Building a project in Myanmar was and is difficult. But, is it so difficult that the connectivity proposals mooted by Delhi early in the last decade will remain a dream or at best half complete?
Exactly the same happened to proposals to connect the north-eastern States and ASEAN through Myanmar.
The trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) highway that was scheduled to open in 2016 is now delayed by at least three years.
The proposed multi-modal Kaladan project to connect Mizoram through Sittwe Port in Myanmar suffers from a missing link. The water transport portion is ready butthere is no road to connect Mizoram.
Agreement with Myanmar A primary reason is surely bad planning as is evident in Kaladan project. Mooted in 2003, India entered into a framework agreement with Myanmar in 2008. Construction began in 2010.
Scheduled for completion in 2015, the project aimed to construct a port at Sittwe - near the Chinese port and SEZ at Kyaukphyu - at the estuary of Kaladan river; an inland terminal 225 km upstream of the river at Kaletwa; developing the navigational channel; purchase of dredgers and barges and; construction of a 129 km highway connecting the terminal to Lawngtlai in Mizoram.
As the work progressed, it was realised that river navigation beyond Paletwa, at 158 km upstream, is unviable due to rapids. It meant the road has to be longer.
There is no official communication on what happened thereafter. But, the road didn’t come up while the port and inland waterway part is near ready at an estimated cost of over ₹450 crore. The road in India to connect Lawngtlai with Aizwal is also 60 per cent complete.
Cabinet clearance Meanwhile, in October 2015, the Ministry of External Affairs announced the Cabinet clearance of a revised cost estimate of ₹2,904 crore, up from approximately ₹536 crore in 2008. Latest information suggests the ministry has engaged a consultant to explore the possibility of setting up an SEZ at Sittew.
But, why the road from Lawngtlai to Paletwa in Myanmar is a non-starter?
Prabir De, Coordinator of ASEAN-India Centre at the Delhi based think-tank, Research and Information System forDeveloping Countries, blames delayed environmental clearance by the Myanmar government for the delay and promises completion of the road by 2019. RIS is under the MEA. Persons having ground knowledge blame it on policy paralysis during the penultimate years of UPA-II coupled with a popular agitation against displacement for the delay. “There was an image problem,” a source said.
As things stand now, India is yet to award the contract for the road project and no one expects India to meet 2019 deadline.
Trilateral highway project Nothing exposed the planning inadequacies more than the fiasco over trilateral highway, considered a vital infrastructure towards realisation of India’s ‘Act East’ policy.
In 2005, India asked the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to build or upgrade the 132-km road from Moreh (India)-Tamu (Myanmar) border to Kalewa, as part of the trilateral highway project. BRO did what they were asked to and the stretch was renamed as ‘friendship highway’.
In 2015, the Centre approved the launch of a passenger bus service between the two nations. There were also efforts to enter into a tripartite motor vehicles agreement like the one between Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal (BBIN).
The initiative fell flat on its face.
Because, while the road was upgraded, the 70-odd weak World War-II bridges between Moreh-Tamu and Kalewa were not upgraded. The bus service was stopped soon after the flagging-off ceremony. The Centre recently approved a fresh budget for bridge upgrade.
Fresh initiative That is, of course, not the end of the hurdle for the trilateral highway. According to a task force meeting in 2012, India was entrusted with upgrading 252 km highway from Moreh (India)-Tamu (Myanmar) border to Yargi.
Myanmar took the initiative of upgrading the Yargi-Monywa section and open the existing motorway between Mandalaya-NawPyiTaw and Yangon.
The new government revisited the issue and withdrew the commitment. India is now expected to upgrade the stretch from Moreh (India)-Tamu (Myanmar) to Monywa. Also new alignment is suggested for Mandalaya-NawPyiTaw –Yangon section.
De says the new timeline for the highway is 2019. Meanwhile Singh is talking about extending the trilateral highway to Cambodia.