India, ASEAN & dismal infrastructure in NE

It seems the Government of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is determined to catch up with the all pervading current of globalization and tap the full potential of trade with neighbouring countries. It is within this scheme of things that New Delhi has chalked a grand plan of connecting the country’s highways with international highways at the whopping cost of Rs 25,000 crore. According to the Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari, about 2000 Kms of highways would be constructed under the plan to link major highways to international trade points. The Union Minister went into records stating that the plan would facilitate trade with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. At the same time, India has set up a project development fund of 77 million US dollar to develop manufacturing hubs in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Theoretically, all these initiatives would go a long way in boosting India’s international trade and commerce particularly with their neigbouring countries and ASEAN. In fact, one of the primary objectives of India’s Look East Policy (now Act East Policy) was to establish strategic political and economic links with ASEAN and its member countries. The year 2017 marks the silver jubilee of ASEAN-India partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership. India became a Sectoral Dialogue Partner of ASEAN in 1992, a full ASEAN Dialogue Partner in 1996, and also a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996. India-ASEAN relations have traversed a long, dynamic path interspersed with multiple achievements to reach the year 2017, when the two are celebrating 25 years of their partnership. Such is India’s engagement with ASEAN but the country’s physical (land) connectivity with its eastern neighbours is quite poor. Standard, all-weather highways are very few and inadequate in the country’s North East region even though it shares international boundaries with Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Bhutan and Nepal.
The North East region’s dismal transport infrastructure is one weak-link in the New Delhi’s otherwise quite energetic engagement with ASEAN. Myanmar is India’s closest neighbour of the vibrant Southeast Asian bloc but Moreh, the country’s key trade link with Myanmar continues to be bogged down by multiple issues, infrastructure being one major issue. Though India and Myanmar signed the border trade agreement on January 21, 1994 and it was made operational the following year, the bilateral trade figure stands at $50 million against Myanmar’s trade with China which was around $6 billion last year as reported by IANS a few days back. This is quite discernable from the fact that while China has pumped in huge funds to build modern infrastructure in Yunnan province to boost connectivity with Myanmar, the infrastructure at the India-Myanmar border township of Moreh is still quite inadequate. A lone integrated check post is being constructed at Moreh for the past 10 years and it is still incomplete. Such is the non-commitment of New Delhi when it comes to infrastructure development in the North East region. Notwithstanding all the ambitious projects like the much hyped Act East Policy or Trans-Asian highway or Imphal-Mandalay bus service, Moreh is still every much ill-equipped both in terms of infrastructure or physical ambience. The sadder part is, people of Manipur, the home State of Moreh have not been capacitated to capitalise on Myanmar’s opening. What makes things worse, is the Government of Manipur’s lackadaisical attitude towards Moreh and the potentially huge international trade that can be carried out through the border town. Moreh still looks like an 18th century township bereft of any basic modern amenities. Moreh, at present, is full of demerits. Its only merit is its strategic location. As far as Manipur is concerned, the Government of India’s Act East Policy continues to be impressive power-point presentations at New Delhi. Such is the disenchantment of people. It would definitely go a long way to address the North East region’s poor connectivity and underdevelopment if policy mandarins of the country take this sorry state of affairs into account while celebrating the silver jubilee of India-ASEAN partnership.

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