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Subir Bhaumik
Date of Publish: 2015-10-23


Double entry strategy for Northeast

Subir Bhaumik


India seems to be going for a double option to access its remote northeast by sea.

The 262,380 sq kms region made up of seven states has been landlocked since India’s independence and multiple options to access it seems a good idea.

India’s relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar are better than before and Delhi is using that to develop both the options to access the Northeast.

The more preferred option is to use Bangladesh’s Chittagong port, then take the goods up the Meghna river to Asuganj land port, from where it is just 50 kms to Tripura’s capital Agartala by road. Through Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya can be easily accessed. Tripura has already started bringing in foodgrains using this route after it successfully transported heavy equipment for its 720MW Palatana gas-fired power project.

The second option India is seeking to develop is the one using Sittwe port in the Rakhine state of Myanmar and then take cargo to the border of Mizoram using the Kaladan river. After that Mizoram and other states like Manipur can be reached using the land routes.

The Kaladan project was designed to provide an alternate access route to the northeastern States through Mizoram at a time when Bangladesh was ruled by the Khaleda Zia led BNP government . The Zia government was not only sheltering northeast Indian insurgents , but it was less than enthusiastic about providing India use its ports and territory to access the Northeast.

 In fact, Zia’s opposition forced India drop the natural gas pipeline project to connect the Arakan gas fields in Myanmar to markets in mainland India through Bangladesh. Now Bangladesh rues the missed opportunity because it does not have enough gas for power generation and many of its experts feel the Arakan-India pipeline through Bangladesh would have now allowed Bangladesh to draw on Arakan gas as much as India.

In March 2009, the Ministry of External Affairs appointed a consultant for port development project at Sittwe following a framework agreement between India and Myanmar in April 2008 to develop Sittwe port on the mouth of the Kaladan river as an alternative IWT (inland water transport ) route to move goods to and from India’s North eastern region through Mizoram.

The project, known as Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, is being funded by the Ministry of External Affairs and has three components. First, construction of a port at Sittwe, undertaking dredging and installing navigational aids to make the Kaladan river navigable over its 158-km long stretch from Sittwe to Paletwa in Myanmar’s Chin state and construction of an IWT terminal at Paletwa and building six barges of 300-tonne capacity each to facilitate transportation of goods along the stretch.

The second component involves upgrading the highway from Paletwa to Myeikwa near the Indo-Myanmar border in Mizoram covering a distance of 125 km. The entire stretch will be within the Myanmar territory. The third component envisages construction of a 100-km long road from the border to Lawngtlai in Mizoram, which is located on the National Highway 54.

The construction  at Sittwe started in December 2010. More than 80 percent of the construction work has been completed  The original time schedule for completion was June 2013, which was extended till June 2014 due to delay in handing over of land at Sittwe and Paletwa, custom clearances and other approvals by the Government of Myanmar. This deadline too was missed. Now India is looking at completing the project by 2017.

The Modi government has taken renewed interest in the Kaladan project and recently cleared a revised estimate of Rs 2904 crores for it. The issue of speeding up the project was taken up by India’s National Security advisor Ajit Doval and foreign secretary S Jaishanker during their recent visits to Myanmar. Indian envoy Gautam Mukhopadhyay, a very proactive diplomat, is closely monitoring the Kaladan project though delays continue for reasons beyond his control.

While many may doubt the spending on the Kaladan project if India gets to use the Chittagong-Asuganj corridor, the Modi government is unwilling to put all its eggs in one basket. A long tenure for the Awami League has led to a splendid bilateral climate , but that could nosedive with a regime change in Dhaka. That does not look likely immediately but good planning is always long-term . Myanmar is likely to provide for greater policy continuity because its military , that will remain powerful for a long time, is seeking to balance its over dependence on China. Since the Chinese have started operating the Kyauk Pyu port and the oil-gas pipeline that links it to Yunnan, the generals in Nay Pyi Taw see an Indian presence at Sittwe as a balancing act on the Arakan coast.

For India, the Kaladan route is the second sea-land access to Northeast from the Indian mainland after Chittagong-Asuganj. Not only does both routes help India reduce its dependence on the tenuous Siliguri corridor , sea transport is sure to bring down costs once the necessary logistics is in place.  The good news for Northeast is that Bangladesh is no longer going to depend on Chittagong alone . It has successfully negotiated with Japan for the construction of a modern deep sea port at Matabarhi , barely 25-30 kms south of Chittagong . Work on this deep sea project will start beginning 2016. Once completed, this port in tandem with Chittagong will help India transport more goods to northeast India.

 The good news is Bangladesh has not dropped the Chinese proposal for a deep sea port at Sonadia near Chittagong. It is not happening now because Bangladesh has issues with rates of interest on Chinese funding and because China wants to use its own labour for such prestigious projects which Bangladesh is obviously unwilling to allow.  But to keep the Sonadia project on the anvil is a good idea because Bangladesh’s exports and imports are both rising sharply as the economy is expected to grow at 6 percent plus annually. So at some point, if it allows comprehensive transit to India for accessing the northeast, Bangladesh may need a second deep sea port anyway.

China always believes in creating multiple land-sea access . For example , for reaching the Bay of Bengal through Kyauk Pyu in Myanmar has not prevented it from seeking another option at Sonadia in Bangladesh. If relations with India improves, I have it on authority from top Yunnan officials that China would look at Kolkata as a third option to open to Bay of Bengal. That is why they remain so committed to the Kolkata-Kunming Forum and the dialogue process that goes with  it . All this is is because the Chinese believe in dynamic planning – they know exports and imports grow, so port handling capacity must be upgraded all the time to keep pace with demand.

By looking at a double option – Chittagong-Asuganj and Kaladan – to access the Northeast, the Modi government has done the right thing by deciding to expedite the Kaladan project even as Bangladesh seems ready to allow transit through its ports. That is doing it the Chinese way and something most welcome.

(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book "Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press. )



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