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Tamanthi Hydel Project: India’s Eastern Foothold

Shivananda H. is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 06, 2011

    India’s strategic venture of engaging Myanmar by building hydro-power projects in that country will be in trouble if the Tamanthi Dam project goes off the tracks.1 An MoU on the project was signed as early as 2004 between the Burmese Government and India’s National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC). However, the project has not gone through as planned. This has undermined India’s Look East policy and its effort to counter Chinese influence in Myanmar.

    The actual construction of the Tamanthi Dam project on the Chindwin River in western Sagaing Division of Myanmar began in 2007. The 2004 MoU was further strengthened by another agreement on September 16, 2008 between the NHPC and the Department of Hydropower Implementation (DHPI) of Myanmar. Under this agreement, the DHPI was to form a joint venture with the NHPC to develop the Tamanthi as well as another dam at Shwesayay. The 80 metre high dam is estimated to cost three billion US dollars, with an electricity generation capacity of 1200 MW and annual production of 6,685 Gwh. Approximately 80 per cent of the electricity generated was meant for India’s north-east while the rest was to power the Monywa mining operation in Myanmar.2 The NHPC was building the dam in collaboration with the Switzerland-based Colenco Power Engineering, Ltd.

    But, according to the Indian Ambassador to Myanmar, V.S. Seshadri, the project has not proceeded smoothly even after the coming to power of the new government in Myanmar. On one hand, the Myanmar government has been inflexible in responding to the required documental clearance. On the other hand, the NHPC was unable to tie up with local partners in order to move ahead with the project work. Red tapeism at the DHPI has led to strained relationships between the NHPC and DHPI officials as well as other local officials. The consequence of the delay has been the poor image of the NHPC in the eyes of locals who have begun to compare its ‘tardy’ performance with the ‘promptness’ of Chinese companies in completing projects.

    In this scenario, Mr. Seshadri has suggested that the project be aborted instead of India wasting diplomatic capital on it and, in the process, harming the image of Indian companies. Acknowledging that the Tamanthi project is likely to go Chinese firms if India were to pull out, he has further recommended a reconsideration of the objectives behind India’s interest in the project. However, if the Indian Government felt that the project is necessary to deepen India’s relationship with Myanmar, then the NHPC must move to mission mode and complete the project within the stipulated time despite the unfavourable local environment.

    The Tamanthi dam should not be perceived as a project meant for mere generation of electricity. It has many strategic implications for India both from economic and security perspectives in enhancing the bilateral relationship with Myanmar. Building dams like the Tamanthi represent the Indian attempt to enhance strategic ties with Myanmar, which is seen as India’s gateway to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Myanmar is the only ASEAN country with which India shares land and immediate maritime boundaries. With India becoming a summit level partner of ASEAN and a member of the East Asia Summit, an affirmative bilateral relationship with Myanmar will be beneficial for India.

    The strategic significance of Myanmar for India was highlighted in the 2004 ASEAN countries car rally from Guwahati (Assam) to Bangkok which highlighted the existence of India’s motor-able road connectivity with Southeast Asia through Myanmar.3 Myanmar is also the second largest nation in the Indian neighbourhood and the largest country on the eastern flank which could moreover provide the north-eastern littoral areas access to the Bay of Bengal. In terms of resources, Myanmar has the world’s tenth biggest gas reserves estimated at more than 90 trillion cubic feet. ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) and the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) hold 30 per cent stakes in exploration and production of gas in Myanmar’s A1 and A3 offshore blocks located at Sittwe in Arakan State.4 Talks are also on between Myanmar and India to bring the gas through a 1,575 km pipeline, from Sittwe port in Myanmar through Aizwal–Silchar-Guahawti-Siliguri to Gaya, and linking it to the Haldia-Jagadishpur oil pipeline in Gaya (Bihar). These talks began after the failure of India’s attempt to transport gas from Myanmar along the Bangladesh coastal region.5

    Myanmar also remains an area of security concern for India. The political instability in Kachin and Sagaing provinces of Myanmar has linkages with the unrest in the India’s north-east. Various insurgent groups of north-east India have set up camps across the border in these provinces. Besides, there is increasing trafficking of drugs along the border. The north-eastern states bordering Myanmar have ethnic similarities with the tribes of Myanmar and are interlinked. They have a strong socio-cultural affinity which is the outcome of a long historical process of intermingling amongst the people of the region.6 Hence, there is a need to reach out to these provinces to develop an amicable relationship in resolving the unrest in India’s northeast.

    Furthermore, Myanmar is emerging as the closest strategic partner of China. China-Myanmar economic cooperation is deepening and the booming energy cooperation between the two countries is also associated with building of infrastructures meant for military purposes. Through Myanmar’s territory, the Chinese are securing connectivity to the Bay of Bengal in their attempt to reach the Indian Ocean.7 The first step in this regard was the provision of military support to Myanmar during the last decade. China, in addition, has protected Myanmar when the United Nations imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions and the United States declared it as a rogue state. The Chinese have also steadily become involved in building over 62 projects including hydro, oil, gas and mining in Myanmar.8

    Thus, for all these reasons and notwithstanding the many challenges faced by the NHPC, India must press ahead with the construction of the Tamanthi project in order to enhance its economic and strategic reach in the East. And full support must be extended to the NHPC to enable it to sort out the local problems that have hindered its progress on the project.