image: 
Thumbnail images: 

Related Problematic Issues that Need Resolution by Government of India

 

The Kaladan project will reduce distance from Kolkata to Mizoram and other parts of the NER substantially (over 1000 km) and has been planned to reduce the need to transport goods through the narrow Siliguri corridor, also known as Chicken’s Neck. In reality however, so many transhipments and the insurgency in Rakhine State will undoubtedly drive up costs.

 

India had initially tried to persuade Bangladesh to offer transport and transit rights to the NER to its Chittagong port that is close to Agartala, the capital of Tripura in India, which was consistently refused. It is for this reason amongst others that the Sittwe project was conceived. Bangladesh is now however amenable to India’s request, including providing access by IWT to Akhaura River port which is very close to Agartala. The Government of India needs to get this route developed as the same would be less complex than the Sittwe route.

 

The Kaladan project initially faced problems of underestimation of the length of roads and plans to construct hydro electric projects on the River Chhimtuipui and River Lungleng, two tributaries of River Kaladan, followed by another project downstream. The first two projects are being built by one public sector undertaking (PSU) and the third by another PSU. This led to coordination issues and problems of navigation of boats – these issues appear to have now been at least partially resolved.

 

Route not cost-effective for bulk trade – While there is little doubt that the Sittwe project will be of help for trade with Myanmar through the Sittwe SEZ and for strategic transportation of goods, gas or oil to the NER, it is unlikely to be cost-effective as a regular route for transportation of goods to the NER due to probable high costs of transportation, caused by frequent bulk-breaking and transhipment. The insurgency problem also needs to be resolved by Myanmar before use of this route is acceptable to the private sector.

 

Upgradation of Mizoram roads – In 2017, to ensure faster movement of goods between Sittwe and Aizawl, the Government of India has approved a INR 6,000-crore upgrade of the current 2 lane 300 km Aizawl-Tuipang NH to all-weather four-laning of international standard, after the ongoing land acquisition is complete. This is a NH Authority of India project.

 

Ecological disaster – the author has personally witnessed 100 m wide swathes of virgin forest over hundreds of kilometres, chopped down for these infrastructural developments all over the NER and Myanmar – i.e. thousands of sq km of forest denuded. No action has been taken to replant trees on the verges of roads constructed, which have led to landslides and mudslides and a change in climatic patterns – central and state governments must take immediate remedial action in this regard, if necessary by raising more ecological Territorial Army (TA) Battalions of the Army for this purpose.

 

Involvement of Local Population – the local population has not been adequately involved and as explained above, the locals demands some benefits for their states including setting up industry/value addition to goods transiting and adequate measures to ensure that they will not be flooded with outsiders leading to demographic change and despoiling of their customs and traditions. All these involve new industrial, labour, commerce policies and psychological tuning of religious institutions – particularly the church, civil society and society in general, failing which we would have constructed roads but not achieved the desired development.

 

Aizawl–Seling–Champhai–Zokhawthar (all in Mizoram)–Rhi–Tiddim–Kalewa (all in Myanmar Linking to the Friendship Highway

 

India–Myanmar, Aizawl–Seling–Champhai–Zokhawthar–Rih–Tiddim Highway will provide a loop to the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway (IMT), between Zokhawthar, the Indian border village of Champhai district in East Mizoram on the NH 102B to Rikhawdar, a border town in Myanmar, connecting it to IMT 120 km away at Kalemyo via Tiddim. This loop for AH 1 is extremely essential as it bypasses the troubled areas of Manipur and Nagaland and runs totally through the peaceful state of Mizoram. It therefore counteracts many of the problem areas discussed above. While sanctioned, the work is yet to commence and therefore needs to be speeded up – most of it are existing roads (except Champhai-Zokhawthar, which is already under construction) which need widening, improvement and upgradation.

 

Railway Projects Planned – Asian Railway – Delhi Hanoi Railway Link

 

Rail connectivity – India has initiated a preliminary survey to determine the feasibility of establishing a rail link parallel to the trilateral highway in January 2018. Japan has expressed interest in collaborating with India and funding the proposed rail link. The railway link planned to Myanmar must have an alternative routing through Mizoram due to the law and order situation in Manipur and Nagaland.

 

The Indian Railway has already converted the current 84 km railway line from Katakhal (Assam) to Bairabi, 2 km inside Mizoram to broad gauge. Its further 51.38 km Bairabi–Sairang (20 km north of Aizwal)  railway extension in Mizoram is under construction with target completion date of March 2019. In August 2015, the Indian Railways completed a survey for a possible new route extension from Sairang to Hmawngbuchhuah on Mizoram’s southern tip on the border of Myanmar, near Zochachhuah village where the NH 502 (India) (part of Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project) enters Myanmar, leaving it open for future rail connections to Paletwa and Sittwe.

 

In the author’s view, the Government of India would be well advised to also extend the under construction-railway line from Bhairabi to Sairang (both in Mizoram) to Agartala as other projects are already afoot to link further onto Myanmar.

 

Some Industrial and Other Projects Being Undertaken by Indian Companies in Myanmar

 

These projects that have been deeply appreciated by Myanmar are listed below:

 

  1. Telecommunications Consultants India (TCIL) is currently establishing ADSL in Myanmar for high speed data links.
  2. ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL), GAIL and ESSAR are engaged in the energy sector.
  3. Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power (MoEP) and India’s National Hydro-electric Power Corporation (NHPC) are engaged in hydro-electric power projects.
  4. TATA Motors has just set up a heavy turbo-truck assembly plant in Myanmar.
  5. RITES Ltd. (Rail India Technical and Economic Service) is assisting Myanmar in upgradation of is rail transportation system.
  6. A series of capacity development projects are underway, including an Industrial Training Centre, an English Language and Entrepreneurship Development Centre, a Centre for Enhancement of IT Skills, Erection of disaster proof rice silos and Upgradation of the Yangon Children’s Hospital and Sittwe General Hospital.

 

Management of Indo-Myanmar Border

 

Border Management of the 1450 km long Indo-Myanmar border is a complex matter. It involves control of the border crossings, with the paraphernalia of immigration control, customs, excise, narcotics and policing the check point. Besides, it also involves countering infiltration by insurgent groups which have sanctuaries in Myanmar, smugglers and illegal immigrants through heavily forested, difficult, hilly terrain of the NER, which has no parallel on the rest of India’s borders. The fact that cross-border trade by the locals with head loads by the local border tribes up to 16 km on either side of the border is permitted and that the Myanmar Government is averse to fencing this border makes matters more complex. All this has led to official trade being negligible, while unofficial/illegal/customary trade and smuggling is extensive.

 

This will become even more complex when the routes such as the Tri Lateral and Kaladan Highways are through and a relatively free flow of traffic is demanded through proper ICPs – the large flow of traffic will make it easier for smuggling of arms, drugs (this is after all the ‘Golden Triangle’ region), precious stone and other valuable products. What will be an even greater challenge, though indirectly connected with border management, is keeping the AH 1 free of abduction, kidnapping, extortion and road blocks by either insurgents or due to law and order problems. All this would require good actionable intelligence and quick and effective reaction by reserves. Close coordination would be required with the Myanmar Army who are on the other side to curtail similar activities there.

 

There would be an urgent requirement of, besides establishing a single window system of clearance, uninterrupted power supply and excellent digital communications – both of which are currently poor. As such, it is fair to say that proper border management would be a game changer to the entire process of India’s Act East Policy.

 

Conclusion

 

This article has outlined the major infrastructure projects that India has taken up in Myanmar to facilitate both the Act East Policy of the Government of India and speedier development of the NER. Whether these projects will be a catalyst for change or not depends totally on the main players in this process. To be such catalysts, highest priority must be accorded to resolution of the problem areas highlighted above and outlined below:

  1. All the projects must be speeded up for reasons of credibility.
  2. Insurgency issues in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland must be resolved on a priority basis.
  3. Linking National Highways to AH 1 on the Indian side need to be repaired and brought up to international specifications quickly.
  4. Illegal border trade has to be brought under control.
  5. Loops through peaceful states like Mizoram and Tripura to AH 1 are imperative for Act East to truly take off.
  6. The local people need to be psychologically tuned to and associated with the projects.
  7. The Kaladan project must be modified to make it more cost-effective.
  8. Sittwe SEZ must be speeded up as it will pay rich dividends.
  9. Bangladesh must be persuaded to agree to start the use of trade routes to the NER through its territory by sea, overland and by IWT.
  10. Ecological damage caused by all these projects must be rectified at the earliest.

 

It is of utmost importance that India take all possible steps to improve relations and confidence levels with Myanmar much further. India must make an all-out effort to enable investment in its NER and set up export-oriented industry as a priority, failing which the Act East Policy will only result in inundating the NER with Chinese goods.

 

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.