|#1052||3909||July 28, 2013||By Dr Jaikhlong Basumatary|
The most cursory look at a map shows that the territory of India commonly referred to as the Northeast is demonstrably landlocked with no outlet to the sea. An even more unique aspect of Northeast India, which comprises seven states (Sikkim, artificially tagged on for political reasons, is not included) is that each of these states is also ‘internally locked’. Each of these states also shares one (in three cases, more than one) international border. The lack of easy access to their neighbours and extreme difficulties of mobility even within their own states arising out of this geographical reality have affected economic growth of the Northeast, as well as created some unique security problems in the region.
Even though there are impediments on people travelling in this region, transnational transport linkages have been receiving attention from the highest quarters, beginning with the inauguration by the then foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, in February 2001, of the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo highway section of the long envisaged completion of the Asian Highway project. Similarly, there have been several proposals to rebuild and modernise the Stilwell Road, the other India-Burma Road that goes all the way to Yunnan Province in China.
It has been argued that the Stilwell Road if properly restored will open huge opportunities not only for trade, but also for manufacturing in Northeastern region. The reopening of the Stilwell Road, besides, boosting Sino-Indian trade overland will also have strategic importance as it did during Second World War. The present state of the Stilwell Road is that China has reconstructed the portion within its territory and connected it to the country’s major highways. On the Indian side, the section between Assam and Arunachal border has been repaired and construction is underway to link Myanmar at Pangsau Pass. In the Myanmar side, a Chinese company, Yunnan Construction Engineering Group and Junta-backed Yuzana Group of Myanmar are reconstructing the road through a contract awarded to them.
The Asian Highway (AH) project, popularly known as the Trans-Asian Highway, is a cooperative project among countries in Asia and Europe, supported by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (ESCAP), to improve the highway systems in Asia. The project is one of the three pillars of the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development (ALTID) project endorsed by the ESCAP commission at its 48th session in 1992. Japan, China, South Korea, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan are some of the countries taking part in the Asian Highway project. The larger, more developed countries such as Japan, China and India as well as international agencies such as Asian Development Bank fund the project.
The Asian Highway is marked from AH1 to AH88. AH1 is the longest route of the AH network running 20,557 Km from Tokyo via South Korea, China, South-East Asia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to the border between Turkey and Bulgaria where it joins with European route E80. In India, the AH1 extends along Moreh-Imphal-Kohima-Dimapur; Dimapur-Nagaon; Nagaon-Numaligarh-Jorabat; Jorabat-Shillong-Dawki; Petrapole-Barasat; Barasat-Kolkata; Kolkata-Durgapur-Barhi-Kanpur-Agra-New Delhi, and New Delhi-Attari.
Northeast India through the Tans-Asian Highway and the East-West Corridor will link India with the vibrant economies of North-East Asia. It has been argued that without the development of India’s Northeastern states, cooperation with South-East Asia cannot be meaningful. It is also imperative that development of the economies of the states in Northeast India be through a process of linkage with the Southeast Asian countries rather than making them wholly dependent on the grants from the Indian government. The development of Trans-Asian Highway is the window towards that goal.
The Trans-Asian Highway and the East-West Corridor will not only link India, especially its Northeastern region with the vibrant economies of North-East Asia but will aid the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) initiative which in turn will strengthen bilateral and multilateral relations that will lead to development through creation of avenues for further intra-mural cooperation. In addition, for the Mekong-Ganga project to be effective, the Brahmaputra Valley is a crucial factor. According to analysts, roadways are a key part of the plan to open the Mekong-India Corridor to link India with the Asian economies of Indo-China.
Bilateral trade will receive a boost because of Trans-Asian Highway as it provides the transport infrastructure necessary for building and strengthening trade and economic interaction with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states. More importantly, Northeast India, considered as one of the country’s economically backward areas can now become India’s gateway to the fast developing ASEAN region.
Trans-Asian Highway will provide the necessary transport infrastructure that is crucial in facilitating the trade and investment for economic development of the region. India already has in place a ‘Look East’ Policy as part of which it is developing Guwahati as a future hub of trade and commerce in the region. It is worth mentioning here that if the Northeastern region gets a fraction of the enormous market, which is to the tune of $80 billion (2012 figure) trade with ASEAN, projected to reach $100 billion by 2015, there is a high possibility that development will arrive in Northeast India.
The general reaction of the people to India’s Look East Policy aided by the prospects of Trans-Asian Highway is one of high hopes. People are hopeful that it will be the turning point in the economic history of the region. The Look East Policy, besides, envisaging the Northeast region as the center of a thriving integrated economic space linking two dynamic regions with a network of highways, railways, pipeline, etc. crisscrossing the region, also excites the people of the Northeast, with the possibility of unprecedented rate of free interaction with Southeast Asia.
After the formation of South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and consequent liberalisation of trade between India and Myanmar, exports to Myanmar through Northeastern points could increase. If communication facilities improve, it would further accelerate through development of road transport facilities via short-cut points. Economist, therefore, opine that all communication networks would receive a boost in Northeast India with the opening of the Trans-Asian Highway. This perhaps is the key point from where further development would occur.
The Asian Highway project is an effort to soften borders and bring back land routes as ancient as the Silk Route to life thereby linking up not only India and China but also connecting these rising powers with the ASEAN states. The Asian Highway project is thus also aimed at enhancing the efficiency and promoting the development of road transport infrastructure in Asia. The key tenets of the project have been to promote international and bilateral trade and tourism to encourage regional economic and social development. Therefore, enhancing connectivity, for instance, between Myanmar and Northeast India will open up new opportunities for development of border areas which in turn will contribute to narrowing down the development gap.
Finally, for Northeast India, the development of Trans-Asian Highway will not only mean intensification of connection between Southeast Asia and Northeast India in terms of trade and commerce but also in terms of peoples and ideas which in turn will imply the return of the past and the reawakening of centuries-old ties, especially between Manipur, Assam, and Myanmar. Such interactions will also strengthen existing contacts as the Tans-Asian Highway will greatly enhance the speed of travel.
The author is a Research Assistant at CLAWS
Views expressed are personal
http://www.thehindu.com/business/Economy/india-asean-finalise-fta-in-services-investments/article4222052.ece, Accessed on 22 July 2013
http://changlang.nic.in/stilwell.html, Accessed on 21 July 2013
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/MA12Df03.html, Accessed on 21 July 2013
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12269095, Accessed on 21 July 2013
Nath, D (ed.) (2004) Reopening of the Stilwell Road: Prospects and Problems, New Delhi: Anamika Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd.
Prabhakara, M S (2004), “Is North-East India Landlocked?”, Economic and Political Weekly, 39 (42): 4606-4608
Sharma, Sukanya (2005), “Building Roads to Myanmar: A Historical Overview”, Economic and Political Weekly, 40 (48): 5120-5128
 M S Prabhakara (2004), “Is North-East India Landlocked?”, Economic and Political Weekly, 39 (42): 4606