Prospects of Inland Waterways in India’s Northeast Region (NER)

 By Anuradha Oinam
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As an extrapolation of India’s Act East Policy (AEP), rechristened from Look East Policy (LEP) in 2014, the Asian Confluence, a Shillong based Think Tank in collaboration with the Union Affairs Ministry, Act East Policy Affairs Department of the Assam government, North Eastern Council organised ‘Natural Allies in Development and Interdependence (NADI)’ conclave on 28-29 May 2022 in Guwahati[1]. Besides, 5Cs- Connectivity, Culture, Commerce, Conservation and Collaboration in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin, NADI also aimed at: i) improving a sub-regional cooperation especially the Bangladesh Bhutan India and Nepal (BBIN), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)[2] through NER; ii) focusing more on energy and water security for a vibrant and secure Indo-Pacific; and iii) accommodating multiple stakeholders to promote a sustainable development by using riverine resources[3]. This article aims to address the key prospects of inland waterways in India’s NER.

The inland waterway or river connectivity is as crucial as rail, road and people-to-people (P2P) connectivity. Due to its poor connectivity, constant ethnic clashes, insurgency, intra-state border disputes, poverty and unemployment, corruption, and drug trafficking for the last several decades, bottlenecks the Northeast region from having a robust economy. Therefore, Inland waterways connectivity could be considered as an alternative that will improve NER’s trade and commerce, build a supply-chain nexus between Bangladesh, and further with the East Asian nations.

Figure1: Possible Routes for Inland Waterways

Source: Shantanu Nandan Sharma (2019): How India plans to use Bangladesh’s rivers to Unlock its landlocked Northeast? https://m.economicstimes.com/news/economy/infrastructure/can-india-use-bangladesh-rivers-to-unlock-its-landlocked-northeast/articleshow/71870598.cms

Even the World Bank reported that there is 40% chance of success of the trade if goods are transported via waterways[4]. Therefore, Inland Waterways should be developed at the highest priority. Twenty National Waterways (NWs) has been declared in NER, out of which the NW-2, constructed on the River Brahmaputra between Dhubri (Bangladesh border), and Sadiya (Assam), is already operational, and NW-16 (Barak River) is under construction along with other eighteen NWs[5]. This effort is to facilitate cargo movements with Bangladesh and northeastern states like Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram and Nagaland[6]. Besides, a multimodal hub including a ship-repairing port at Pandu (Assam), four tourist jetties and eleven floating terminals are under construction on the Brahmaputra to improve waterway connectivity with the rest of India via Chittagong Port in Bangladesh[7]. Another project is Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport (KMMTT), which aims to connect Mizoram and Kolkata via Myanmar through inland waterways. According to the Protocol on Inland Waterways Transit and Trade, there are ten potential routes for the river system in NER. Completion of these projects will enhance the navigation from Indian ports through Chittagong and reach Mongla ports in Bangladesh and then reach Tripura along with other northeastern states[8]. For instance, the successful carrying of a cargo vessel of 200 metric tonnes of food grains from Patna (Bihar) to Pandu (Assam) via Bangladesh could be an example[9].The External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar rightly stated in his inaugural speech at NADI conclave 2022 that a well-connected NER with its neighbours will bring a complete transformation of the regional economy[10].  Inland waterways will therefore be able to take it forward for the development of NER. The former Chairman of Land Ports Authority of India opined that “ Bangladesh is allowing its Chattogram and Mongla sea ports for India’s transit goods because it’s win-win situation for it. The move will increase their business and provide employment to their people. For us, it will be a shorter and cheaper route”[11].

Figure 2 shows the potentials of Indo-Bangladesh sea route connecting NER and other parts of India via Bangladesh

Source: Adapted from Shantanu Nandan Sharma (2019): How India plans to use Bangladesh’s rivers to Unlock its landlocked Northeast? https://m.economicstimes.com/news/economy/infrastructure/can-india-use-bangladesh-rivers-to-unlock-its-landlocked-northeast/articleshow/71870598.cms.

Nevertheless, for robust and efficient inland waterways, the development of infrastructure such as markets and cold storage facilities and innovative economic strategy in NER is must. Further, to augment the inland waterways connectivity, Multiple Corridor connectivity will be useful in order to connect India with Bangladesh. Therefore, road and railway connectivity from NER to Bangladesh should be boosted in-line with inland waterways. This will not only complement the trade and connectivity but also strategically secure India in case of any security threats.

Figure 3: Importance and Significance of Inland Waterways

Source: Adapted from Shantanu Nandan Sharma (2019): How India plans to use Bangladesh’s rivers to Unlock its landlocked Northeast? https://m.economicstimes.com/news/economy/infrastructure/can-india-use-bangladesh-rivers-to-unlock-its-landlocked-northeast/articleshow/71870598.cms.

Figure 3 shows that inland waterways are significant for India since they are found to be cost effective as well as environment friendly means of transporting freight and they have the potential to supplement India’s highly overburdened railways and roadways. These waterways will cut through the landlocked areas that have been a hindrance in the development in the region so far.

In terms of innovative economic strategy, India can adopt ASEAN’s Global Value Chains (GVC) Model for NER. GVC is a critical strategy adopted by ASEAN to achieve ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) as ‘a highly integrated and cohesive economy’ and ‘a competitive, innovative and dynamic ASEAN’[12]. This model will facilitate the scope of the supply chain with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Southeast Asia by unlocking the hidden potentials such as agro-based products, bamboo industry, and handloom and handicrafts. Inland waterways will act as one of the key transport channels to support supply chain process of the products between India with other countries through NER.  However, many projects (both national and international) in NER have seen delays. This needs to be addressed considering the importance of AEP in India’s Foreign Policy establishment.

To sum up, construction of new National Waterways and completion of those undergoing projects for inland waterways is necessary to boost economy by integrating markets especially with Bangladesh and the East (Myanmar) via NER. More connected NER is essential for an impactful India’s Act East Policy to Southeast Asia and beyond. Therefore, NADI is one of the crucial initiatives to foster India’s relationship with Bangladesh and East Asian Nations through river connectivity.

Endnotes

[1] Megha Rawat (2022), “EAM S Jaishankar Inaugurates International NADI-3 Conclave In Assam, Lists Core Objectives”, RepublicWorld.com https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/general-news/eam-s-jaishankar-inaugurates-international-nadi-3-conclave-in-assam-lists-core-objectives-articleshow.html

[2]“Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman Chants connectivity and commerce mantra for NE” (2022), The Sentinel,  https://www.sentinelassam.com/topheadlines/union-finance-minister-nirmala-sitharaman-chants-connectivity-and-commerce-mantra-for-ne-594209

[3] “‘NADI’ Conclave- Articulating Cooperation In Bay of Bengal With Southeast Asia; Kicks-Off In Assam”(2022), The Northeast Today, https://www.northeasttoday.in/2022/05/28/nadi-conclave-articulating-cooperation-in-bay-of-bengal-with-southeast-asia-kicks-off-in-assam/

[4] Shrabana Barua, (2022), “Acting East from North East India”, The Hindustan Times, https://www.hindustantimes.com/ht-insight/economy/acting-east-from-north-east-india-101654572738547.html

[5] “Inland Water Authority of India”, http://iwai.nic.in/departments/north-east-region-cell/north-eastern-waterways

[6] “North-East India: Connectivity, Challenges & Combat”, Construction Times,  https://constructiontimes.co.in/north-east-india-connectivity-challenges-combat/,

[7] N2

[8] “Inaugural Address by External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar at the Natural Allies in Development and Interdependence (NADI) Asian Confluence River Conclave 2022”, Ministry of External Affairs, https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/35373/Inaugural_Address_by_External_Affairs_Minister_Dr_S_Jaishankar_at_the_Natural_Allies_in_Development_and_Interdependence_NADI_Asian_Confluence_River_Co  28 May 2022.

[9] ibid

[10]  N8

[11] Shantanu Nandan Sharma (2019), “How India plans to use Bangladesh’s rivers to Unlock its landlocked Northeast?”, The Economic Times, https://m.economicstimes.com/news/economy/infrastructure/can-india-use-bangladesh-rivers-to-unlock-its-landlocked-northeast/articleshow/71870598.cms,

[12] “Global Value Chains in ASEAN, A Regional Perspective”, Paper 1, January 2019, https://www.asean.or.jp