areas of flat topography, which typically have much better infrastructure. But in many parts of the world, this generalization does not hold. As can be seen in the map below, the mountains of far-northeastern India have much higher levels of human development than the adjacent lowlands, whether in India, Bangladesh, or Burma. India’s small states along the Burmese boundary have relatively high HDI scores despite their rugged topography, problems with ethnic insurgency, and history of relative isolation. This seeming anomaly is partially explained by the educational focus of Christian missionaries in the region. Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya all have solid Christian majorities, while Manipur is almost half Christian and Arunachal Pradesh has a Christian plurality. Recent Indian infrastructural investments, along with the gradual reduction in insurgency, have also boosted human and economic development in the region.

The densely populated lowland states of north-central India have the country’s lowest levels of human development, despite forming the historical core of South Asia. This area of low HDI also extends into the mostly lowland state of Assam in northeastern India. Somewhat higher levels of human development, however, are encountered in the lowland Bengali-speaking zone encompassing Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. This area was until recently one of the poorest and least developed parts of South Asia, but it has experienced significant improvements in recent years. It is probably not coincidental that Bengalis have a well-deserved reputation for educational interest and intellectual engagement. To reflect the relatively high position of the Bengali-speaking zone in lowland northeastern South Asia, I have reconfigured the South Asia HDI map to depict Bengal as if it were a separate polity.

The partition of British India in 1947 was also a partition of Bengal, and the violence and economic destruction associated with it long held back the Bengali-speaking zone. A similar event occurred on the other side of South Asia, as the partition of British India was also a partition of Punjab. But here an entirely different pattern emerged. The parts of pre-partition Punjab that went to India (Punjab State, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh) have all experienced striking improvements in human well-being. The large Pakistani province of Punjab, on the other hand, has lagged behind, as has most of the rest of the country in which it is located. This pattern is not easy to explain. From 1947 to 1971, when Pakistan and Bangladesh formed one country, what was then West Pakistan was far ahead of what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on almost every economic and human-developmental score. But while Bangladesh experienced substantial improvements, Pakistan has struggled.

To illustrate the human-developmental gap between Pakistan and India/Bangladesh, I made another iteration of the HDI map that breaks down both Pakistan and India into their largest constituent units. I had to go back to 2019 to find easily accessible HDI data at this level, and I am not sure if the data are fully comparable. What the map shows, however, is stark, with Pakistani Punjab and most of the rest of the country coming in with scores much lower than almost any part of India. The extraordinarily low HDI figure for Balochistan is highly significant, helping explain the long-running insurgency of this resource-rich region.

Pakistan’s higher HDI values are found in the mountainous northern regions of the country. Other than tiny Islamabad, the country’s highest HDI levels are in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan (areas claimed by India). Gilgit-Baltistan is noted for his extremely rugged topography and, until recently, its relative isolation from the rest of the world. It has, however, seen remarkable gains in education and social development more generally over the past several decades. Pakistani infrastructural investments, aimed at securing access to western China, have no doubt play a role. More important have been the developmental projects of the Aga Khan Foundation. Many of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are Nizari Ismai’li Shia Muslims, a group headed by the Aga Khan. The Nizari Ismai’lis in general are a cosmopolitan, liberal, and well-educated people, and their leaders are keen to help their co-religionists in the most remote and rugged corners of northern Pakistan.

The final map in this post is the base map on which all of the other maps are constructed. Like all GeoCurrents maps, it is made in simple presentation software, Apple Keynote (equivalent to PowerPoint). Before long, I hope to make this map available for free on this website in both Keynote and PowerPoint formats. It is a very simple matter to click on any of the units and change their color or their boundaries in any way one sees fit. Similarly, the place names can be deleted, and others can be added, very easily.

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Declining Violence In Northeastern India

On January 19, 2010, a grenade attack near the Manipur Police Chief’s residence in northeastern India critically injured three people. No one has yet claimed responsibility, and it would be risky to venture a guess, since for sheer diversity of insurgent groups it is hard to beat northeastern India. This remote and little-known area is divided into seven states. According to the website South Asian Terrorism Portal, the state of Manipur has 15 active or proscribed “terrorist/insurgent groups” (as well as 25 inactive organizations), while nearby Assam has 11, Meghalaya four, Nagaland and Tripura three each, and Mizoram two. No such groups are listed for Arunachal Pradesh, but it too has seen insurgent violence in recent years – and it is claimed in its entirety by China, greatly complicating Indo-Chinese relations. Insurgent groups in northeastern India have a strong tendency to divide and proliferate. The Kuki people of Manipur, for example, are “represented” by the Kuki Liberation Army, the Kuki National Army, the Kuki Liberation Front, and the United Kuki Liberation Front – with another nine Kuki insurgent groups currently listed as inactive.

Historically speaking, the uplands of northeastern India have closer cultural affiliations with Southeast Asia than with South Asia. They belong to India only because British imperial agents were determined to secure the vulnerable borderlands of their Indian empire. Local peoples tend to resent Indian authority, as well as the authority of the larger local ethnic groups that dominate the region’s seven states.

In most parts of the region violence has receded in recent years. Whereas Nagaland saw 154 insurgency-related deaths in 2007, the 2009 total was only 17; in Meghalaya, the death count dropped from 79 in 2003 to just 4 in 2009. Only in Manipur and Assam have body counts remained high (369 and 371, respectively, last year). Due to the lessened violence, India has recently opened parts of the northeast to tourism. For those interested in visiting the area, Northeast India Diary (http://www.northeastindiadiary.com/meghalaya-travel/wildlife-in-meghalaya.html) provides information on local attractions. On a trip to Meghalaya’s Balpakram National Park, it claims, one might see “elephants, wild buffaloes, gaur (Indian bison), sambar, barking deer, wild boar, slow loris, capped langur as well as predators such as tigers, leopards, clouded leopards and the rare golden cat.”

In Nagaland and Mizoram, some observers attribute the recent decline in fighting to peacemaking efforts by local church organizations. Owing to successful missionary activities during the colonial period, both states are now strongly Christian: more than 75 percent of the population of Nagaland is Baptist, whereas Mizoram is more than 90 percent Christian (mostly Presbyterian). Missionary schooling has led to high levels of education. Mizoram boasts India’s second highest literacy rate (91%), trailing only Kerala. Education, however, has not led to economic prosperity. Lack of infrastructure and insecurity are the major problems, but so too are the famines that occur every few decades after the synchronous flowering and then death of the state’s massive bamboo groves. When the bamboo flowers and seeds, rodent and insect populations explode; when the plants subsequently perish, rats and bugs invade fields and granaries. The most recent such famines occurred in 2006-2007.

The decline in violence in northeastern India is quite in contrast to the situation in east-central India, where a Maoist insurgency is gaining in strength. But that is a topic for a later post.

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