Poor land route connectivity deters India-ASEAN bonhomie
by Ashok B Sharma on 08 Nov 2014 4 Comments

In a situation where economies are seeking integration with neighbours in the form of institutional grouping, India has made attempts for engagement with the ASEAN bloc primarily for trade and integration of the economy, more particularly to derive benefit for its remote north-eastern region. But this has not been realised in full potential due to poor land route connectivity despite inking of free trade agreements in goods and services with ASEAN.


Myanmar is north-east India’s gateway to ASEAN. India and Myanmar have a 1643 km long border between them and also share a long maritime boundary.


The axis of economic activity has shifted to the India-Pacific region, described by US as “pivot” and hence it intends to play a rebalancing role in the region. The ASEAN nations have decided to form an economic community in 2015. Myanmar, which is in a transition phase to democracy, is set to have a new democratic order after polls in 2015. Keeping in view the possible developments in the region, India had earlier formulated the North East Vision Document 2020 that includes plans for land route connectivity with Myanmar and beyond. It has set up its mission to ASEAN in Jakarta with a separate ambassador to take forward its multi-faceted relations with this grouping.


However, in matters of land route connectivity between India and ASEAN the progress has been slow as compared to the connectivity drive by China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to take up this issue at the India-ASEAN Summit slated in Nay Pyi Taw in the second week of this month.


Myanmar is well connected with Yunnan province in China. There is a flourishing trade at Muse-Jiagao border trading point. In 2012-13 Myanmar’s exports to China was $1584 million while China’s export to Myanmar was $1153 million. Compared to this officially recorded trade between India and Myanmar through border trade points at Moreh and Zokhawthar was only $6.5 million in 2012-13. Much of the trade is through unofficial channels and some through barter trade arrangement where about 23 farm commodities are allowed. The main items of India’s imports are betel nuts, dried ginger and pulses while main items of India’s exports are cumin seeds, turmeric and soybean meal.


Myanmar exports primary farm products like rice, maize, pulses, vegetables, fruits, fishery items apart from jade and other gemstones to China, while China exports fertilisers, machinery, motorcycles, steel products, apple, pear, organs, hybrid seeds, cotton yarns, garments, milk powder, electrical and electronic items.


The trading point has three gates for entry and exit of vehicles for different purposes. Gate no 1 is for passenger vehicles, small goods vehicles and for people crossing either side. Gate no 2 allows passage of people with baggage or headloads but not with vehicles. Gate no 3 is for heavy trucks carrying goods.


Myanmar citizens are allowed to go into China within 90 km radius from the border with a temporary passport and stay for six to seven days. Chinese citizens are allowed to come into Myanmar up to 105 mile zone which is seven miles from Muse.


Muse Border Trade Inspection Zone is a vast 48-acre site set up in 2006. Customs, immigration, police and revenue authorities all have their offices under one roof. However, there is no food testing facility. There are facilities for warehouses and cold storages. There is a border rice market and a fishery market. An annual China-Myanmar Border Trade Fair is held alternately on either side of the border since 2001. Most Myanmar traders have opened Yuan accounts in Chinese banks across the border. Muse branch of Myanmar Economic Bank issues draft payable in Yuan. There are numerous money exchangers at the border. Hence business transaction is not a problem. Few factories have been set up for processing bulk imports of many items from China.


Muse on the Myanmar side is located about 112 miles from Lashio, the main town in northern Shan state. Lashio in turn is 165 miles north of Mandalay. Much of the road from Mandalay goes over hilly terrain with winding lanes and the average time taken to cover the whole distance is over 12 hours by truck. The road is doubled land. Though landslides are regular features in Lashio-Muse segment, efforts are made to clear the debris.


Another example of cross country connectivity are pipelines from Kyaukphyu to Yunan province in China for supply of gas and crude petroleum products. China has made its presence in Kyaukphyu Economic and Technological Development Zone, deep sea port and railway project. It intends to take lease of Great Coco Island close to India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands as part of its Maritime Silk Route plan and presence in India-Pacific.


India has not yet been able to develop Integrated Check Post (ICP) in Manipur at Moreh-Tamu trading point at India-Myanmar border over 45 acre land since the setting up of Land Ports Authority in 2012. Tamu-Kalay-Kalewa road has been built with Indian assistance, India has agreed to rebuild 71 bridges and upgrade 120 km Kalewa-Yagi segment while Myanmar would upgrade the 65-km Yagi-Monywa segment by 2015 which would ultimately ensure connectivity from Imphal in India to Mandalay in Myanmar. This will help to realize the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral connectivity with remaining gaps near Mae Sot in Thailand, with other roads leading to Laos. It is expected that the Trilateral Highway will be operationalised by 2016.


But India needs to gear up its internal connectivity of Manipur with the rest of north-eastern states and lay Jiribam-Imphal railway track and establish rail connectivity between Imphal and Kalay.


Another identified border trade point at India-Myanmar border is Zokhawthar-Rhi. India has agreed to build the 80 km Rhi-Tiddim road in Myanmar. It would be important to get Myanmar to upgrade the Tiddim-Kalay road so that this could then provide a seamless link to Mandalay from Mizoram in India.


Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project is one of the highest significance. Its implementation began in 2010. The road segment of the project has not kept to schedule, but is expected to progress along with the water component of the project. India has decided to set its consulate in Sittwe. There are plans for setting up a Land Customs Station at Zorinpuri on the Kaladan project route to handle goods from Indian ports through Sittwe and facilitate trade between north-eastern states like Mizoram, Tripura and lower Assam with Chin and Rakhine states of Myanmar.


Starting with Pangsau pass in Arunachal Pradesh, India has plans to set up 10 border haats along the Myanmar border. There is also a need to revive the old connectivity of Arunachal Pradesh with Myanmar – the Stilwell Road.


India is working with Myanmar to operationalise an Imphal-Mandalay bus service. A project for a road from the Mizoram border at Rhi to Tiddim is slated to be taken up by India.


Air connectivity is also important. Air India has bi-weekly services from Kolkata to Yangon with frequency rising to three flights a week during Buddhist pilgrim season (October-March) when these flights gets extended to Bodh Gaya. Air flights should connect Imphal and Mandalay. Flights from Aizawl to Kalemyo and Mandalay would further ensure connectivity.


Myanmar is a key member of the CLMV group – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The CLMV group is partner in the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation through which India undertakes development projects in the Mekong’s lower reaches. More stress should be given to activate the BIMSTEC group – Bangladesh, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand – for ensuring connectivity with ASEAN. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had proposed all round connectivity among north-eastern India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. India must echo the same instead of pursuing the BCIM - Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar corridor - as proposed by Beijing. Sooner the better.  

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