IDSA COMMENT

India’s Border in the Northeast: From Buffer to Bridge

January 14, 2008

There has been a qualitative shift in recent years in the way policy makers perceive borders and border areas. Borders are increasingly being seen as facilitators of easy circulation of goods and people rather physical obstructions. And border regions have transformed from underdeveloped buffer zones to bridges between neighbouring countries. This change in attitude is one factor that has contributed to India’s recent commitment to construct a port in Sittwe. It has been reported that India will invest US$ 103 million for rebuilding the port, which is located 250 km from Mizoram in the northwestern coast of Myanmar’ Rakhine State. The construction of the port is expected to be completed within three years of a formal agreement being initialled in this regard. Once completed, it would facilitate the movement of cargo from India’s Northeastern States to the Bay of Bengal via the River Kitsapanadi (formerly River Kaladan). This route will provide an alternate access to the Bay of Bengal through Mizoram. Presently, Kolkata and Haldia are the nearest ports for the landlocked Northeastern region. The route through Sittwe would also help bypass Bangladesh with which India has been unsuccessfully trying to negotiate an alternate gateway to the sea.

The Sittwe project is part of a larger initiative called the Kaladan Multi Modal Transport project, which involves the building of a highway, a river transport system and a pipeline. The proposed highway would connect Mizoram with Paletwa in the Chin state of Myanmar, while the river transport system would provide an alternate access to the sea to India’s Northeast through the port of Sittwe. The objective of this larger project is to provide efficient connectivity between the underdeveloped and landlocked Northeastern region of India and Southeast Asia as part of the “Look East” policy. Apart from this project, India has also undertaken several other cross-border projects to improve the Northeast’s connectivity with Myanmar. Prominent among these are the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road and the Rih Tiddim and Rih Falem road. The 160 km long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road was constructed to link Moreh in Manipur with the commercial and cultural city of Mandalay. Similarly, the 225 km Rih-Tiddim-Falem road was built to connect Champai in Mizoram to Rih in Myanmar. It is important to note here that Moreh and Champai are two important border-trading points along the Indo-Myanmar border, which became operational in 1994 and 2004 respectively. The Indian Railways have also recently proposed a rail link to Myanmar through the Northeast, which involves laying tracks in the Jiribam-Imphal-Moreh sector by 2010; this line could be extended to Mandalay as part of the Delhi-Hanoi rail link.

It is true that no cross-border project can be operationalised without the active co-operation of the neighbouring country or countries. India’s “Look East” policy was in doldrums for at least a decade because of the troubled relationship with Myanmar – the bridge between India and Southeast Asia. In the early 1990s, India had begun to engage Myanmar constructively, which saw gains like the opening up of border-trading points, operations against Indian insurgent groups in Myanmar, cooperation in dealing with drug trafficking, etc. But these gains were lost when India conferred the Nehru International Peace Prize on Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995, which resulted in a cooling of relations with the military regime. The relationship became cordial only after India adopted a more pragmatic approach of doing business with the ruling military junta. This cordiality is reflected in increased interactions between the two countries since 2001. High level exchanges between the two governments provided avenues for both countries to discuss issues and negotiate deals, which also provided a new impetus to India’s “Look East” policy. Today, India is not only improving connectivity with Myanmar but it is also actively participating in multilateral initiatives such as the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) to foster greater co-operation with other Southeast Asian countries. The 1360 km Trilateral Highway Project from Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand through Bagan in Myanmar is one such project envisaged under such multilateral initiatives.

Ensuring connectivity through cross border projects alone will, however, not transform borders into bridges. India has to first put its own house in order before reaching out to its neighbours. Till date, the Northeastern region presents a dismal picture in terms of transportation networks. It has the lowest road and railway density in the country. Inadequate road and rail links have left many areas inaccessible and their great potential in forest products, cash corps, hydropower, animal husbandry and tourism remain unexploited. Although difficult terrain, severe climatic conditions and sparse population are often cited as reasons for the apparent lack of interest in constructing roads, short sighted government policies and multiple insurgencies have also equally contributed to the poor development of road infrastructure in the region. Moreover, after the disastrous 1962 border war with China, New Delhi discouraged the building of roads in border areas because it feared that these could be used by the People Liberation Army during a subsequent invasion. This policy proved to be a major impediment not only for the development of the Northeast but also for its physical integration with the rest of the country.

Road and railway networks are the lifelines of a country. They are vital not only for economic development but also for national defence. Countries around the world have given great importance to the development of transportation networks in their frontier areas. China, for example, has invested heavily in building transportation infrastructure all along its border regions. The railway line to Tibet is a dramatic example in this regard. It has also undertaken several cross-border projects to connect border towns and cities with those of its neighbours to facilitate trade. China’s aim is to better integrate border regions while at the same time giving them a stake in the country’s economic success story.

Goaded by frenetic Chinese road- and rail-building activity across the border, the Indian government too has woken up to the benefits that flow from better transport infrastructure in border regions. In recent years, the Northeastern region has witnessed a spurt in road building exercises under the auspices of the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme in the North-Eastern Region (SARDP-NE). Under this programme, it has been proposed that 3251 kilometres of National Highways would be converted into 2/4 lanes, 2500 km of State highways would be improved and converted into double lanes and 1800 km of additional roads would be built. The programme is to be carried out in three phases. Once completed, it would connect 34 district headquarters out of 85 in the region, which are still not connected with the National Highways.

This frenzy of road building is likely to enhance inter-regional connectivity as well as connectivity between the region and the Indian mainland, and provide a boost for greater economic development and integration. For, without a strong regional economic base that draws upon and contributes to the Indian economic success story, the Northeast would not be able to act as a bridge between India and Southeast Asia