Page last updated at 17:22 GMT, Sunday, 7 February 2010

Poverty and power in one of India's poorest areas

Lady in Meghalaya
Elderly people in the village in the state of Meghalaya seem even more destitute

By Delnaaz Irani
India Business Report, BBC World, Meghalaya

Kran Sumer looks at least 20 years younger than his actual age.

It's not because he's had an easy life. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

The 75-year-old has lived a hard, laborious village life, often struggling to make ends meet.

I came across him as he was carrying a back-breaking load of firewood, strapped to his body by only a cloth wrapped around this forehead.

Heading home along the main road, Kran seemed completely unaware of the severe strain the load appeared to be causing his neck and back. Instead, upon sighting us, he grinned from ear to ear, gesturing us to follow him into his village.

Kran's village, Umling, is tucked away deep in the mountainous range of Meghalaya, in India's North East.

Kran carrying wood
Life here is difficult for us. There is no water supply, no roads, no jobs
Kran Sumer

He lives in a bamboo hut located on top of the mountain. Barefoot and bent under the load, Kran is lightening quick as he makes his way up through the muddy tracks that wind around the mountain's surface.

The only hint of any discomfort is the occasional grunt he lets out around one of the intricate turns on the long way up.

After easing the load of his back and catching his breath, Kran finally explains what we have noticed in his village all along.

"Life here is difficult for us. There is no water supply, no roads, no jobs," says Kran.

"I live alone and don't have a family to support anymore, which makes things a bit easier. But all of us living here are farmers. We are living off the land to survive."

Destitute

Kran's village is one of the poorer areas of Meghalaya.

Infants play covered in mud and grime, being nursed by their elder siblings. Other children, no older than eight years old, are carrying loads twice their size and weight on their backs, helping out with the household responsibilities.

Rohit Jain
The infrastructure has been slow to develop. They do not have enough power today to supply to the real industries
Rohit Jain, industrialist

Elderly people in the village seem even more destitute. We spot an old woman sitting cross-legged staring blankly into the distance, unemployed and poor. Her teeth are stained red from chewing tobacco flavoured betel leaf.

Images like this are not uncommon across the region. India's north-east region has one of the most underdeveloped economies in the country.

There are no big industries set up in any of the seven states with the exception of Assam.

Almost everything that you'd find in the region, from cars to stationery, would have been manufactured outside and brought into the region.

Fear of violence

One of the main reasons companies have been keeping away is fear of militancy.

India's North East is one of South Asia's hottest trouble spots. A long and bloody history of militancy and insurgency has tainted the region's reputation. There are as many as 30 armed insurgent groups still believed to be operating within the North East.

This problem is made worse by the region's geography. The North East is connected to India by only a narrow strip of land called the Siligiri Corridor or the Chicken's neck.

Over 98% of the region shares international borders with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

New initiatives

According to experts like Dr Sanjeeb Kakoti, professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong, the region's geography could be an opportunity for trade, but has not been developed.

Industry in Meghalaya
Firms are provided with incentives to set up in the industrial zone

"One of the most important issues that faces the region is lack of connectivity, lack of good roads, a lack of good airports, lack of railway connectivity", says Dr Kakoti.

"These are issues that are holding back the economic growth of the region.

"But thankfully in the last few years you find that there is a change in government policies there is a whole lot of money being pumped in for infrastructure development."

One such government-led initiative is the Export Promotion Industrial Project, set up at Byrnihat, in the Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya.

In this industrial zone, firms are provided basic infrastructure and incentives, like tax holidays and subsidies, to set up their operations.

The goal is to attract investors into the region and it appears to be working. But the development is not without its stumbling blocks.

Distant dream

Rohit Jain is a industrialist who has three factories operating in steel production, set up in the industrial zone.

He tells us that at times because of severe power shortages, the productivity of his businesses are more than halved.

"With the development of the industries, naturally the infrastructure, the power, has to also develop."

"But the infrastructure has been slow to develop, the power sector is yet to take off in the real sense in Meghalaya. They do not have enough power today to supply to the real industries," says Mr Jain.

Despite its shortcomings, many firms are already taking advantage of the region's rich natural resources, like limestone and coal.

Several cement companies have already set up in region and many more have plans yet to enter.

But this sort of development is not really welcomed by the locals.

The feeling of exploitation runs deep within the region.

Many feel that unless the companies do more than just take the natural resources out of the region, they don't stand to gain.

Hence development, in the real sense of the word, may still be a long way off.



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