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North East in BCIM-EC: Problems and Prospects

Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee is a Political Analyst
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  • October 14, 2014

    Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar-Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) is a sub-regional grouping that seeks to deepen friendly cooperation among the four member nations and linking South Asia with Southeast and East Asia by building multi-modal connectivity, harnessing economic complementaries and enhancing people-to-people relations. The BCIM region is one of the richest in the world in terms of natural, mineral and other resources. The region covers 9% of the world’s total area, 7.3% of the global gross domestic product and involves 440 million people. The BCIM has the potential to generate enormous economic benefits in the arena of trade, investment, energy, transport and communication.

    The primary focus of the economic corridor is to facilitate trade and connectivity between the landlocked and underdeveloped southwestern parts of China and the North Eastern region of India. The proposed economic corridor will originate from Kunming in China’s Yunan province and pass through Yangon and Mandalay in Myanmar, Chittagong-Dhaka-Sylhet in Bangladesh before entering North Eastern states, Bengal and ending in Kolkata. The leaders of the four nations intends to revive the ancient “Southern Silk Road” and its southwestern trade routes which emerged as the shortest journey between China and India and served as a highway for merchants carrying gold and silver in the Twelfth century. The South Asian and Chinese leaders are aiming at transforming the route into a robust economic corridor.

    The member countries emphasised the need to quickly improve physical connectivity in the region in the first Joint Working Group meeting held in the Chinese city of Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunan which shares border with Myanmar. Initially, the member nations will identify realistic and achievable infrastructure projects to expand physical connectivity. The implementation of several ambitious projects and subsequent linking of all the four countries will open up the entire North Eastern region to Southeast and East Asia. Under the BCIM initiative, the North East in general and Manipur and Barak valley of Assam are projected as the major beneficiaries since the proposed economic corridor will pass these states. Currently, most of the landlocked states of the region are paying higher transportation price for not having easy access to sea ports. Lack of proper infrastructural facilities has led to economic isolation of the region.

    It can not be denied that the successive governments at the Centre have more or less ignored the North Eastern part of the country for too long. An over-emphasis on security and strategic aspects involving North East has been the dominating feature of the national policy making since the attainment of independence. The Indian ruling elites have seldom tried to devise a long-term development strategy for this sensitive region where some isolated pockets are still socio-economically very backward and almost inaccessible in terms of transport and communication. Despite endowed with abundant natural resources, the Union government never seemed serious about properly utilising those to bring about economic growth and prosperity in the region. North East has gained prominence in the foreign policy making only after the articulation of Look East Policy (LEP) in the early 1990s. The region is now considered as India’s gateway to Southeast and East Asia.

    Among all the North Eastern states, only Assam has an industrial base and elaborate transport networks. It is the largest economy contributing about 60% of North East’s GDP. The state produces more than 65% of country’s tea which is appreciated globally for its aroma. Assam also maintained trade links with the neighbouring countries in different phases of its history. The partition of the sub-continent in 1947 inflicted damage to the economy of North East as the rail, road and waterways which existed throughout the colonial period, were closed one after another. The other key factor crucial for continuing commercial ties with the North East’s neighbours such as China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, has been India’s political relations with them. Barring Bhutan, India’s relations with these nations had hardly been warm consistently. The North Eastern states maintain trade and commercial ties mainly with three neighbouring countries—Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. There are scopes for cooperation in the services sectors like health, tourism, education, and transport and communication between North East and the neighbouring countries.

    In order to remove infrastructural bottlenecks, some major projects had been launched in the region since the late 1990s. But the people of North East are yet to be benefited from those as their implementation has remained very slow. Factors such as chronic insurgency, periodic political instability and rampant corruption have also stood in the way of speedy completion of the projects. At present, there are many plans to link India especially it’s North East with Southeast and East Asia through Myanmar. A few of them include India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, Mekong-India Economic Corridor and Moreh-New Delhi-Hanoi rail link. India has taken the initiative of developing Kaladan Transport Corridor which connects North East with Sitwee port in Myanmar. Plans are underway to set up 2000 acres Special Economic Zone at Moreh in Manipur. Similar schemes have been proposed at Sitwee and Champai (in Mizoram).

    Furthermore, Lumding- Badrapur broad-gauge conversion project is expected to be completed by March, 2015. In addition to Barak valley, states like Mizoram and Tripura are heavily dependent on this railway link for supply of essential commodities. The NDA government has also assured the people of these states that the proposed East-West Corridor connecting Silchar with Gujarat will be accorded top priority. Once these roads and railway lines become operational and inter-linkages are established with the BCIM corridor, it will be a game changer for landlocked regions like Barak valley, Tripura and Mizoram. India is also pressing Bangladesh to grant transit facilities to the North Eastern states through its territory and access to Chittagong port.

    The North Eastern states have shown keen interest in the BCIM initiative. A few workshops and conclaves have already been organised to explore ways for boosting cooperation between North East and the BCIM countries. The precipitants at the Stakeholders’ Consultative Workshop on “The Role of BCIM-EC in Regional Integration: Perspectives from North East India” organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry in Guwahati on July 18, noted that India should focus on export potential of the North Eastern region to get rid of economic underdevelopment. The stakeholders also pointed out that the North East has not been engaged with the implementation of the LEP in a meaningful manner. They observed that this needed to be corrected and a consultative mechanism set up for the same.

    North East is an ethnic mosaic and rich in natural resources. But at the same time, it is considered as the most backward region of the country. The stakeholders therefore raised questions on the impact on people, culture and bio-diversity once North East’s borders are opened for trade and transit under the framework of the BCIM-EC. Many in North East believe that if such concerns are addressed properly, the region’s integration with the fastest growing economies of Southeast and East Asia will lead to an economic resurgence in this hinterland which has not received due attention of the Indian governing elites for a long time.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India