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Shyam Saran: A bridge to the East

India's Act East policy needs a connectivity strategy for the Northeast

Shyam Saran 

Shyam Saran

Southeast Asia and East Asia have become the most dynamic components of India's external economic relations. This interconnected region constitutes India's eastern security flank. Thus, economic and strategic engagements reinforce one another and constitute the logic of India's Act East policy. India is linked to its Asia-Pacific neighbourhood through the ocean space of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, a strategic stretch of water it shares with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. It is also linked by land through the Northeast, which shares international borders on the eastern flank with Myanmar and Bangladesh and on the northern side with China, Bhutan and Nepal. Geography, therefore, imparts a critical role to India's Northeast in the pursuit of any plan to foster economic integration with both South and Southeast Asian neighbours. These land borders also become important for ensuring border security and maintaining peace and tranquility in what, until recently, has been a politically troubled part of the country.

Since the Partition of India in 1947, India has faced a major security as well as economic challenge. The Northeast is connected to the rest of India through the narrow Siliguri corridor quite appropriately called the "Chicken's Neck." The pre-Partition transport links were interrupted by East Pakistan and now Bangladesh. The natural and most convenient outlet to the sea through Chittagong was also lost. Thanks to the improvement of relations between India and Bangladesh some of these transport links are being gradually restored.

For the Northeast to serve as a bridgehead to the country's eastern neighbourhood, there has to be a comprehensive connectivity strategy for the region. Such a strategy would have three interlinked components. The first would be to improve connectivity between the Northeast and the rest of India; the second would be to enhance connectivity within the Northeast itself and the third would be to improve existing and establish new cross-border transport and communication links with neighbouring countries. These three components need to be pursued in tandem if the full benefits of Act East are to be realised.

In the first category, the existing highway and rail-link needs to be upgraded significantly to enable much higher load-carrying capacity and speedier transit. We need to construct modern expressways and a high-speed rail freight and passenger corridor to more closely integrate the Northeast with the rest of India. This will also enable Northeast produce to find ready markets in the country itself and to compete for exports.

Intra-regional connectivity within the Northeast is sparse, poor in quality and over stretched. The main road and rail arteries into the Northeast follow the southern bank of the Brahmaputra into Assam. There are branch road and rail links which all radiate southwards. Silchar and Dimapur are the major rail-heads.

Silchar serves the states of Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, while Dimapur connects with Nagaland and Manipur. A new rail-line is being built to connect Dimapur to Imphal in Manipur. The existing branch rail lines and roads from the rail heads to various state capitals are unable to cope with the increase in both freight and passenger traffic. Some of the key bridges are carrying loads far in excess of their rated capacities. Unless these bottle-necks are addressed expeditiously, the economy of the entire Northeast would be gravely threatened. To put in place cross-border links while neglecting these intra-regional links would only serve to expose the region to heavy influx of imports from neighbouring countries, but with little encouragement to local resource based production and access to the larger Indian and export markets.

Arunachal Pradesh, which borders China's Tibet, is a strategically important state. It has also become important as the location of several hydro-electric power projects. For both security and economic reasons, it was recommended several years ago that transport connectivity in the state be substantially upgraded. A trans-Arunachal highway on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra was proposed which could traverse the numerous tributaries of the river, including the major ones of Dibang, Lohit, Subansiri and Kameng. This northern alignment would then join the southern highway in a continuous loop. This would link the various north-south river valleys together and also provide much better logistics for our military outposts at the border with China. There is also a plan to have road and rail links going north of the Brahmaputra over bridges at Guwahati and Tezpur, which already exist and another under construction at Bogibeel. These internal links need to be completed before we think of reopening the Stillwell Road which, during the Second World War, had connected Assam to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan through northern Myanmar.

Currently, travel among state capitals of the Northeast is difficult and time consuming. There has to be a master plan for linking all the Northeastern states together with a network of road, rail and air links. One should also fully utilise the potential of inland water transport using the rivers which crisscross the region. Bangladesh is also increasingly open to reviving the old river navigation routes, which were the main transport links in undivided eastern India. Northeast connectivity has not been given much attention so far, but without progress in this category, the Act East policy would not bring economic benefits to the region.

Cross-border connectivity has been on the government's agenda for several years, but has made only slow progress. There is an ambitious Trilateral Highway Project to link India, Myanmar and Thailand, with possible extensions to Laos and Vietnam. The multi-nodal transport corridor linking the Myanmar port of Sittwe with India's Mizoram, using both river and road transport is under implementation. There are a number of road, river and rail projects in the pipeline with Bangladesh and several similar projects have been on the drawing board with respect to Nepal and Bhutan. In addition to physical infrastructure, it is also important that we adopt the most modern processes to facilitate the smooth crossing of state and national borders by both goods and people. Only then would transaction costs be reduced significantly and raise the competitiveness of our products. Economic integration with larger East Asia such as through the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor would then be possible on more equal terms.

Were these intended projects to actually materialise, then a densely interconnected and economically vibrant sub-regional economic zone would emerge, with the Northeast as its hub. This is what our ambition should be.

The writer is a former foreign secretary, current chairman, RIS, and senior fellow, CPR.

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First Published: Tue, September 08 2015. 21:50 IST