Jaipur, October 01, 2020
Other than enhanced connectivity, the Kaladan multi-modal project can potentially results in other benefits including the betterment of internal as well as cross-border security through local economic development. That requires para-diplomacy on the part of India’s northeastern states bordering Myanmar. Local people should be more involved with connectivity initiatives.
“While India’s transit to its northeastern region via Bangladesh is getting strengthened, the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project, which is being implemented by India in Myanmar remains even more important”, said Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International.
“That is for economic as well as strategic reasons, and particularly because of emerging geo-political challenges in the Bay of Bengal region. Its importance in aiding eastern and northeast India’s connectivity with the Bay of Bengal cannot be over-emphasised.”
“With its linkages with India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, it can give eastern South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, and Southeast Asia a tremendous leeway to develop complementary multi-modal transit and transport linkages.”
“Towards this the enormity of peace and development dividends that it would bring need to be looked upon by taking into confidence all relevant stakeholders at the sub-national level and people on the ground.”
Chatterjee was speaking at a webinar that was organised by CUTS International today to discuss the scope and scale for accelerating diplomatic efforts for the successful implementation of the Kaladan project.
It was based on a briefing paper, recently published by CUTS under its project on multi-modal connectivity in the BBIN sub-region. Among others, it underlined the importance of managing ethnic challenges to an early completion and implementation of the Kaladan project.
Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head, Neighbourhood Studies and Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi and the author of this paper, stated that “India has always tried to find a right balance to engage with the people in Myanmar by providing a broad range of cultural, political, economic and development support.”
However, despite the fact that the Kaladan project being the first cross-border project that India had initiated for the betterment of connectivity of its northeast region, more than two decades ago, it is yet to take off. Not only have there been inordinate delays, but ground hostilities from insurgent groups have the future of this ambitious project at risk.
Datta, however, cautioned that India’s involvement in the internal strife can be self-defeating. It necessarily falls on the Myanmar government to resolve the complex ethnic conundrum, while some back-channel talks involving India may not be out of place.
In this context, she highlighted the efforts of the Chief Minister of Mizoram, Shri Zoramthanga, when in January, 2020, he expressed his desire to see the Kaladan project completed at the earliest as he believes that would also benefit the Zo community who are living in Mizoram and the Chin state of Myanmar, and also adjoining areas in the Chattogram Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.
“Not only that, his past experience in similar negotiations and his knowledge about the rebel groups including the rebel Arakan army in Myanmar would be a key input in trying to resolve this issue,” she asserted.
Speaking as a discussant, Major General (Retd.) Alok Deb, also a former Deputy Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, stated that the Kaladan project is a key pillar of India’s Act East Policy.
“The set-up of the project is such that the Government of Myanmar provides land and security while the cost is borne by India. The border management and security agencies of the two countries need to work closely to deal with security issues in view of political and ethnic issues in Myanmar that are allegedly funded by China,” he said.
According to Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, a former Ambassador of India to Bangladesh, “there is no alternative to connectivity for the development and prosperity of any nation. Certainly for India’s Act East Policy to be successful, the betterment of connectivity with Myanmar and Thailand is vital. The shadow of insurgents will continue to fall on these kinds of projects but it should not deter us”.
The panel expressed that there has been a significant shift in the mindsets of people relating to connectivity and security issues. People now no longer associate vulnerable security conditions with developing connectivity infrastructure.
Therefore, as compared to what it was even a few years ago, today connectivity is being perceived in a much more positive light and the discourse on the need to ensure security is being tackled by improving border infrastructure.
“It is in this context, we need to understand the values that any mechanism including Track 2 dialogues that can act as an enabling platform for deliberations and prepares the grounds for effective decision-making and policy implementation. This process involving multiple stakeholders should be encouraged. Local population should be convinced that a functional Kaladan project will serve their interests.”
The importance of viewing bilateral connectivity projects from a larger lens and initiating dialogues on converting them into trilateral projects at the least was also discussed. Participants from Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal highlighted the importance of such projects from their geo-political and geo-strategic perspectives. “It is time to join the dots from various bilateral initiatives so as to make them bigger for facilitating trade and investment, and ensuring benefits for the communities,” they said.
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