It was in 2006-2007 that New Delhi started aggressively planning to reopen old road, water and sea ways that once used to connect northeast India to Southeast Asia. It was seen as a bold step toward realizing what India calls its ‘Look east policy’. The Centre laid stress on opening of a road link between India’s northeast and other Southeast Asian countries in order to boost trade and commerce.
Major plans were chalked out and New Delhi plunged its best foot forward to restore the Sittwe port in Myanmar, which earlier was used as an important sea port for trade with the northeast states. India is investing Rs 4.5 billion for this project. The Sittwe port, which was earlier known as Akyab, is planned to be connected with Mizoram through the Kaladan River. India’s public sector organisation RITES is to rebuild the port, which is nearly 160 km away from Mizoram. It was supposed to be completed in 2010-2011, but till date there is no news of it. India is now more concerned about how to use the Chittagong port in Bangladesh post 2009, when Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League came to power. New Delhi still talks big on Look East, but does not talk much about the Sittwe – Kaladan project.
Five years ago, New Delhi decided to spend Rs 8.5 billion to develop 13 Land Customs Stations (LCS) to boost trade with Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Of the 13 LCS, one is on the India-Pakistan border, four on the India-Nepal border, one on the India-Myanmar border and seven on the India-Bangladesh border. In the eastern frontier, infrastructure development did take place, the concept of Border haats have come in, but there is no implementation at ground zero. This gives a feel that India’s endeavour to ‘look east’ is really flying over the Northeast, and not incorporating the region in the scheme of things.
There is also an ambitious project to lay a sub-line to link the planned India-Myanmar gas pipeline for transporting natural gas. India is pushing the $3-billion pipeline plan to import gas from Myanmar through the northeast.
The 1,400 km long trans-Asian highway is supposed to run from Moreh in Manipur and stretch up to Thailand at Mae Sot via the ancient city of Bagan in central Myanmar. This proposed trans-Asian highway actually existed a long time ago. A major stretch of this highway was frequently used during the World War II. Now the road is not in use for decades and requires reconstruction. Watchers have always criticized India’s ‘Look East policy’ as new wine in old bottle.
Northeast India used to be a busy hub of cultural and commercial activities some 2,000 years ago. After centuries of isolation and neglect, it is coming to life again as the principal gateway between India and two of the fastest growing regions of the world – Southeast Asia and East Asia, but the big question is whether New Delhi wants it to play a major role or not. By subsequent actions, New Delhi is proving that its intention is to continue dangling the carrot of better connectivity in the region.
Experts believe that the need of the hour is to increase the volume of trade with Southeast Asia and keeping in mind the geographical proximity of Northeast with Southeast Asia, India should stress towards improving the communication infrastructure in the northeast region. Asean and East Asia share a $500 billion market while India’s current trading with Asean, Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan accounts for just $50 billion, almost a quarter of India’s total trade. So the volume of trade should go up. If the northeast receives even five percent share of this enormous market, the face of the region would change , but does New Delhi want this to happen?