India Insight

Permit-free visits for foreigners to India’s Unexplored Paradise?

INDIA CHINA BORDERFor the first time in half a century, India plans to let foreigners visit all of its troubled north east without special permits, opening up the picturesque region that New Delhi hopes will be its gateway to Southeast Asia, local media have reported.

If the proposal goes through, it will open up the eight north eastern states that remains a mystery even to many Indian, a region so unexplored that India’s tourism board sells it as “Paradise Unexplored.”

It could also give a fillip to the local economy, which now largely is sustained on federal handouts, creating jobs and boosting incomes in the states where separatist movements have tapped into resentment over lack of development.

Seven of these states are linked to the mainland through a narrow strip of land, called the Chicken’s Neck, that runs between China and Bangladesh. Foreigners need permits to go to every state except Assam, the most developed in the region, and even Indians need passes to go to some places.

For decades, the government has restricted access, worried about the influence of Christian missionaries and other outsiders on the native cultures of the tribespeople of the region and as it tried to keep a lid on rebellions. Foreigners can travel only in groups of at least four and must be accompanied by an approved guide.

The economic paradox of north-east India

India’s seven northeastern states, known as the seven sisters, have been “on the map, but off the mind”, if one goes by the title of a Tehelka-organised seminar on the Northeast.

INDIAThe region, connected to India by a narrow stretch of land called the “chicken’s neck”, has been through a string of conflicts, seen the rise of many rebel groups, lack of infrastructure and poverty.

The World Bank describes conditions in the region as a low-level equilibrium of poverty, non-development, civil conflict and lack of faith in political leadership.

Table laid out in the winter sun

Ever had a lotus stem salad laced with fermented fish, evaporated cane juice cookie, chopped eel spiced with chillies or a plate of fried mountain onion roots?

Okay, they’re probably not on the menu of your average restaurant but to my pleasant surprise all the above and much more were on offer in New Delhi at a cultural event dedicated to northeast India.

The main attraction seemed to be the food — cuisines from all eight states that occupy India’s hilly northeast region. Maybe it was because of their novelty factor (not many restaurants in Delhi offer such dishes) but many people lined up at the food stalls (although admittedly, many were probably just gawking at the unusual dishes on display).