Wednesday, Nov 30, 2022
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Why India Is Speeding Up Its Connectivity Projects In The Northeastern Region

China’s significant development projects in fortifying Tibet and creating a gateway to ASEAN and other neighbouring countries are some reasons behind the surge of road, rail, bridge projects in NE India.

Bum La Pass In Arunachal Pradesh-China border
Bum La Pass In Arunachal Pradesh-China border

Hills riddled with bulldozers, constantly digging out earth; rooftops of the houses in the vicinity covered with red-tinted dust; continuous stone blasts and men in yellow caps working at the foothills… have become common sights these days in Northeastern states of Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, among others. On spending a few days in Northeast India, one would realise how this mountainous region, comprising eight states, connects to the mainland with only a 20-km wide chicken neck, is undergoing rapid infrastructure development in terms of connectivity. Highways, railways, waterways, green field airports… the flurry of construction work is almost like a race against time.
 
This is a relatively new scenario for Northeast India—a landmass comprising almost eight per cent of India. Full of dense forests, steep hills, untamed rivers, wildlife, and home to over 200 tribes and abundant natural resources, NE India remained isolated from the mainland even after the country’s Independence. The only pre-Independence connectivity in the region was some railway lines placed by the British to export resources like coal, petroleum, natural gas, tea, etc. For a long time after Independence, building connectivity in the Northeastern region was not India’s priority.

The changing picture

It was the crushing defeat of India in the Sino-India war in 1962 that made the country view its Northeast territory in a different light. The 31-day-long war that was fought in the Himalayan borders of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam is regarded as PM Nehru’s major failure during his tenure. While Nehru and other successive governments never disclosed the reasons for this defeat, it is clear that the delay in delivering war supplies from the mainland to Indian soldiers based in the difficult terrains of Arunachal Pradesh due to non-existent roads, was one of them.

Since the 1950s, China had made significant advancement in developing major connectivity projects in Tibet, which it considers as its territory. Tibet shares its border with Arunachal Pradesh, one of the least populated states of India. China also claims that entire Arunachal Pradesh, situated at an elevation of 4,010 metres above sea level, is South Tibet. “He who holds Tibet dominates Himalayan piedmont; he who dominates Himalayan piedmont threatens the Indian subcontinent, and he who threatens the Indian subcontinent may well have all of South Asia within his reach and, with it, all of Asia,” highlights George Ginsburg and Michael Mathos, authors of the 1964 book titled, Communist China and Tibet.
 
It is why when China occupied Tibet in 1949, connectivity projects like road construction, railways, and airports followed for strategic purposes. By the late 70s, China had spectacular connectivity in Tibet that helped its troops keep a hawk’s eye on its borders. One of the major projects in China is the Belt and Road initiative in 2013. In Chinese President Xi Jinping’s words, “To govern the country well we must first govern the frontiers well. Now it was India’s turn to make ways for better surveillance in the snow-capped borders of the North and Northeast part of mountainous Arunachal Pradesh.”
 
In December 2018, PM Narendra Modi inaugurated the Bogibeel Bridge, one of the longest in India upon Brahmaputra in Assam to enhance national security in its eastern sector and ensure smooth movement of troops to Arunachal Pradesh. The 2,000 km Mago-Thingbu–Vijaynagar Border Road, also called Arunachal Frontier Highway, is another project to develop roads in border towns of Arunachal Pradesh. It will connect bordering areas from Vijaynagar in Changlang district in the east end to Mago-Thingbu in Tawang district, in the west. In Sikkim, which shares its boundary with Tibet, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has launched an indigenously developed 140’ double lane bridge in Doka La, a forward area near Line of Actual Control (LAC)—location of a major standoff with Chinese troops in 2017.
 
Another reason for speeding up connectivity projects in the Northeastern region is India’s need for cooperation with the East and South-east Asian countries to counter China’s growing influence in the region. The Look East Policy got a boost as the Act East Policy after Modi became PM in 2014. According to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the Centre has taken up various rail, road and air connectivity projects in the NE region worth Rs 1,34,200 crore. It includes 20 rail projects across 2,011km, road projects covering 4,000km and 15 projects for air connectivity.

Apart from this, Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Routes have been increased to 10 from eight. National Waterways on the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers are being developed to reduce travel costs to Bangladesh. The 1,360km India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway (IMT), will connect Moreh in India with Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. The sole aim of IMT, which passes through Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur, is to enhance trade in the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area. Another project is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP), linking Aizawl with Myanmar’s Sittwe Port. The project combines an inland waterway and highway project connecting Mizoram with the Bay of Bengal deep seaport in Rakhine state, Myanmar. It aims to develop Sittwe to handle 20,000-ton vessels dredging the River Kaladan from Sittwe to Paletwa, a 158-km-long stretch; and constructing a 109-km-long road that connects Paletwa River terminal to Zorinpui on the Mizoram border, Myanmar.

Indo Myanmar Friendship Gate
Indo Myanmar Friendship Gate

Subimal Bhattacharjee, a defence analyst and columnist, tells Outlook, “The main factors of enhancing connectivity in Northeast India is a strategy to put in place an optimal connectivity ecosystem that leads to capacity enhancement for intra-regional connectivity as well as builds a gateway to ASEAN and other neighbouring countries. NE states must help in building the right capacity for critical mass from the region also to be exported. It must be a collective approach.”

Troubled times and delayed projects

The military coup on February 1, 2021, in Myanmar has posed a question mark in India’s quest for the east through Northeast India. The largest South Asian nation shares a 1,643-km border with four Northeastern states—Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Manipur. The military crackdown, civil disobedience movement, and the emergence of militant groups are no good news for India, which has taken up some of the biggest connectivity projects, including the $484 million Kaladan Multimodal project in the neighbouring nation. Rajiv Bhattacharyya, a senior journalist from the Northeast region, notes, “Connectivity through Myanmar will take time given the unrest in the country. The fate of two major projects in India—Kaladan and Trilateral Highway—linked with the Act East Policy, remains uncertain.”

In November 2019, Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militant group, kidnapped five Indian workers who were engaged in the Kaladan project in constructing a road corridor for cargo shipment from Calcutta to Mizoram through Sittwe port and Paletwa inland water terminal in Myanmar’s Chin State. The India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project, already delayed due to many hurdles, will get delayed further because of the present unrest in Myanmar. The Chin State, where the highway sits incomplete, is reeling from repeated clashes between the Arakan Army and the military, leaving thousands displaced.

Amidst these developments, India is yet to strike a fine balance in its relationship with the military regime. While India, as a supporter of the pro-democratic government in Myanmar, has condemned the brutality followed by the takeover, it did not reinforce the legitimacy of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led democratic government. India’s diplomatic position is also bound by the seven rebel groups from NE India, including the United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent) from Assam and the People’s Liberation Army from Manipur, taking shelter in hideouts of Myanmar. To wipe out militancy, even for the sake of the Act East Policy, India needs the support of the new military regime for joint-counter insurgency operations as it did in the past. Amidst this, speculations are rife that the military coup was supported by India’s rival China, though the latter has refuted the claims.

Under such circumstances, the NE region is at a crossroads. Till India strikes a fine balance in its relationship with the junta government, the connectivity to the East through this region would become a slow lane.

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