Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh has a clear vision for turning his state into the medical hub of Northeast.
The driver for that clearly lies in neighbouring Myanmar. Patients from provinces like Sagaing and Chin or even Kachin state would find it cheaper to come for treatment to a border state like Manipur if Indian healthcare majors were to set up hospitals in the state.
But the key factor that would prompt them to come to a good hospital in Manipur and not take the trouble to fly to a big city in the Indian mainland is the easy availability of Indian visa.
Travelling to Yangon or even Mandalay is best avoided for patients from Burmese provinces bordering Northeast India because they involve expenses and time.
So Biren after consulting the powers that be has asked the Centre to consider visa on arrival for medical tourists from Myanmar. The sooner Delhi concedes this request from Biren, the better.
The chief minister knows the visa issue is linked to the investment issue — an Indian healthcare major like Fortis or Apollo would be inclined to set up shop in the state once it knows the visa is available on the border which assures them of a steady flow of trans-border patients.
Instead of talking about prospects for Lookeast, now Act East, Delhi needs to act on making it possible. The first stage of that is heightened two way flow on the border itself.
If more Burmese travel to Manipur for trade and treatment and more from Manipur travel to Myanmar for trade and tourism, the eastern gates will open for Manipur. If it opens for Manipur, it then opens for India.
Tripura, which has made a success of the border haats and is now looking to greater road, rail and water connectivity with Bangladesh, should take a clue from Biren Singh and demand visa on arrival for Bangladesh medical tourists.
That will prompt Indian healthcare majors to set up hospitals in the state to be used by both locals and visitors from across the border.
The future of Northeast’s economy depends on aggregating the demand and increasing the size of the market, in which tapping the market across the border plays a key role. I have often told seminar gatherings no one knows this economic truth better than smugglers, so get ideas from threat they operate.
Being a boy of the border — my hometown Agartala is the only Indian state capital right on the international border — actually helps in being able to see it not as a liability to be defended but as an opportunity to be leveraged.
If Delhi has to make a success of Act East, it has to listen to voices from the border. Frontier states like Manipur and Tripura , however small, must be allowed a greater say in the country’ s neighbourhood policy like Yunnan has played in China ‘ s southward thrust.