Re-opening and rethinking border trade

After a gap of almost one year, Indo-Myanmar border trade through Moreh township is re-opening. It was the COVID-19 pandemic which forced the closure of the border trade and it gave a severe blow to traders, transporters, shopkeepers, hoteliers etc. With the COVID-19 graph flattening and several vaccines ready to be rolled out, the two countries have agreed to re-open the border trade. This is indeed a positive change. But only time will determine whether the international trade through Moreh can boost the State’s economy or not. Even before the border trade was closed last year on account of the pandemic, the official trading volume was not robust. The cross-border trade suffered major setback when the Government of India hiked the import duty on betel nuts from 4 per cent to 40 per cent. While the bilateral trade between India and Myanmar has witnessed an upswing, the border trade between the two countries through Manipur has witnessed a downslide. The bilateral trade had grown steadily in the 1990s to reach a level of US $ 328 million. The trade volume continued to rise through the 2000s up to US$ 569.17 million. The trade turnover shot up to US$ 892.99 million. The balance of trade has always been in favor of Myanmar. According to Myanmar statistics, India is the second largest-market for Myanmar’s exports. The total trade in 2010-11 (US$ 1070.88) has more than doubled in the last five years. India is now the fifth largest trade partner of Myanmar (4th largest export destination for Myanmar and 7th largest source of imports into Myanmar) after Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Singapore. On the other hand, legal trade on the border has dwindled in the last five years to just about 0.15 percent of total commerce between Myanmar and India.
Checkpoints by security forces and rebel group supporters make the 120 km (75 mile) journey along the highway through the hills from Imphal to Moreh on the border painstakingly slow – and expensive, too, from the “taxes” they impose on traffic. The highway was supposed to be part of a road network linking up with Mandalay, Myanmar’s main city in the North, and on into Thailand.  The sleepy border town of Moreh had dreams of being a major international trading centre, a key station on the ambitious Trans-Asia Railway that will enable containers from East and Southeast Asia to travel overland across India to Europe. Opened in 1995 to great fanfare, the Moreh crossing was supposed to be a major trading post by now. Notwithstanding all the ambitious projects like the much hyped Look East Policy (now 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 recent 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. The tragedy has been further compounded as New Delhi seemingly planned the Indo-Myanmar cross border trade by keeping either Kolkata or Guwahati as the principal trading hub on Indian side. Under this whole scheme of things, people of Manipur have no place except as by-standers. These are some fundamental questions which we must raise, explore suitable answers and act upon it as the border-trade is re-opening once again.