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Positive Points and Problematic Issues Related to the Trilateral Highway

 

  • The most prominent ‘high’ of the entire Trilateral Highway Project is that all three stakeholders (India, Myanmar and Thailand) are actively pushing the project and have evinced keen interest in trying to make it work. Under these circumstances, provided the three Governments can resolve their relevant related problems given below, the project would undoubtedly be a game changer for the entire region.

 

  • India must achieve a resolution to the insurgency along the entire route of AH 1 within India, i.e., in the Bodo belt of Assam, ULFA insurgency in Lower and Central Assam, Karbi Anglong, North Cachar Hills, Manipur and Nagaland. Myanmar must do the same across the Myanmar border in Sagaing and part of Kachin States – the Somra Naga Hill Tracts. Extortion along the route is extensive; hence it is not at all cost-effective to ply trucks on the same – it is in fact currently cheaper and safer to send goods from the NER via the Chicken’s neck to Kolkata and further to Myanmar/Thailand by sea due to this problem.

 

  • It needs to be noted that Myanmar strongly feels that unless India resolves the law and order situation in Manipur, trade along the Trilateral Highway would, on the Indian side remain in the hands of Indian smugglers and insurgent groups as is the case at present and not increase in volume. They also openly express that Indian execution of any project takes too long – other countries execute work much faster and better.

 

  • Thailand also feels that India must resolve the insurgency problem if cross border trade is to work effectively – Thailand also talks openly about there being a “trust deficit” between Indian and Thai businessmen due to the unscrupulous character trade carried out by some Indian businessmen. This aspect needs to be attended to by the Government of India.

 

  • Finding an early resolution of the Assam Citizenship agitation in Assam is necessary, failing which, the AH 1 route is likely to be blocked by agitators.

 

  • According to the author, pending resolution of the Naga Accord issue and insurgency in Manipur and Nagaland, there is a need to develop and channelize all major trade through Mizoram–Silchar–Aizawl–Seling–Champhai–Zokhawthar–Rhi–Tiddim–Kalewa on the Friendship Highway. This could be considered to be a loop to AH 1. While this route also stands approved for development, no construction on the same has commenced – this must be speeded up (widening and improvement of road from Seling to Champhai, completion of the new road from Champhai to Zokhawthar, and construction of the road from Zokhawthar to Tiddim).

 

  • The substantial illegal trade and smuggling and the battle for control of the same by the NSCN (IM), the Kukis and the Meitei insurgent groups on the Tamu–Moreh route has to be brought under control and illegal trade on Zokhawthar Rhi border which is very substantial has to be regularized.17,19,20.

 

  • It is not cost-effective to transport goods from Kolkata or North India by road via AH 1 through the NER to Myanmar or Thailand in comparison to shipping them by sea to Dawei and thence to Bangkok or Rangoon or to ship these goods directly to South East Asia – attention is drawn to research carried out by Prof Gurudas Das of Silchar in this regard. The Private sector and the Indian, Myanmar and Thailand Governments need to invest and set up suitable industry in Manipur, Barak Valley, Mizoram and Tripura based on the availability of local resources for export from there. If that is not done all that we will have is roads without development. Currently there is only a flow of mainly Chinese origin goods (and a sprinkling of Myanmarese goods) from Myanmar with little or no movement of goods from India to Myanmar.

 

  • The local population must be involved in the project and the Act East Policy – all locals say that while in the overall context, the project may be of help to develop the region, they have not been involved and that they will not accept mere transit of goods through their territory without value addition, i.e. setting up of industries, which gives locals employment and improves their standard of living.

 

  • The Sichar–Badarpur–Bishnupur–Imphal NH 53 is in extremely bad condition and not useable except in dry weather. This needs urgent doing up. Even the NH 39 through Nagaland is in bad shape.

 

  • The NH 44 from Silchar to Shillong also needs upgradation and major repair in patches.

 

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project

 

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport project will connect the port of Kolkata with Sittwe port (old Akyab) in Rakhine State of Myanmar by sea. It will link Sittwe seaport to Paletwa, in Chin State, Myanmar, via River Kaladan and then by road to Zorinpui village in Mizoram state in North East India. The project was scheduled to be completed by 2014, but is now expected to be operational only by 2020 earliest (in the author’s view this may not happen till 2022/23) as all components of the project are not complete. While Sittwe port, dredging of River Kaladan, Paletwa jetty, have been completed, as of date the construction of the 109 km Zorinpui-Paletwa road is yet to start and the 100 km stretch of road in Mizoram from Zorinpui to Lawngtlai  still has seven bridges to be constructed, as also final surfacing and black topping of the road. The project has several sections combining multi-modes of transport as described below:

 

Section 1Sea – 539 km of shipping route from Kolkata in India to Sittwe in Myanmar via Bay of Bengal. While this sea route has been operational for several decades Sittwe, has required construction of concrete jetties, upgradation of facilities and dredging to take only small ships of 6000 dwt. Bigger ships would therefore have to anchor about 10 km off shore, off load their cargo into barges to be taken into Sittwe port. In comparison, the Chinese have leased Kyaukpyu just about 50 km to the south, which is a deep sea port capable of taking in all types of shipping. This will need resolution by the Government of India – larger ships would have to probably use Dawei, further to the south, being developed by Thailand for Myanmar.

 

Section 2 – River158 km river route by Inland Water Transport (IWT) from Sittwe to Inland Water Terminal (IW Terminal) at Paletwa jetty via River Kaladan in Myanmar. This has been completed. The author is however advised that there is at least one lock gate enroute which increases traversing time. This route involves transshipment at Sittwe to IWT and then again at Paletwa through godowns into suitable trucks/container yards. In 2017, six IWT cargo vessels were handed over by India to Myanmar – these are meant to facilitate transportation of goods from Sittwe to Paletwa. The cost of the vessels – $81.29 million – was met through a grant from India.

 

 

 

Section 3 – By Road in Myanmar about 109 kmfrom IW Terminal Paletwa to Zorinpui at Indo-Myanmar border on the Mizoram border. Zorinpui has been opened as an immigration check post in Lawngtlai district since October 2017 – the ICP while approved is yet to be constructed and established. While Construction contract was awarded in June 2017, work is yet to commence. While this was to be completed by 2019, the author is of the view that this would not be completed before 2022/23, due to the insurgency problem in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and extremely difficult terrain with virgin forest. It is understood that the Government of India is also examining the possibility of constructing a highway linking Paletwa with the AH 1.

 

Section 4 – The route then passes through South Mizoram in India, over a 100 km road from the Indo-Myanmar border at Zorinpui to Lawngtlai in Mizoram. From Lawngtlai it is connected to Aizawl-Saiha NH 54 at Lawngtlai in Mizoram in India, which then continues to Aizawl (249 km) (with Lawngtlai-Lunglei stretch in a bad condition) and further to Silchar in Assam (174 km) along NH 54 (in a bad condition) or to Churachandpur via the NH 159 (in a deplorable state) or onto the rest of the NER (none of which is really fit for taking very heavy vehicles or container traffic till conditions are improved). This route is all part of the larger East-West Corridor connecting NER with the rest of India. According to the author, this may take three to four years, if not longer to complete.

 

Sittwe Special Economic Zone (Sittwe SEZ) – the SEZ is being established at Ponnagyun town. The 1000 acre SEZ will be built 60 km north from Sittwe upstream of River in Ponnagyun town. China is also building a rival Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone and a port, which is around 80 km south of Sittwe. The SEZ will facilitate trade inland into Myanmar as also setting up of industries.

 

Gas pipeline – There is also a proposal to construct 1,575 km long Sittwe-Aizwal-Silchar-Guwahati-Siliguri-Gaya gas pipeline to transport gas from Sittwe gas field where Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and GAIL hold 30 percent stake in oil and gas exploration.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.