The conventional view of national territorial boundaries is that these are, or ought to be, strong and durable fences, safeguarding the country from hostile external forces. Passage across these fences must, therefore, be through tightly controlled, carefully regulated and narrow gateways. This is an outdated notion in the modern world and the time has come for us to begin to look at our borders as “connectors” or “transmission belts”, which bring us closer to our neighbours in a mutually beneficial embrace rather than as impenetrable walls behind which we insulate ourselves.
This is the first mindset change we need to foster.
As corollary to this, we must also stop treating our border areas as belonging to the periphery or serving as “buffer zones”, preventing ingress into the heartland. We must rid ourselves of this “outpost” mentality and acknowledge that our border states and regions are as much part of our national territory as are the so-called heartland states. The notion that these areas should be left underdeveloped and remote, as is reflected in the outdated colonial instrument of inner-line permits, must be abandoned. An empire ruled by a foreign power may have had some logic in creating buffer zones. This, however, has no place in an independent, sovereign country, where citizens living in any part of the national territory are equally entitled to the fruits of development and economic integration.
If borders are connectors then border states become important platforms for mutual interaction with our neighbours. They can serve as bridges linking India with its neighbours. Such interaction could become the catalyst for economic development of border regions both in India and in neighbouring countries.
Pursuing such interaction requires convenient and hassle-free cross-border movement and, therefore, efficient cross-border connectivity. We have neglected the development of our land border areas and our outlying islands precisely because of an outdated mindset. This is beginning to change but far too slowly. In the Indian subcontinent, cross-border connectivity today is far less than in pre-partition India. The vision of an economically integrated south Asia leveraging its obvious complementarities cannot become reality without efficient transport, communication and, now, digital connectivity.
We need to follow certain principles in undertaking cross-border infrastructure projects.
One, while putting in place such projects, it is important that this goes in parallel with the establishment of appropriate backward linkages. The progress in cross-border infrastructure must never outpace the all-round integration of our frontier regions with the rest of the country. If this happens, it will be a recipe for alienation in these sensitive frontier regions, endangering our security. One sees this phenomenon in northern Myanmar, which is today more closely integrated with southern China than the rest of the country.
Two, we must abandon the concept of border trade and replace it with trade through border points. Border trade in an agreed list of designated local commodities, limited to a designated zone on either side of the border, is thoroughly outdated at most places. Several points on the India-Myanmar or India-Nepal borders are well connected with the rest of the country on either side. Trade in local items is far outstripped in volume and value by a great variety of goods which are officially “contraband”. On my visits to the Tamu-Moreh border point on the India-Myanmar border, I have witnessed how truckloads of Chinese goods, all contraband, find their way into our north-east and beyond. The only way to address this is to open border trade points to regular most-favoured nation trade. It should not really matter what goods are coming in from which country of origin as long as requisite duties are paid. The government earns revenue while minimising the opportunities for corruption.
This does not mean that in truly remote areas we should stop the holding of traditional border “haats” or local trade fairs. However, we should make certain that these areas do not become channels for illegal trade.
The criminalisation of much of our border trade, the involvement of local mafias in such trade and the corruption this engenders among precisely those of our authorities that are assigned the job of looking after our sensitive borders, are threatening our national security much more than the opening up of our borders to regular trade and economic activities. The lesson to be learnt is that the economic development and prosperity of our border regions will greatly enhance, not diminish, our national security.
It is time we re-imagined our country’s borders and made our border regions full stakeholders in India’s development. This is also a prerequisite for realising our vision of a south Asia, where borders have ceased to matter and there is a free flow of goods, peoples and ideas across our frontiers.
The author is a former foreign secretary
He is currently chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research