The Modi government since 2014 has been working towards strengthening India’s relations with South-East Asian countries as part of Act East Policy (AEP) that was rechristened from Look East Policy. The Look East Policy was introduced in 1991 by the Narasimha Rao government with an objective of developing political contacts with the South-Eastern countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Philippines and Brunei Darussalam. By the second phase of the policy that began in 2001-2002, it further got extended to Pacific region and made the development of North-East India as one of the major objectives since the region connects India directly with South-East Asia through shared culture & heritage. Moreover, Myanmar is the only South-East Asian country that India shares its borders through its North-Eastern region, India-Myanmar friendship highway has been opened recently in August 2018 and doesn’t require any special permits to travel across the border. Hence the region is important to achieve the objectives of the AEP.

Mainland India & relationship with the North-East

Since independence, India has been dealing with decades of insurgencies in the North- Eastern frontier and often blamed for paying less attention to the region. The 7 states of NE India is connected to the mainland of India through chicken’s neck (also known as Siliguri corridor) which is as narrow as 21 km, proving a difficulty for transportation of goods and provide direct assistance whenever necessary by the central government.

To improve connectivity and enhance trade and tourism between NE India and Indian mainland & SE Asia, Government of India initiated various developmental projects like The Trilateral Highway Project, Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project in Myanmar, Akhaura-Agartala rail link project, Construction of a bridge over river Feni etc.

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Project

The Kaladan multi-modal transit project that was put forward by India to Myanmar, and aimed at creating a gateway linking the landlocked North-Eastern region to the sea. Through this project, the mainland will be linked to the NE region via all the three modes of transport, sea, river, & road. The project’s framework and protocol were signed by both the countries on 2nd April 2008. The project has been on a fast track since Look East Policy was rechristened to Act East Policy. This long-delayed project began its road construction in April 2018 and is India’s single largest developmental activity on a foreign land.

The table given below provides details of the route that begins from Kolkata port through Sittwe of Myanmar to Mizoram in India.

Stretch

Mode

Distance
Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar Shipping 539km
Sittwe to Paletwa (Myanmar) Inland Water Transport 158km
Paletwa to Indo-Myanmar border (Myanmar) Road 110km
Border to NH. 54 (Lawangtlai in India) Road

100km

(http://mdoner.gov.in/infrastructure/kaladan-multi-modal-transit-transport-project-inland)


(http://www.ias4sure.com/wikiias/prelims/kaladan-multimodal-transit-transport-project/)

The journey from Haldia port near Kolkata to Lawngtlai in Mizoram through Chicken’s neck is 1880 km, the Kaladan project when successfully becomes operational will cut the distance down to 950 km. The goods can be transported to Mizoram through the multi-modal transitway and NH 54 will connect further to Assam and other North-Eastern states.

Through this project, India hopes to reduce its dependency on chicken’s neck that lies between Nepal and Bangladesh thereby reducing the cost of transportation and time.

This multi-modal project is multifaceted. Involvement of both waterways and roadways will reduce the distance & the cost of transportation, and expand India’s trade with other countries. The biggest potential of the project lies in developing the NE, where the goods from North-East India can be directly transported through sea instead of taking it through roadways from other ports in India.

As a part of this project, The Indian government is rebuilding Myanmar’s Sittwe port to make it capable of handling large cargo ships. The port which currently handles 2000-3000 ton vessels is being developed to handle a capacity of 20000-ton vessels. Investing around US$ 134 million for the project, India is handing over the port in December 2018 and eventually the inland waterway terminal. The port and waterways will further be under the control of the Myanmar government. The project once operationalized will benefit India in many ways.

Building ties, not foes

Recently Myanmar reduced the budget of Kyauk Phyu port construction by the Chinese state-owned firm as China is known for its debt traps. Not being able to pay back the loan would lead the Myanmar government writing off the port to China like Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. India, on the other hand, has not asked to pay back the project’s cost as it benefits a small country like Myanmar also making India-Myanmar ties stronger. This project not only improves North-East India’s economy but also helps in reducing insurgencies in the region.

Will opening of Chittagong Port effect Kaladan Project?

Recently, Bangladesh after a long pending delay has granted India permission to use the Chittagong port. The Chittagong port is geographically closer to India (distance from Chittagong port to Agartala is 222 km) and once the bridge over river Feni that is being constructed opens by 2019 as scheduled, then Agartala (capital city of Tripura) will be the nearest Indian city to an international port. If connected, this will help Tripura access the port leading to the development of North-Eastern region which the Kaladan project is trying to achieve.

Compared to the Kaladan project, Chittagong can be easily connected through the road with the help of the bridge. The goods that reach the Sittwe port of Myanmar must be taken through Kaladan River in barges for about 158km to reach Paletwa, a town in Myanmar which then will be taken through road for around 129 km to the Indo-Myanmar border. Hence, India’s connectivity with Chittagong Port might lead to lesser shipments to Sittwe port than expected, therefore questions India’s heavy investment in Myanmar.

The possible debate for the future

Impact on the Environment: The government under Modi gave a push to the delayed Kaladan project awarding contracts for road construction of the highway from Paletwa to Indo-Myanmar border (see the table above) in 2017, but the road construction is likely to extend the 2019 deadline given the tough terrains in Myanmar. There has been no environmental impact assessment, which is a major cause of concern especially in the context of river dredging at the river mouth for the barges.

Socio-Religious Conflicts: What remains anonymous is India’s ease of flow of goods from the Kolkata port (starting point of the multi-modal transit route) to the Indo-Myanmar border in future. Any disagreement between the countries might create tensions at the port, affecting transportation of goods; or when a problem arises in North-East India or in Myanmar like Rohingya crisis, it would affect both the countries especially for India since it has borne the cost of the project.

Drug Trade: The project Kalandan also increases the chances of illegal trade of drugs, weapons and other sources which is a cause of concern for both countries. The Myanmar government is responsible for the safety of cargo from Sittwe port till it reaches the Indo-Myanmar border. Since this route is primarily for the Indian mainland to transport goods to its relatively less developed and less connected North-Eastern region any illegal trade would create backlashes from Myanmar government.

Myanmar is strategically important for India as it is the only South-East Asian country that it shares borders with. It is the land bridge for India to other South-East Asian countries. The bilateral security patrolling indicates India’s commitment towards the safety of the Sittwe port that influences North-East India’s growth and stability. Hence, the operationalization of the Kaladan project will help India move closer in achieving the primary objective of Act East Policy.

Therefore, the suggestion to connect Myanmar’s Sittwe port with other South Indian ports will increase the flow of goods to North-East India. Increased accessibility and connectivity between Indian mainland and North-East India is the primary objective of Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Project. But once the Chittagong port of Bangladesh opens this flow of goods will be shared by both Sittwe port and Chittagong port reducing the sole dependency on Sittwe port of Myanmar. But because the Sittwe port is closer to South-East Asian countries it will remain important.

Sivaranjini R is a Research Intern at CPPR Centre for Strategic Studies.  

Sivaranjini R
Sivaranjini R
Sivaranjini R was a Research Intern at the CPPR Centre for Strategic Studies.