In April 2008, India and Myanmar signed an agreement on the US$110 million Kaladan multi-modal transit-cum-transport project, which would connect India’s land-locked Northeast with the southern coast of Myanmar. The project will be entirely funded by India and the Inland Waterways Authority of India has been appointed as project development consultant. The project envisages an upgradation of the Sittwe port on the southwestern coast of Myanmar and development of a 225km-long waterway between the port of Sittwe and Setpyitpyin (Kaletwa) in Myanmar along the Kaladan, which flows from Mizoram. Given the non-navigability of the river from Setpyitpyin, the project also involves construction of a 62km road network from Setpyitpyin to Lawngtlai (a district in southwestern Mizoram), where the road will merge with the National Highway 54. The project activities are expected to be completed by 2011-2012.
The Kaladan project is essentially a result of more than a decade-long effort by India to provide sea-access to the northeastern states and developing an alternate transport network, which can considerably reduce the traffic-load over the only connecting link by land through the narrow Siliguri corridor, also known as ‘chicken’s neck,’ and substantially reduce the distance between Kolkata and the Northeast. Initially India had tried to persuade Bangladesh to offer transport and transit rights to the northeastern states. However, Bangladesh has consistently refused to grant such rights, including access to its Chittagong port, which is less than 200kms away from Agartala, the capital of Tripura.
What does the Kaladan project offer India? First, the project offers India’s northeastern states access to the sea and an opportunity to develop greater economic linkages with Southeast Asia, and is a newly-acquired focus of the Look East Policy. Maritime access can facilitate bulk trade via Sittwe port, opening up contiguous markets. The Sittwe port offers quicker access to the largest Myanmarese market – the most densely populated regions of Irrawaddy basin and Yangon, thereby, further advancing the economic logic of India’s engagement with Myanmar. With the operationalization of the Sittwe port, food-starved Mizoram will get sufficient quantities of rice from Myanmar and this would further enhance border trade between the two countries. Moreover, Sittwe can also enable traders and businessmen from Northeast India to explore markets in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore and vice-versa.
Second, the opening of the Kaladan waterways reduces the distance between Kolkata, the largest city and port in eastern India, and the capital cities of border states of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura by more than a half. The distance between Kolkata port and Sittwe port is roughly 539kms and people and products from Lawngtlai would have to travel only 650kms to reach Kolkata, as opposed to the current route of Aizawl-Silchar-Siliguri-Kolkata that is approximately 1,700kms long. Thus, the maritime transport network will reduce the dependence on the Siliguri corridor.
However, two important logistical obstacles, facing the project, need to be addressed before the project can actually achieve its desired objectives. The project involves a complicated process of disembarkation and re-embarkation at Setpyitwin in Myanmar. Mizoram-bound goods and people need to de-board from the Kaladan waterway and board land-based vehicles before entering Indian territory. This transfer requires easy availability and smooth operation of switch-over vehicles at the point of disembarkation, and monitoring of the traffic of people and goods, which can prove to be a very complicated and lengthy process. Faced with complicated operational procedures, people may choose not to use the Kaladan transport network. Another important question that arises is whether the military regime will be well-equipped to oversee the sophisticated and complicated process of disembarkation and embarkation. Any laxity in this process can also lead to the influx of drugs and arms into the Northeast, bolstering the insurgency in the region and defeating the very objective of developing the region.
The issues of drugs and immigration must be addressed so that unmonitored immigration and traffic does not further destabilize the region. There are almost 100,000 Burmese refugees presently in Mizoram many of whom have fled political and military repression. More than half of this population, however, is a floating population that crosses the borders to look for work in Mizoram as domestic help, coolies or petty traders. It is this section that is often accused of being involved in crime, drugs and illegal border trade.
The Kaladan project is a significant effort towards developing greater connectivity, which is certainly an important prerequisite for greater economic relations and people-to-people movement between India and Southeast Asia. By facilitating greater movement of people, and goods, the project can further strengthen India’s strategic presence in Southeast Asia in general and Myanmar in particular. It remains up to India how quickly it can develop the facilities required for hassle-free transport along the Kaladan River. The 2001 opening of the Moreh-Tamu-Kalemyo road, which connects India and Burma was an initial step taken towards this goal. The Kaladan project is another step in that direction.
*The article is written by Papori Phukan.
*The author is a Doctoral Candidate, Guwahati University, Guwahati, Assam.
*He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
* The article has been published with due permission from the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies (IPCS).
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