New Delhi: If and when India finds a successful glide path to the emerging economies of South-East Asia, the emphatic win of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the recently concluded assembly elections in the three North-East states of Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya will be counted among the key milestones.
Indeed, the three-state sweep is expected to have implications not just for the politics of the country but also for the future geo-economics of the region.
Senior Indian government functionaries, officials and experts say that having the same political dispensation at the centre and in these strategically located states will push the economic agenda, especially with respect to the long-pending infrastructure projects.
“The BJP’s win in these states means that there will be greater collaboration between the centre and states in terms of formulating and implementing policies for development, and this includes integration with the Asean (Association of South-East Nations)," said Prabhir De, head of the New Delhi-based Asean-India Centre at the economic think tank, Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries (RIS).
For India, development of the North-East has been a key priority outlined by successive governments.
In fact, India’s “Look East" policy that was outlined in the early 1990s, was aimed at this—linking India’s underdeveloped, insurgency wracked North-East with the dynamic economies of South-East Asia.
In recent years, a number of countries in South-East Asia have been looking westwards—with a seeming alignment between their “Look West" and India’s “Act East" policies. Significantly, Japan has joined hands with India to aggressively develop infrastructure projects in India’s northeastern states.
“India is committed to the cause of development. Several infrastructure projects in the North-East have been initiated that are not only focused for the region, but will also help to connect with neighbours. We believe in growth where we take our neighbours along," said India’s minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari.
No surprise then that India has 24 on-going projects in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
BJP’s North-East push
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had promised to pay special attention to the region in its election manifesto.
“There will be special emphasis on massive infrastructure development, especially along the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim," the BJP manifesto said.
Senior BJP leaders pointed out that the electoral performance can, in part, be attributed to the “Act East" policy of the government and its larger message of development. Which is why, soon after the assembly results were announced on Saturday, 3 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi categorically said that the development of the country would not be complete without the development of North-East.
“Apart from the political presence in the North-East, we should not forget the strategic importance of the region. All the three states share their boundaries with other countries and are important in terms of security of the country. When we say ‘Act East’, it not only means North-East states but also countries further east of India," said Meenakshi Lekhi, a Member of Parliament.
In the past four years, the NDA has formed governments in six of the seven North-East states, limiting the Congress to just Mizoram, where assembly polls are due later this year.
“If we are able to establish and strengthen trade ties with Asean, it will bring drastic changes in the economic condition of people in the seven states," added Lekhi, who is also a BJP spokesperson.
The key to Asean
The importance of the region was presciently captured by Myint Thant, author of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, who, in an interview to Mint in 2013, said, “Myanmar will be a gateway to other parts of Asia from the east of India...In future, if Myanmar has to be a gateway for anywhere, an imaginative focus on North-East India is going to be critical."
The Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The establishment of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 was a major milestone in the regional economic integration agenda in Asean, offering opportunities in the form of a huge market of $2.6 trillion and over 622 million people. In 2014, AEC was collectively the third largest economy in Asia and the seventh largest in the world.
To that end, the recent political churn in India’s North-East region is expected to open up commercial connections to South China and South-East Asia, thereby providing new trade routes and a source of major economic activity for the region.
Experts believe that the BJP’s win in Tripura and its success in forming the government in Meghalaya, bodes well for India’s “Act East" policy.
“It was the NDA government that introduced the ‘Act East’ policy that distinguishes it from the previous ‘Look East’ policy. It is meant to underline that the policy means business and is not mere rhetoric," said De.
“With Assam, Nagaland and now Meghalaya and Tripura in the BJP fold, besides Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh—all having BJP government at the state level, this will give a big push to India’s plans to integrate the North-East with Asean," De added.
Since the Narendra Modi-led government took over the reins at the centre in May 2014, around three dozen infrastructure projects have been either approved or initiated in the states of Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh in an effort to provide them with national and international connectivity.
“There are several international highways where India is either participating or contributing. These include the 1,400-km-long India, Thailand and Myanmar trilateral highway project, Bangladesh-Bhutan-India and Nepal— popularly called the BBIN project—to name a few. Once these road corridors are constructed, it can link the country for trade, business, health, education and tourism," said a senior Indian government official, requesting anonymity.
In addition, the government’s multi-modal hub plans at Jogighopa in Assam with direct connectivity through roads, waterways and air to neighbouring countries, has evinced interest from consumer products makers such as Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved Ltd and the Big Bazaar chain store.
“I have had talks with several companies and many of Indian FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies like Patanjali and Big Bazaar are keen on investing in a trade centre that could cater to India’s North-East, along with the neighbouring nations of Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan," said Gadkari.
Many believe that with an eye on China, India will now be able to expedite its work on a slew of road and bridge projects to improve connectivity with Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar.
Emphasis is also being placed on the South Asian Sub-Regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) road connectivity programme in the backdrop of China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (Obor) initiative aimed at connecting around 60 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe.
In Assam, for example, “there is a department that has been set up looking at plans and projects to link up with Asean countries," said De of Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries.
According to Gadkari, India has proposed a $1 billion line of credit to promote sea, air and road connectivity projects with Asean besides setting up a project development fund of $77 million to develop manufacturing hubs in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
India is moving ahead with its plans of accessing transnational multi-modal connectivity to articulate its role in the proposed transportation architecture in the region and beyond.
It has been instrumental in implementing the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which will run from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar and beyond—all the way to Vietnam. It is a project that has been lauded for its potential to revive the historical ties between India, Myanmar and Thailand, besides forging new ones.
Conceived at an India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) ministerial meet in Yangon in 2002, the crux of this trilateral project centres around the construction of a 1,360-km highway from Moreh-Tamu on the India-Myanmar border to Mae Sot on the Myanmar-Thailand border.
“The project has missed many deadlines since it was first set for 2015. The frontier areas of Myanmar are not an easy place to build roads—long stretches are motorable but suffer from landslides and steep, hostile terrain, which are especially problematic during the monsoons," said a government official who did not want to be named.
A Motor Vehicles Agreement allowing for the free movement of vehicles between the three countries is already in the works, the challenges notwithstanding.
“The importance of the IMT highway cannot be understated as a permanent asset. At a sub-regional level, the possibilities of creating a development corridor with rural development projects, special economic zones and exclusive economic zones will transform the economic landscape of the region, equip people with jobs and usher in development, in the true sense of the word," said the government official cited above.
Another project that is in the works is the Kaladan multimodal project that aims to boost trade and the trans-shipment of goods between India and its North-East through Myanmar.
The project aims to connect Kolkata to Myanmar’s Sittwe port, and then up to Paletwa in western Myanmar via the Kaladan river. From here, there is a road connection up to the Indian border and from there to Lawngtlai—one of the eight districts of Mizoram.
India plans to invest Rs6,168 crore for widening and upgrading the 351km road between Aizawl and Tuipang in Mizoram, according to documents reviewed by MintAsia.
The project is being developed with the help of a loan from the Japanese government. This road between Aizawl and Tuipang is part of the Kaladan multimodal transit project, which will connect Kolkata with the Sittwe port in Myanmar, and then further to Mizoram by river and road.
A third project linking India, Myanmar and Thailand is the development of the Dawei port complex. First mooted by then Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra on a visit to New Delhi in January 2012—Indian officials say the project would enhance India-Asean connectivity by sea, besides through rail and roadways—once up and running.
With an eye on China, India is also undertaking several bridge projects that could help connect the North-East and other South Asian nations. These include a bridge on the Feni river in Tripura, which will connect Agartala with Bangladesh’s Chittagong port and a bridge over river Mechi which will link Bhadrapur in Nepal with Galgalia in Bihar.
Railways are another important component of this connectivity play. The national carrier is working on four routes to help connect with the neighbouring nations of Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar.
“There are currently four lanes which will connect India to its neighbours. These are the 15.06-km long Agartala (India)-Akhaura (Bangladesh), 18.6-km long Jogbani (India)-Biratnagar (Nepal), 3-km long Haldibari (India) to Bangladesh border and 111-km Jiribum-Tupul–Imphal link, which after completion of the line up to Imphal, will be extended to Moreh (India), finally connecting with Myanmar and other South-East countries," said an Indian Railways North-East frontier spokesperson.
India’s maritime connectivity with South-East and East Asia, which although limited at this point, can also be the facilitator of pan-Asian integration.
Given Myanmar’s direct coastline with India and South-East Asia, developing infrastructure along the coast of Myanmar seems imperative to India’s engagement with the South-East Asian region.
Some believe the current scenario offers a perfect recipe for projecting India’s strategic reach.
“This (election win) is a very positive development. I am sure the Asean countries, too, will welcome this development as they know there are problems coordinating at the state level sometimes if the parties that govern in the state and central governments are different. Now, given the change in political equations, there will be a greater convergence between the centre and the states on all major issues like foreign direct investment from Asean countries for example, or the setting up of consulates," said De.
Pretika Khanna, Anuja & Gyan Varma contributed to the story.