Politicking Infrastructure Development in Northeast India


Projects located within the neoliberal and security-centric approach bypass indigenous communities.

Sikkim road

Northeast India, in a touristic lexicon, is popularly known as seven sisters. However, Sikkim state became part of Northeast India in 2002, and it became seven sisters (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura) and one brother (Sikkim). Northeast India is a geo-politically sensitive region. It shares 98 per cent of its international boundary with China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, and only 2 per cent with other states of India. What distinguishes Northeast India from other parts of the country is its unique geopolitical terrain, binary of hills-valleys divides or in other words tribal vs non-tribal tensions, chronic social conflicts, ethnic movements, insurgency, infrastructural deficits, rich flora and fauna and so on (Ziipao, forthcoming).The region is home to above 220 ethnic communities spread across eight states (262,179 square km). It contributes 3.76 per cent of India’s population (45 million). The region is not a homogenous category. Each state has its distinct history, varied ethnic communities, structural inequality and power relation dynamics. Northeast India is lacking in infrastructural development index compared to other parts of the country even though it fares well in the human development index.

Infrastructure development is disproportionately distributed within and across the region’s respective states. There is poverty and crumbling of infrastructure wherever the ethnic minorities (tribals in Manipur, tribes of Eastern Nagaland, Naga tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, among others) predominately reside. In contrast, infrastructural facilities are fairly developed in in urban conglomeration where dominant ethnic communities reside – Imphal, Guwahati, Itanagar, Shillong, among others. Against this backdrop, one can infer the correlation between ethnicity and infrastructure development in the region on the one hand and the Indian state’s engagement in the overall development policies on the other. Kikon and McDuie-Ra (2021) ably demonstrate another dimension of infrastructural disparity in the region i.e., military vs civilian space. In militarised frontier, the binary of civilian infrastructure (underdeveloped, un-modern) and military infrastructure (developed, modern) is sharply visible. This stems from the security-centric development policy of the Indian state towards the region. Thus, the socio-political processes of investing and building infrastructure in Northeast India reveal an interesting theorisation terrain.

Contextualising infrastructure development

Infrastructure occupies a special place in Northeast India’s development discourse. The state of infrastructure in the region refracts the ideology of development and governmentality (Arora and Ziipao, 2020). However, the fundamental question remains: What is infrastructure? For Howe et.al (2015), “infrastructure is material (roads, pipes, sewers, and grids); it is social (institutions, economic systems, and media forms); and it is philosophical (intellectual trajectories: dreamt up by human ingenuity and nailed down in concrete forms)” (: 549). Star and Ruhleder (1996) conceptualised infrastructure as relational to organised practices. Echoing from this perspective, road becomes an infrastructure only when it is motorable and maintained regularly. There are empirical data from Northeast India where some roads are not motorable, there are electrified villages but without electricity supply, primary healthcare centres without doctors and nurses, schools without classrooms and teachers, etc. Hence, it is problematic to conceptualise those material structures without utility as infrastructure from a socio-anthropological lens. Larkin (2013) theorised infrastructures as the built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space. He theorised,

“Infrastructures are matter that enables the movement of other matter. Their peculiar ontology lies in the facts that they are things and also the relation between things (:329). As things, they are present to the senses, yet they are also displaced in the focus on the matter they move around (:329).”

The multi-dimensionality of infrastructure i.e. materiality, poetics, politics and aesthetic reveals an interesting domain in contemporaneous development practice. Infrastructure's material and political lives reveal fragile relations between people, things, and the public and private institutions that seek to govern them (Appel et al, 2015). This is more so in Northeast India where the emerging discourse revolves around the infrastructure of injustice and infrastructural injustice embedded in an infrastructural deficit region. Broadly, infrastructure includes roads, dams, bridges, pipelines, sewages, electric grid, multi stadia, schools, hospitals, electricity, railways, IT infrastructure, telecommunication and airports. In Northeast India, many of these infrastructures are either poorly developed or disproportionately distributed within and across the region's respective states. The dichotomy of built-environment is such that basic infrastructures are not available where needed the most, resulting in infrastructural injustice. Again, where mega infrastructures are located, for instance , hydropower projects or national/ international highways, it foregrounds injustice since there is no fairness in the distribution and benefit to local communities of such infrastructure projects. Thus, infrastructure, as much as it connects and builds networks, also destroys community structure and identity. When land is turned into a commodity and the state and dominant community appropriate such land for infrastructure development, the original inhabitant's lose control over their land, leading to injustice. More so, when the benefits from such infrastructure development are not accrued to indigenous people, which is often the case, it perpetuates injustice or what I have named infrastructure of injustice (Ziipao, 2020). With such development, a new governance system comes into play and indigenous people are forever dispossessed of their land (:175).

From the perspective of justice frameworks as fairness, equitable access and availability among varied communities and across the states, infrastructure development in Northeast India entails injustice to both people and the environment. Hence, it is imperative to locate infrastructure development from the sustainable development as well as justice framework. Contextualising infrastructure development is the key to development with justice (TICI, 2019 as cited in Bodhi and Ziipao, 2019) in Northeast India rather than a state-centric security approach and a neoliberal framework of extractive rent. Hence, the imperative of identifying those states and areas where there is poverty of infrastructure and accordingly invest and built resilient infrastructures for peace and progress.

Northeast Landscape

Politicking infrastructure policies

Historically, what is today called Northeastern states were part of various kingdoms such as Ahom, Dimasa, Kangleipak, Twipra, etc. and numerous tribal village republics during the pre-colonial period. With the onset of colonial rule, many of these kingdoms and villages lost their autonomy and were annexed by the British. Subsequently, they were made part of various administrative set ups under the British rule. At the dawn of India's independence, Northeast India comprised Assam Province, Assam Tribal areas, Manipur, Tripura, and Khasi states. Interestingly, within the Assam Province, British India created various administrative categories: The normal areas, partially excluded and excluded areas[i]. The normal areas include Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang, Nowgong, Sibsagar, Lakhimpur and Cachar district of present Assam state. The partially excluded areas include Garo Hills, Khasi and Jaintia Hills i.e. the present state of Meghalaya. The excluded areas include the Lushai Hills and Naga Hills i.e., the present state of Mizoram and parts of Nagaland state (Bodhi and Jojo, 2019).

It is interesting to note that most of the region's hilly terrains where indigenous people predominately reside were categorised as either partially excluded or excluded areas during the colonial period. This has a ramification on infrastructure development. There was a sharp difference in infrastructure availability between normal areas and those under the administrative category of partially and excluded areas. This stemmed from colonial infrastructure policies and panoply of laws in place. The poverty and crumbling of infrastructure in contemporary Northeast India are mostly experienced in the partially excluded and excluded areas. This entails that colonial legacy still finds its place in contemporaneous development practices of the region. The binary of normal-excluded areas, hills-valleys, tribal- non-tribal, military-civilian became the basic framework of infrastructure development in post-independent Northeast India. And yet, the overarching approach of the Indian state continues to be a security-centric development framework due to geopolitical sensitivity and various self-determination/ secessionist movements[ii] by varied ethnic communities from the region. 

Post-independence, the Indian state’s immediate concern was to address the issue of political integration, especially those princely states and excluded areas into the union of India. Hence, the policy focus was primarily on addressing law and order issues, national integration, securitisation[iii], territorialisation among other and not so much on infrastructure development per se. Former Union minister Jairam Ramesh succinctly summed up the Indian state approach to the region in four different paradigms: 1) cultural paradigm in the 1940s and 1950s, where the region was taken as a mosaic of cultures – exotic, endangered and best to be left alone and untouched; 2) security paradigm in 1960s, where the region witnessed the mushrooming of insurgent movements and its geo-strategic importance was realised after the Indo-China war of 1962; 3) political paradigm in 1970s and 1980s, where various states were formed and given political representation to accommodate the demand of multiple ethnic communities; 4) development paradigm from 1990s onwards, where the Northeast is perceived as development deficit and development is the only answer to the persistent issues plaguing the region (Ramesh, 2011).

Friendship Gate

It is in the development paradigm that the Northeast witnessed various policies that include infrastructure development. The Look East Policy of 1990, rechristened in 2014 as Act East Policy by the Narendra Modi government, is a pointer in case. This policy envisaged building a stagnant trade relation with South East Asian countries where Northeast India acts as the gateway. One of the prerequisites is to build connectivity infrastructure like road/ highways given the landlocked and inhospitable terrain in many parts of the region. Hence, various infrastructural projects were formulated and implemented. This includes the trilateral highway (1,360 km) connecting India (Moreh, Manipur), Myanmar, and Thailand; the frontier highway (to build 1,044 km trans-Arunachal highways); Asian Highway No. 1 (supposedly to be the longest highway in Asia that would connect Northeast India with South East Asia); the North-South and East-West Corridor; the Special Accelerated Road Development Project-Northeast; the North Eastern State Roads Investment Programme and the North-East Special Infrastructure Development Scheme. The list goes on. Srikanth (2016) pointed out that “the roads are built not so much to connect villages, towns, and cities, but to facilitate speedy movement of goods and services within and across the countries by conceiving the shortest road and train routes possible, linking cities with industrial corridors, seaports and airports” (:46). Against this backdrop, infrastructural projects such as highways that bypassed local people and economy and hydropower projects that did not accrue benefits to indigenous people amount to infrastructure of injustice.

In Northeast India, there are massive infrastructural projects in the pipeline. To illustrate, Union Minister for Road Transport, and Highways, Nitin Gadkari announced in 2017 that the Government of India planned to invest a Rs.1.45 lakh crores in Northeast India for the development of national highways[iv]. Besides, the Government of India has commissioned a large number of mega hydropower projects. From an ecological point of view, this would amount to ecological disaster as the region is already prone to frequent landslides and falls under the Seismic Zone III. Construction of highways and hydropower projects in large numbers would entail destruction of fragile ecosystems, dispossession of land and displacement of indigenous peoples and species. As pointed out by Virginius Xaxa, a renowned sociologist, the state's approach to development on indigenous/ tribal people has often been to use coercion and bypass the ethos of local communities. He posits that if cooperation from tribals are not forthcoming, coercive and violence are the means through which the state's development agenda is pursued. He termed this process as coercive development (2018). This finds relevance even on the context of Northeast India development experience. The region is experiencing a new form of securitisation of development wherein the voices of the local people remain unheard.

In the light of the new environmental impact assessment (EIA) notification of the Government of India, the policy explicitly defined “border area” as those areas falling within 100 km aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control with bordering countries of India. All linear projects in border areas are exempted from public hearings. Literally, the whole of the Northeastern states would fall under this category of border areas, which can ignite a fresh conflict between state and indigenous communities of Northeast India.[v] This entails an undermining of democratic, environmental justice and participatory forms of development. Often, infrastructure development is located within the neoliberal and security-centric approach that overshadows the needs of the local communities. Against this backdrop, there is an urgent need to seriously engage in infrastructural research in Northeast India to seek an alternative resilient infrastructure that adheres to sustainable development goals.



Appel, H, N Anand and A Gupta 2015. “Introduction: The Infrastructure Toolbox,” Cultural Anthropology, viewed on 5 January 2021, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/introduction- the-infrastructure-toolbox.

Arora, V., and Ziipao, R. R. 2020. “The Road (Not) Taken: The Materiality, Poetics and Politics of Infrastructure in Manipur, India.” Journal of South Asian Development 15 (1): 34–61. doi:10.1177/0973174119896470.

Bodhi, S. R., and R. R. Ziipao.  2019. Land, Words and Resilient Culture. The Ontological Basis of Tribal Identity. Wardha: Tribal Intellectual Collective India.

Bodhi, S. R. and Jojo, B. 2019. The Problematics of Tribal Integration: Voices from India’s Alternative Centers. Hyderabad: The Shared Mirror.

Howe, C, Jessica Lockrem, Hannah Appel, Edward  Hackett 2016: “Paradoxical Infrastructures: Ruins, Retrofit, and Risk,” Science, Technology and Human Values,41 (3): 547–65.

Jairam, R. 2011. ‘North East India in a New Asia’. In A. K. Agarwal and B. Singh (eds.), Understanding India’s North East. Guwahati: DVS Publishers.

Larkin, B. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” The Annual Review of Anthropology, 42(1): 327–343. doi:10.1146/annurev-anthro-092412-155522.

Kikon, D and McDuie-Ra, D. 2021. Ceasefire City: Militarism, Capitalism, and Urbanism in Dimapur. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Srikanth, H. 2016. ‘Look East Policy, Subregional Connectivity Projects and North East India’. Economic and Political Weekly, LI (47): 45–51.

Star, S L and K Ruhleder. 1996. “Steps towards an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces,” Information Systems Research, 7 (1): 111–34.

Xaxa, V. 2018. “Coercive Development.” Economic and Political Weekly, 53 (45): 10–11

Ziipao, R. R. 2020.Infrastructure of Injustice: State and Politics in Manipur and Northeast India. London and New York: Routledge.



[i] According to the Government of India Act, 1935, those areas which are declared as either partially excluded or excluded areas, no Act of the federal legislature or the provincial legislature shall apply unless the Governor in giving such a direction with respect to any Act may direct that the Act shall in its application to the areas, or to a specified part thereof. For instance, till today, whatever Acts passed by the Parliament of India does not apply to the state of Nagaland until it is passed or rectify by the Nagaland Legislative Assembly.

[ii] To illustrate, the Naga, Mizo, and Assam movement resorted to an armed insurgency that continued to fight for the self-determination of its ethnic community.

[iii] For instance, in 1958, the Government of India passed the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) to deal the law and order issues in Northeast India where it gives special power (even to fire upon or otherwise use force, to the causing of death) and impunity to armed forces.

[v] Retrieved from https://mittalsouthasiainstitute.harvard.edu/2020/08/infrastructural-revolution-along-indo-china-border/ (Accessed on 12 November 2021).



This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. Heinrich Böll Stiftung will be excluded from any liability claims against copyright breaches, graphics, photographs/images, sound document and texts used in this publication. The author is solely responsible for the correctness, completeness and for the quality of information provided.