Opinion

All’s not quiet on the eastern front

Pratim Ranjan Bose | Updated on January 13, 2018

Unfinished business: The Kaladan project is lagging on the Indian side   -  REUTERS

India’s lackadaisical approach towards key inter-country transport projects along the eastern border needs to change

The Narendra Modi government brought unprecedented focus on improving connectivity with neighbours through the country’s east and northeast regions. And this has triggered a rush for project implementation. What is missing, however, is matching progress in projects undertaken by the ministry of external affairs (MEA) in neighbouring economies, especially in Myanmar, which holds the key to India’s access to Asean.

It is, therefore, high time the Government considered some out-of-the-box solutions to bring accountability to the system, failing which regional and interregional connectivity will remain a pipe dream.

Not that the Modi government didn’t initiate measures on this front. But on the ground development has remained elusive, as is amply proved in the lack of progress either in the Trilateral Highway or the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project in Myanmar.

A white elephant

Kicked off in 2008, the Kaladan project was expected to ensure alternate connectivity to Mizoram through a mixture of sea, river and road transports from Sittwe Port at Kaladan river mouth in the Rakhine State of Myanmar.

Last year, India completed the port project and handed it over to Myanmar. The inland river terminal at Paletwa upstream of Kaladan is nearing completion. At the Indian side, the extension of the Aizawal-Saiha National Highway by 90 km to the international border at Zorinpui is nearing completion too. It was one of the most challenging road projects taken up in many decades in this part of the country.

But a 109-km road from Zorinpui to Paletwa is still missing. Over the last year, the project was tendered twice but unsuccessfully.

And that is one and a half years after the Modi government revised the budget estimates by nearly six times, roped in State-owned Ircon Infrastructure and Services as the consultant and put a 2019 deadline for completion.

Ask ministry officials and they would tell you about the “problems”. Yes, there are problems. But the nature of those problems — starting from difficult terrain to local interferences, resistance or, unlawful activities — is more or less similar on either side of the border in this part of the world.

There is little explanation for zero progress on Myanmar side vis-à-vis marked progress on the Indian side. There is also little doubt without the road link; the entire investment in Sittwe and the Paletwa terminal literally stands sunk.

Unfinished trilateral highway

The proposed 1360 km Trilateral Highway, kick started in 2005, is a more important project that promises to establish road connectivity from Manipur border to Thailand through Myanmar.

During the International Media Conference 2016, organised by the American think-tank East West Centre; academicians, policy makers and journalists from ASEAN countries criticised India for slack progress vis-à-vis China’s OBOR (one Belt, One Road) plans.

The significance of the project increased manifold in view of the recent proposal for motor-vehicles agreement among BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) nations.

BIMSTEC includes Myanmar, Thailand and SAARC minus Pakistan and Afghanistan. The MVA, therefore, holds promise to bring North Eastern India closer to Asean(represented by Thailand) and the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) region.

The key to this dream is Trilateral Highway that barely exists.

In 2012 the former UPA government opened a 132 km of the highway from the Indian border to Kalewa in Myanmar with much fanfare. What remained untold is 69 dilapidated bridges en-route, makes even passenger bus movement difficult.

Last year the government announced a fresh deadline of 2019 for project completion and allotted funds. But, the project hasn’t progressed an inch since then.

There is zero progress either on laying 120 km road in Myanmar connecting Zokhawthar border in Mizoram with the Trilateral Highway at Kalemyo in Myanmar. Meanwhile, the road widening project on the Indian side is nearing completion.

Kaladan and Trilateral Highway were two most ambitious projects announced in the last decade, so they deserved special mention. But probe further, you will find the same story everywhere, irrespective of the size of projects and geography.

The Indian side of the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Jogbani (Bihar) - Biratnagar (Nepal) land border with Nepal is opened. But construction of the India-funded mirror facility in Nepal is yet to begin.

This means the huge investments made on the Indian side of the gate are underutilised and trade facilitation remained a far cry because land ports cannot deliver without matching facilities on either side of the border.

At Raxau l(Bihar)-Birgunj (Nepal), the largest land border with Nepal, the Indian side is ready for at least six months. The India-sponsored facility in Birgunj is still under construction.

India is slow in project implementation. But when it comes to our foreign office, things probably hit the slowest track.

When the control of the BBIN motor vehicles dialogue was shifted from the transport ministry to the MEA, major stakeholders were wary of red-tapism and delay. Willy-nilly their apprehensions proved correct too. MVA is yet to be operationalised.

Desi JICA

Many feel formation of a separate external assistance agency in the lines of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) will bring structural reforms in the system.

It is not known, however, how a government agency operating under the ministry would be more efficient than the government. What is the surety that it wouldn’t be another resting place for the same bureaucrats?

Can the Government keep leadership positions away from the bureaucrats and let run like another private sector, not as another public sector enterprise?

Published on March 09, 2017

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