By Julien Levesque and Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman
New Delhi, Apr.11 : Thanks to the 130 million dollar multi-modal Kaladan project, Mizoram could emerge as an "economic gateway for north east India.
Inked last week during Burmese leader Maung Aye's visit to New Delhi, the project undoubtedly provides an opportunity to transform Mizoram.
But one should have a look at the issues besetting the state before hastily promising transformation. Hosting a Burmese population temporarily has often been perceived as a problem, and one would not be wrong in saying that the Mizos might consider connectivity between Mizoram and Myanmar through the Kaladan project a potential seed for inviting more difficulties.
Certainly almost 100,000 Burmese, most of who are Chins, migrated to Mizoram as a result of political and military oppression and economic disadvantage. Therefore, they can be termed as refugees. But as Indian legislation gives no real definition to what is refugee status, Mizoram's Burmese population falls into a legal loophole that denies them help and protection.
To obtain refugee status and its accompanying Rs.1400 indemnity, the Burmese have to apply to the UNHCR office in New Delhi.
However, a closer look at Mizoram's Burmese population reveals that a large proportion of them are floating, coming in and out with ease, in search of better economic opportunities as domestic workers, labourers, coolies and street vendors.
Except crossing the international boundary, their migration is quite similar to that undertaken by seasonal migrant workers within India.
Mizoram's Burmese population can be categorized into three groups: political activists, for whom going back means signifies being arrested - a thousand maximum -; settlers, who have chosen to build a new life in Mizoram until the situation improves on the other side of the border; and migrant workers, who come in quest of employment.
The latter may well represent more than 50 percent Mizoram's Burmese population. In fact, the UNHCR argues that apart from a handful of political refugees, more than 90 percent of Mizoram's Burmese are economic migrants.
Chins and Mizos share a common linguistic, cultural, historical, religious, and genetic identity, which facilitates the Chins' integration in Mizoram. his larger "Zo" identity breeds solidarity between the two communities, which can be highlighted by comparing Mizos' treatment of Brus and Chakmas with that reserved to Chins.
Nevertheless, Mizoram's Burmese often play the role of scapegoat. Locals pin on them responsibility for many crimes, accuse them of spreading what the Young Mizo Association - a mass youth organization that has gained considerable power and influence over the years - describes as the "two evils," drugs and alcohol, the latter being prohibited in Mizoram since 1997.
However, the blame should rather fall on the authorities, who have not shown active and earnest commitment to monitor the inflow of drugs.
Although formally legalized since 2004, border trade between Mizoram and Chin state in Myanmar has been going on for years informally. In spite of this, the Land Customs and the police do not admit keeping any estimates of informal transactions.
Similarly, the police do not keep track of Burmese illegal immigrants, behind the banner of physical and linguistic similarities that make it particularly difficult to determine who is what.
Such passivity can only stir up existing tensions between Mizos and Burmese. Moreover, drugs could substantially hamper the state's development by spoiling Mizoram's best asset - its educated population.
On the other hand, unmonitored immigration could deteriorate Mizoram's second advantage: its peaceful situation, rare in the Northeast.
Therefore, for the Kaladan project to successfully transform the economy of Mizoram, the issues of drugs and immigration must seriously be addressed so that enhanced connectivity is welcomed as the chance to reintegrate with the surrounding region rather than a new source of perturbation.