North-east India - an emerging gateway - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 20 September 2011

North-east India - an emerging gateway

If India is to capitalise on improved Indo-Bangla relationship and the potential to physically connect with mainland Asean, New Delhi must reshape relations with its north-east

Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Sept 11

Since Independence, India has treated its north-eastern states as unproductive black holes into which New Delhi pours vast amounts of treasure and obtains resentful ingratitude in return. But this backwater is in focus after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s successful visit to Dhaka earlier this month, which has not just built bridges with Bangladesh but it also holds out the promise of creating a new relationship with south-east Asia. If India is to capitalise on the improved Indo-Bangla relationship and benefit from its potential to physically connect this country with mainland Asean or the the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, New Delhi has no choice but to reshape its relations with its north-east.

The potential for our eastern provinces to disrupt this opportunity has already been highlighted by Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s chief minister, who pulled out of the delegation to Dhaka in annoyance at the plan to give Bangladesh more water from the Teesta River. While Ms Banerjee’s absence somewhat dampened the euphoria in Dhaka, the blame for her embarrassing boycott lies in New Delhi, not Kolkata. Aware of the political sensitivity of water sharing anywhere, but especially between agricultural West Bengal and the erstwhile East Bengal, New Delhi failed to obtain Ms Banerjee’s unequivocal agreement on a water deal with Dhaka.

It is telling that Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, seemed more aware than New Delhi of the importance of West Bengal’s leader. Ms Banerjee was slated to receive an especially warm welcome in Dhaka and a meeting of the Bangladesh cabinet discussed at some length whether a Dhakai jamdani sari would be a befitting gift for her. Ms Banerjee might well – after some political grandstanding for the voters in North Bengal who rely on Teesta water – climb down and climb aboard a flight to Dhaka for her own little summit with Ms Hasina. But the fact remains that New Delhi’s insensitivity towards its peripheries created this muddle. Unless this approach changes, there is the risk of greater, and possibly irretrievable, debacles.

Beyond the Mamata fiasco, the PM’s visit to Bangladesh was an unalloyed strategic success. The agreement on demarcating the land boundary between the two countries eliminated a long-standing irritant. But the real triumph, both for bilateral ties and for regionalism, was the opening up of land, sea and riverine communications (“multi-modal links” is the term in vogue). These will provide a physical backbone to the “Look East” policy, so far just a strategic slogan. As Dr Singh and Ms Hasina noted, “road, rail and waterways [are] building blocks to an inter-dependent and mutually beneficial relationship among the countries of the region. The establishment of physical infrastructure would promote exchange of goods and traffic, and lead to the connectivity of services, information, ideas, culture and people.”

For now, there are only modest steps. New land ports and immigration stations are being established to facilitate trade and the movement of people. Trial runs have begun for moving cargo on the Brahmaputra between Ashuganj (in Bangladesh) and Silghat (in Assam). A rail line will link Agartala (in Tripura) with Bangladesh. Additional rail connections (Chilahati-Haldibari and Kulaura-Mahishashan) will be reactivated “in the spirit of encouraging revival of old linkages and transport routes between the two countries”. And goods could soon move between India’s north-east and Chittagong and Mongla seaports.

This is part of a far more expansive project: the linking of India’s Indo-Gangetic plain with its north-eastern states; and then expanding those linkages to the mainland Asean states of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam; and through them to China. Currently the Seven Sisters – the north-eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura – are connected to India only through a 21-km-wide sliver of land, the so-called Siliguri corridor. Through this chicken’s neck runs all infrastructure to the north-east, including roads, railway lines and power transmission lines. Transit through Bangladesh, with its 4,000-km border with four Indian states (our longest land border with any neighbour) would magically open up the north-east.

Within striking distance of the north-east, major transport links are being built. China is building roads, a railway and pipelines from Yunnan to Myanmar’s Kyauk Phyu port on the Bay of Bengal. While China is connecting with the Bay of Bengal to bypass its “Malacca problem”, saving a week in transit time through that strait, New Delhi tends to see this infrastructure as a direct threat to India. But infrastructure is seldom a zero-sum game; it has the potential to simultaneously benefit multiple players.

Further inside Myanmar, but within easy reach from the north-east, is the Dawei Development Project, a deep-water port on Myanmar’s Arakan coast, which is being connected to Thailand through a multi-modal transport corridor. From Thailand this will link up with the three economic corridors of the Greater Mekong Sub-Region. The railway from Dawei would also link up with a railway that China is building from Kunming, which will connect through Laos, to the Thai railway network.

Then there are the direct linkages between the north-eastern states and China: the existing border trade post at Nathu La, Sikkim; potential border crossings through Tawang and Walong in Arunachal Pradesh; and the much-discussed Stilwell Road that used to connect Dibrugarh (in upper Assam), through Myanmar, with Kunming.

India has traditionally shrunk from operationalising these connections even while espousing a “Look East” policy. But the people of the north-east understand how crucial these cross-border linkages are for their future. That is why the chief ministers of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura accompanied the PM to Dhaka. Despite New Delhi’s fears, this is an idea whose time has come. The Seven Sisters are poised to be India’s gateways to a strategically and economically vital neighbourhood. New Delhi has to quickly learn the political nuances of the north-east. The lessons of Mamata must be quickly absorbed.


  1. The economic recovery is slow and uncertain. Immigration remains a political hot button.

  2. Col. Shukla -

    The lessons of "mamta" should be quickly absorbed !!! :) Brilliant. Was it intended?

    As for the Chinese infrastructure through Myanmar into the Bay of Bengal, well, once its ready, they will want their navy to safeguard the connectivity...

    Kind of reminds me of their highway 219 and what it eventually led to. Especially given the INS Airavat incident.

    I agree that trade is good, but, to quote Ben Franklin I think, a strong stick is also needed to ensure that the Chinese treat us the way that they want to be treated.

  3. Unfortunately, easy linkages via Bangladesh will make the Northeastern states irrelevant to Indo-ASEAN trade and contribute even more to their neglect. The lack of infrastructure investments in the 7 Sister states will ensure their continued economic backwardness.

    I fail to see why the 21 km wide Siliguri Corridor should constitute a bottleneck. It is enough space for 20 6-lane highways and another 20 broad-gauge railway lines but we still have just one each.

  4. "north-eastern states as unproductive black holes into which New Delhi pours vast amounts of treasure".

    Yeah right, vast sums of money for AFSPA, human right violations and all sorts of restrictions on the bloody chinks.

    I really feel sorry for states like UP, Bihar, MP, Orissa, Kashmir which don't get a penny and where humans reproduce like rabbits and are the epicenter of Jihadi mentality. Typical Indian attitude towards the fcuking chinks.

    Hey, I have a good idea that will save a lot of money for India. Just give the entire north east region to China and save your self some dough. You can then use it to finance Mayawati's personal sandal carrying jets.

    Talk about your own filthy UP before talking about NE region. They are anyday much better educated and well mannered than you paan puking filthy bhaiyya.

  5. Sir.
    India must constuct railway link to Myanmar through Bangladesh. This will help increased economic cooperation not only with Bangladesh and Myanmar but also with Thailand and Vietnam. This action will trigger growth and development in this region including the seven Indian states of NE.
    India must also enable Banglaesh Navy with ships and other quipments to patrol Bay of Bengal for preventing chinese intrusion.
    India must provide financial grants to Bangladesh and Myanmar so that they can purchase such arms like ALH, small frigates manufactured in India etc.

  6. Dear Colonel,

    NE region of India is an undiscovered and unknown area for Indian elites as brought out by Sonam. Imagine All India Services (IAS, IPS and Forest Service honchos getting 25 percent extra of their pay if posted there and even after that they run out of NE leaving behind Army and big vacume). Only the lesser mortals of PBI know every inch of it out of compulsion and with out any extra pay. No one recognizes this contribution of last 100 years. It was here till recently that MEA played administrators ! Imagine !

    However, it is this region which holds the key to future economic boom of India with its abundant unexplored resources, provided some one is kicked somewhere. Not to mention others, the bamboo itself is worth billions of dollars of export potential. It has highest potential for hydrocarbons, gas and thermal and hydro power generation which can meet the requirement of NE regions, Bengladesh and Tibet as and when it is freed.

    It is no doubt that Geopolitically and Historically, Dacca had been and shall continue to the epicentre for NE states. That is what the former Bangladesh (that time Pakistan) minister based and implemented his strategy for the Islamisation of the NE region and succeeded to a large extent. ULFA finally gravitating on to Dhacca and all NE militants groups having solid bases there for so many years further proves it that even today the centre of gravity is Dhacca. Calcutta proved to one sided and difficult. However, the the prominence and prosperity of Bengali and Marwary babus of Calcutta and Calcutta being the first Corporate centre of India was based on NE region. Alas ! they lost their position due to inefficiency and arrogance.

    Taking positive side, a sea route axis to NE states through Chittagong and Dacca could be economically very advantageous to all NE states. Imagine, presently, the tea produced here is exported from Kandla from Gujarat. How much would be the saving be if the tea is exported from Chittagong or other Bangladesh ports.

  7. Contd...

    Well, West Bengal would lose its dadagiri over NE States. Mamata’s plea on Teesta is a gas and only gas. The real reason being Bengali ego and fear of losing ruling the entire NE states if East Bengal (Bangladesh)takes charge. I think Bengalies in East know it well.

    NE is a treasure of resources for the economic upliftment of NE regions and Bangladesh, if not West Bengal and rest of India. It has border with Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. It is the strategic base for the ground level interaction and diplomacy with respect to these regions. Rightly said, it is the gateway to East. It is here that two Christian majority states of India exist and One Budhist state is in making. It is here that, that oldest surviving Hindu race is on the verge of extinction. It is this region which once upon a time ruled Myanmar. It is a region which must attract the utmost attention of Indian elites unfortunately a deserter.

    Your views are apt and a reminder of the gross neglect this region faces in infrastructure and development. Virtual parallel governments runs the region gravitating towards Dhacca. The black economy of Bangladesh runs with the resources of this region. It is better to coopt Dhacca then smell Mamata gas. The ports of Bangladesh are nearest to Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. So one either brings Bangladesh to ones sides or simply capture it (any way, by love, cooperation or economically). It is good for congress so that Bangladeshis in India become more dedicated Congress voters along with fellow Christians !

    You mentioned Stillwell. Stillwell poses problems as North Myanmar is controlled by China with Chinese population and traders, Myanmar having little controlled over it. That is also softer belly of the dragon. The Tirap Changlang belt is nearest to mainland China to achieve the best ranges for India Missiles and may be aircrafts.

    You name a thing and it is there including abundant coal which energizes Bangladesh ( once upon the largest sources of black income of Crorepati Mr K Nath).

    Good that you are not stuck with Pakistan !

  8. @ Sonam.... Like

    I believe North East as Vibrant as rest of India ; Nevertheless they are more educated and more urbane.... Its the indifference of the North Indian Politicians that has left this jewel to rot. Hope these North Indians come out clean and realize that just because they have fair skin and huge population they cant just dominate rest of India.... If there is any black hole in India, its the central India - much more filthier and uneducated than the rest of India....

    PS: I am not a racist, but I hate it when you people behave as if you are more Indian than us....

  9. Although it was right at that time, but when the phrase "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow" was coined, then afterwards everything started going topsy-turvy, because this phrase was not meant to be eternal and so was completely misunderstood in the oncoming contexts.

    Since then the whole NE was taken for granted as a simple attachment of Bengal and Bengal became sentry and spokesman of NE. All the knowledge regarding NE started emanating and channeling from and through Bengal. Now all that blockade is removed and the people of Rest of India are free to interact directly with their fellow citizens of NE and clear the haze if any, and now the economic recovery may be faster.

  10. Its seems NE debate has been going around Bengal and unfortunately that a colonial hang over. Historically speaking the NE never came under British jurisprudence the way Bengal (Bengal before the breaking up of East and West Bengal, East Bengal eventually becoming Bangladesh), Maharashtra, Madras (now Chennai), Delhi. In fact, if we go back Indian history, that part of India was never 'Arayanized'. The Mughals never reached there. People there lead a relatively tribal life having their unique cultural and religious practices. The 'urban and educated' image of NE is the outcome of the spread of Christianity. You will find more bands singing English songs in NE. NE is unique, culturally and politically in India and unfortunately due to historical geo-political situation Bengal has a say to its development. Coming to present time (which is burdened with history and the word Sisyphus comes to my mind) NE has been been neglected by India. Due to their unique physical, cultural, linguistic characteristics they never became part of Indian mainstream. I don't look at it as a drawback. Lets cherish and celebrate that diversity.

    To Mr.Ra:
    Along with "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow", "Unity in diversity" are two ever popular colonial hangovers.

  11. And here I thought that federalism insulated us from precisely this kind of finger pointing. We East/ West/ North/ North-East/ South/ Central Indians are like this only.

  12. @Ann 22 September 2011 12:45

    I am very certain you either know nothing about the historical background of NE states or you have a very jaundiced half baked heresay knowledge of it..

    How did Islam reach there ?? What about Ahoms? What about Vaishnavite culture of Assam? What about the original Tantra heritage? Waht about The famous Maiti Chitrangada of Mahbharata?

    I thing christianity and Islam are the only two pillars of history you know of.

    Brush up with Pals etc....

  13. To all the followers of broadsword,
    I found these two really interesting articles.

    The Mandarin Syndrome by Neelabh Mishra (link below)

    India Journal: Bangladesh and Our Foreign Policy Elitism by Rajiv Desai (link below)


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