It has been more than a decade since the government announced its aims to connect the seven north-eastern states robustly not only with the rest of the country but more importantly with the economies of south east Asia, as part of India's Look East policy. The reality today is that the border crossings in the north-east are still mired knee-deep in slush, and connectivity with rest of India is no better - logistics firms warn you it can take a minimum of 15 days (45 days in a worst-case scenario) for a medium sized parcel to traverse by road/rail to the north-east from any of the metropolitan cities. But a sea change is now quite literally around the corner.
Investment in infrastructure in the north-east for has been biased towards the logistical needs of the military. A rash of hydroelectric projects sanctioned around the region in the last decade will eventually add to state coffers and create energy to drive the economy, but will do precious little to create links that boost trade. It is has been a shame that the basic rail-road-air and trans-boundary linkages have been left lagging behind in the region that has benefited very little from two decades of the country's economic growth.
It was, thus, a surprise when recently the north-east figured in a infrastructure stimulus announced by the Prime Minister's Office. This time it is a proposal to upgrade the airports at Agartala and Imphal to international airports. Imphal is not more than three hours flying distance from most parts of south east Asia. The announcement could not have come at a better time. Several turnkey infrastructure projects that have been dawdling for more than a decade are on the verge of coming to fruition in the next 24 to 36 months and the new airport could just be the key required to unlock the puzzle. (Click for graphics)
Previously the biggest statement of intent was made in 2002 by the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government when it laid the foundation for the first modern rail-road bridge across the Brahmaputra in over four decades. The Bogibeel Bridge, a 5-km long megastructure 17 kms from Dibrugarh, being built at a cost of more than Rs 3,230 crore (original estimate Rs 1,767 crore), will finally be complete by December 2015, late by more than five years. Comprising a double-track broad gauge rail line on the lower deck and a four-lane expressway on the upper deck, the bridge will be a lifeline to the region as it creates a vital crossing point across the Brahmaputra in the Upper Assam Valley. Dibrugarh city will benefit directly from the bridge as its railway station is being expanded to become the biggest in the region.
The Bogibeel Bridge is being constructed by a consortium that includes Gammon India, Hindustan Construction Company, Germany-based DSD Brouckenbau and VNR Infrastructure. With the next rail-road bridge a few hundred kilometres away west at Guwahati, the Bogibeel Bridge essentially converts the North-East Frontier Railway (NEFR), which till now has been separate adjuncts on the northern and southern banks of the Brahmaputra, into a unified entity capable of efficiently transporting freight. The road connection, meanwhile, opens up the backward districts of Upper Assam and the eastern parts of Arunachal Pradesh for trade, while adding a new line of communication with Nagaland and Manipur.
In early 2016, two more projects are set to join the Bogibeel Bridge. The capital of Manipur, Imphal, is set to join the railway map upon extension of the Silchar-Jiribam line to the city. This will reduce the city's dependence on the tenuous road network to supply it. Further, the ambitious attempt to link the NEFR with the Myanmarese network (part of the ambitious Trans-Asian Railway Project) at Moreh is progressing with hopes optimistic for an on-time conclusion. It is hoped that along with the rail network, the much delayed border customs and transit plazas at Moreh in Manipur and Pangsau in Arunachal Pradesh (on the historic Stillwell Road connecting India, Myanmar and Burma) also become a reality in the same time frame.
The renewed impetus in the north-east stems from the political and economic transformation in Myanmar. While the Indian government was always confident of getting favourable terms from the erstwhile military junta in Myanmar, the aggression with which American and European businesses have entered Myanmar - "the last frontier in Asia" - has caught the Indian government and businesses lead-footed.
Terrain and weather vagaries apart, the far bigger obstacle to infrastructure development in the north-east has been the political quagmire in which the region finds itself. On hearing about the proposed international airport, a Manipuri acquaintance quipped: "It will take a decade or more to build an airport with the number of strikes and hartals we face everyday". It is imperative now to find and implement time-bound solutions to these issues. Myanmar has always been an ideal partner for the north-east due to shared ethnicities across borders. It would be a travesty if the region loses out on this immense opportunity.
The author is a journalist and travel entrepreneur based in Dehradun