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On the road to China

Anand Sankar  |  New Delhi 


    Beat of the drum

    Coupe de coupe

    Sunshine state

    Capital A

    It`s a dog`s life

...and Myanmar. Anand Sankar travels on the Indian side of Stilwell Road and gets gooseflesh.
The legend of Stilwell Road is irresistible, which is how I found myself in Arunachal Pradesh, hoping to trace as much of its route as is still possible. The night had closed in when I passed the road's start beyond the mining town of
Ledo in lower Assam. A rusted billboard marked the spot, after which the countryside simply reverted back to a different era. First Mile, Second Mile, Third... and on to Sixth Mile, my first halt on Stilwell Road.
In the flickering light of a paraffin lamp, the elders of the Tai Ahom and Tai Sake community of Phaneng, off Sixth Mile, regaled me with stories "" of their fathers supplying "all the bamboo they could find" for the road's construction, and of a lot of cabbage to feed the hungry workers.
At first light, I set out further, entering the thick forests of the Patkai Bum mountains after passing the last town in Assam "" Jagun. The road buzzed with activity as the shy, forest-dwelling Tangsas made a trip to the Jagun market to buy supplies "" principally tea, rice and jaggery.
The last stretch of Stilwell Road in India today traverses through Arunachal Pradesh. At Jairampur there, Setong Sena, MLA and speaker of the Arunachal assembly, took one look at the worsening weather and offered me his 4x4 Mahindra Bolero and his personal assistant as guide.
Past the last outpost at Nampong I realised why. With the rain increasing in intensity, we were soon stuck in mud that resembled a mixture of liquid concrete and superglue as it clung to everything. Eventually, we had to be towed to safety.
History records that 1942 was a dire year for the Allies in their campaign to oust the Japanese from Burma and China. Things reached a new low when American General Joseph Warren Stilwell, commander of the China-Burma-India theatre and chief of staff to leader of the Chinese opposition, Chiang Kai Shek, was forced to march back to Assam.
Though flights to resupply the Chinese over the Himalayas were underway, it was clear a new land route was required. On December 1, 1942, the decision was taken to hack a new road through virgin jungle from Ledo in
Assam to Bhamo in Burma, which on the British-held Burma side had a railhead to connect with Kunming in China.
Fifteen thousand American soldiers, 35,000 local workers from Assam and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers began the task at a cost that was then estimated at $150 million. This was the complete unknown; no topographical maps were available to aid construction.
The soldiers and workers learnt their toughest lesson at Pangsau Pass, on the border between India and China, which they nicknamed Hell Pass. Rising 4,500 feet high, the road sometimes required the removal of earth at a rate of 100,000 cubic feet per mile.
Next, they waded through the swamps to the appropriately named Lake of No Return. "No soldier who crossed this valley ever made it back home," explained my guide, his efficacy, of course, unproven.
In his biennial report covering the period of July 1, 1943 to June 30, 1945, General George C Marshall documented that he had given General Stilwell "one of the most difficult" assignments of any theatre commander. Later, flying over Hukawng Valley during the monsoon, Lord Mountbatten is supposed to have asked his staff the name of the river, only to be corrected: "That's not a river, that's Ledo Road." Still, the first bulldozer reached Shingbwiyang, 110 km inside Burma, on December 27, 1943, three days ahead of schedule.
A significant percentage might choose Stilwell Road for the sheer cost in savings



China 27,259.97 80,206.52
Thailand 5,055.62 6,947.42
Singapore 20,743.64 22,708.93
Malaysia 6,313.89 18,023.62
Myanmar 498.31 2,409.20
Vietnam 1,802.30 498.66
Cambodia 143.91 3.11
Laos 11.84 0.31
(Figures for April-December 2007 in Rs crore by the Department of Commerce)

Eleven hundred Americans are said to have died during its construction, two cemeteries commemorate the Chinese dead, but there is no count of the locals who lost their lives during its making. But such are the idiosyncrasies of war that by the time Stilwell's task was completed, the American "Island Hopping" campaign in the Pacific Ocean had reduced the Japanese defence forces, so the road fell into gradual disuse.
The last recorded motorised journey from Ledo to Myitkyina and beyond (excluding China) was the Oxford-Cambridge Overland Expedition, which in 1955 drove from London to Singapore and back.
Today, Hell Pass has only a border marker identifying it. But you might soon find a board informing you that Kunming in China is 1,676 km away, closer even than New Delhi, and you might also be able to make the trip. A gradual movement has been building up for the last decade to breathe life into General Stilwell's achievement, starting with Setong Sena's election to office in 1995.
A member of the Tangsa community himself, Sena says he took it upon himself to revive trade through Pangsau Pass. A beginning was made when officials from India, Myanmar and the Indian Army sat down to thrash out an agreement for holding a weekly market at the pass. "We have had age-old relations with people across the border," points out Sena.
Across the border marker, Stilwell Road is just a single-lane mud track till the town of Shingbwiyang. Carin Jodha-Fischer of the Partnership for Responsible Development is one of a handful of people who have travelled on the road from Kunming to Shingbwiyang.
"It was a journey of a lifetime, travelling mostly through a country ruled by a military junta. The Chinese were very helpful on their side because they have been pushing for a long time to get the road opened. They have even been helping to rebuild the road, especially a shortcut to Myitkyina," she says. Myitkyina, a strategic road and rail head, was the centre of an epic battle when General Stilwell ousted the Japanese there.
According to Fischer, the resumption of traffic on this road holds a lot of emotional value for the Singpho-Kachin-Jinpaw people because they are all of the same historic ethnicity, only separated by political boundaries. Her travels also held some unexpected surprises.
She found a Sikh immigrant community in Myitkyina, a Hindustan Unilever salesman there, and encountered members of Hollywood director Steven Spielberg's production team who were scouting for WWII-era vehicles said still to be in running condition.
The first step towards operationalising Stilwell Road happened when the National Highways Authority of India designated it NH-153. The weekly trial market became a bimonthly fixture on the 15th and 30th of every month.
But Sena says people on both sides have now resumed the weekly trade. Incidentally, the Burmese here extensively use Indian currency for their transactions, though no statistics on the weekly trade are available.
When trade stopped in the '70s, Sena recalls that the advantage was with the Burmese who had surplus rice to sell, but now they purchase iodised salt, steel utensils, bicycles, consumer goods, books and sewing machines from India. Indian electronic goods are prized because the Burmese feel they are superior to the Chinese counterparts in their markets.
But beyond simple border trade, Stilwell Road has emerged a serious contender as the eastern Indian entry point for the ambitious Asian Highway Network. A cooperative project among countries in Asia and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) to improve the highway systems in Asia, it was initiated by the UN back in 1959 but stalled when finances and local geopolitics went sour in 1975.
But 1992 saw a revival and more than a decade later, in November 2003, the inter-governmental agreement on the highway identified 55 routes among 32 member countries totalling 1,40,000 km. In April 2004, a treaty was signed by 23 countries, including India (the total is now 28 countries); ESCAP data shows that $25 billion has been spent or committed as of 2007, with an additional $18 billion needed for upgrades.
The eastern Indian entry is currently planned at the Moreh/Tamu pass in Manipur, which has limited border trade thanks to a 1995 agreement between India and Myanmar. But Stilwell Road has become increasingly attractive for two reasons "" vastly shorter distances (openly championed by China and Thailand) and political stability due to the fact that the entire road is dominated by one ethnic group.
"We have received proposals from the governments of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam," says a spokesperson of the external affairs ministry. "We are, in principle, in agreement with the idea, but the Myanmar government has to work on the infrastructure and security issues on its side." Understandably, Manipur is unhappy with these developments and is lobbying to get the lucrative trade post.
Acutely aware of the competition, the Arunachal Pradesh government through its Public Works Department has taken up the task of resurfacing the road as a two-lane highway up to Pangsau Pass, even though technically it falls under the ambit of the Border Roads Organisation.
Low-cost trade facilitation centres are under construction and there is talk of allocating land for a truck park and an inland container depot. The Myanmar government is also said to have made a request for Indian help to revive the road till Shingbwiyang. "We understand this is a bilateral issue between India and Myanmar but are optimistic of having the trade open by 2009," says Sena.
If anything could hold back the project, it is the reservations of the security establishments in the area. The jungles on the Indian and Myanmarese side are alleged to be hideouts for insurgent groups, but proponents of the road say trade could be the best solution in resolving such issues.
The idea is endorsed by counter insurgency expert E N Rammohan, a former director general of the Border Security Force, who wrote a paper on this subject in 2005.
On Stilwell Road, meanwhile, the rain has stopped "" if only for a short while. As the sun makes a rare appearance, I imagine a journey to China "" by road. The Stilwell Road.

First Published: Sat, May 24 2008. 00:00 IST