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Why India can't come to Rohingyas' rescue

September 18, 2017 08:27 IST

Without Myanmar, India can'T engage with any of the Asian nations to its east.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee reports.


IMAGE: Rohingya refugees wait for food to be distributed outside a mosque in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

There are more infrastructure projects connecting India with Myanmar than with any of New Delhi's other neighbours, as the external affairs ministry has discovered.

The largest of them -- the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project -- originates from the home state of the persecuted population of Rohingyas.

Yet, since each of these projects needs government-to-government support to move even an inch, it is difficult for India to take a strident position without seriously compromising their viability.

These projects provide a crucial linkage to keep alive each of India's Look East initiatives.


Without Myanmar, India cannot engage with any of the Asian nations to its east, says Prabir De, professor, Asean-India Centre, Research and Information System for Developing Countries.

Other than Kaladan, there are seven more projects, including a trilateral highway -- a 1,600-kilometre highway to connect India with Thailand through Myanmar, which is slated to be completed by 2020.

The highway is part of the larger Mekong-India Economic Corridor project that envisages development of ports and more than one special economic zones over an 8,000 hectare area.

The project's expected completion date is 2022, but most experts anticipate handsome delays.

As of now only a small port has been made operational, while the construction of a road link from Dawei in Myanmar to the Thailand border has just begun.

According to the ministry of external affairs, the trilateral highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport projects form the bedrock for promoting India's connectivity with Myanmar and beyond into the Asean region.

The Kaladan project aims to connect Kolkata by river and sea with the Myanmar port of Sittwe and further to Mizoram by road.

Sittwe is the capital of the disturbed Rakhine state in Myanmar.

Realising the significance of these projects, New Delhi has begun to pay a lot of attention to complementary projects in its north eastern states.

According to Naveen Verma, secretary, ministry Of development of north eastern region, the government is pushing aggressively to complete these connectivity projects, primarily those involving the railways.

These include a broad gauge railway line to Agartala and another line to connect with Imphal.

The viability of many of these can be at risk if the downstream projects are shelved.

Once connected, the road links through the once densely forested equatorial region will form a dense criss-cross of connections of India beginning from Moreh, through Myanmar, to Thailand and then onward to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

It is possibly the largest agglomeration of infrastructure project in the region, says De.

Once the links begin to shape up India expects to earn substantial rewards as joint ventures in manufacturing sector such as automobile, pharma, textiles and chemicals can take shape.

There should be benefits for the services sector too in IT-BPO, tourism, education, maritime services, health and even in sharing of space technology.

But those benefits will first need governments to resolve differences at each stage.

For instance, there are bridges on a 500-kilometre road link from Moreh in India to Mandalay in Myanmar which cannot hold up the load of even a pickup truck.

Those bridges have literally slipped in the gap of inter-country coordination as the two neighbours work out even simple differences like measuring their weight bearing capacity.

"There is a need for government support to make many of these projects work," says India's Deputy National Security Adviser Arvind Gupta.

The projects are littered with every possible acronyms and include proposed road links, air connectivity plans, electricity grids and special economic zones on coasts.

Just like the forests, they need to also cut through the deep suspicion among the member states to cede controls.

In 2013, India had offered a $150 million credit for establishing the Kaladan project in Rakhine.

A 1,000-acre parcel of land is available from the Myanmar government. There has been no movement on the ground despite cordial relations at the top among the two government.

While the Indian SEZ and port are upstream with shallow draft of Sittwe town, there is a competing Chinese SEZ downstream of the town where bigger vessels can port.

"The delay in our project is making it even less attractive for the investors," De says.

Subhomoy Bhattacharjee
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