Kaladan Project Will Improve Regional Peace

Comments Off on Kaladan Project Will Improve Regional Peace 41

LOOKEAST REPORT |

WHEN cargo vessel MV-ITT Lion sailed into Sittwe port in Myanmar last May, having left Kolkata five days earlier, it marked an important milestone for India in its long–drawn quest for alternative routes connecting it to its northeast, even beyond to Southeast Asia. For, the docking of the cargo vessel heralded the operationalisation of the strategically located deep–water port built with Indian assistance.

■ Sittwe port

The Sittwe port is an integral element of what has proven to be a challenging infrastructure project, the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP), being undertaken by India in Myanmar. Through the Kaladan project, India hopes to eventually transport goods to its northeast region using a combination of sea, river and road routes. The aim is to transport cargo from Kolkata, Haldia and other Indian ports on the east coast to Sittwe, then move the goods up the Kaladan river to the inland water terminal in Paletwa in Myanmar and onwards by road from there right up to Aizawl in Mizoram.

 

Completion of the entire Kaladan project is some way off. Work on the road link, including the crucial stretch between Paletwa (Myanmar) and Zorinpui (Mizoram), is still in progress. India needs to give it the necessary push to avoid further delays in the project that’s been bedeviled by both logistical and security issues

 

 SITTWE AS MARITIME HUB

India has cause for cheer now that the inaugural run between Kolkata and Sittwe is done, which saw India’s ports and shipping minister Sarbanand Sonowal and Myanmar’s deputy Prime Minister Admiral Tin Aung San at the port to receive the cargo ship. Sittwe, once a small fishing village that grew into a busy port, is now all set to become a maritime hub. But the completion of the entire Kaladan project is some way off. Work on the road link, including the crucial stretch between Paletwa (Myanmar) and Zorinpui (Mizoram), is still in progress. India needs to give it the necessary push to avoid further delays in the project that’s been bedeviled by both logistical and security issues.

■ Arakan Army

While India stands to benefit once the Kaladan project is completed, Sonowal made it a point to emphasise the economic gains that lie ahead for Myanmar as well as the larger region. New Delhi has been careful to mention the benefits for the region in its push to use Bangladesh’s Chattogram and Mongla ports for connectivity to its northeast and rightly so. For, in doing so it has ensured that partner countries do not feel that such projects are only to India’s advantage.

It’s noteworthy that India has said that the Kaladan project will bring economic development to the Rakhine state. In this, perhaps, lies New Delhi’s hopes that the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in 2017, following persecution and a military clampdown, may eventually return to their homeland, encouraged by its development. India has been under pressure from Bangladesh to urge Myanmar to take back these refugees.

 

Kaladan project also ties in with another project for physical connectivity with Myanmar and beyond it to Southeast Asia. However, the 1,360 km long India–Myanmar–Thailand trilateral highway to connect Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar, also needs to pick up speed

 

ALTERNATIVE TO SILIGURI CORRIDOR 

For India, the Kaladan project is vital as it has both economic and strategic benefits. Once complete, it will mean that India will no longer be solely dependent on the narrow Siliguri Corridor to access its northeast. India has always had worries that in the event of a military conflict with China, the corridor — also known as the Chicken’s Neck — can be easily choked to cut off supplies to the northeast. Besides, an alternative route via the sea will also reduce the time and transportation costs while also giving a fillip to bilateral as well as regional trade. Apart from this, India has been stressing on the economic growth it will bring to the region and generate employment as economic activity picks up.

Once operational, the project is also expected to boost India–Myanmar trade. While bilateral trade has grown — it was $1.9 billion in 2021–22 — and India is now Myanmar’s fifth largest trading partner, arch-rival China occupies the top slot. India, therefore, has a lot of work to do to build closer trade ties with Myanmar with whom it shares a 1,643 km porous land border. The Kaladan project also ties in with another project for physical connectivity with Myanmar and beyond it to Southeast Asia. However, the 1,360 km long India–Myanmar–Thailand trilateral highway to connect Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar, also needs to pick up speed.

 

The dream to make Mizoram the gateway of South East Asia is yet to be fulfilled. Political instability in Myanmar, coupled with the precarious security situation in both the Rakhine and Chin states through which the connectivity project passes, have contributed to the delays. Insurgents from Nagaland and Manipur, who have sheltered in Myanmar in the past, and the Arakan Army’s armed activities have also impeded the project’s progress

 

The Kaladan project, first conceived in 2008, has proven to be a difficult one to execute in many ways. It has been marred by time and cost overruns, with dates for its completion being pushed further repeatedly. The project cost is now estimated to be around $484 million. The dream to make Mizoram the gateway of South East Asia is yet to be fulfilled. Political instability in Myanmar, coupled with the precarious security situation in both the Rakhine and Chin states through which the connectivity project passes, have contributed to the delays. Insurgents from Nagaland and Manipur, who have sheltered in Myanmar in the past, and the Arakan Army’s armed activities have also impeded the project’s progress.

■ Port bridge built opposite Paletwa | CNI

 THE CHINA FACTOR

For India to have undertaken the daunting Kaladan project, connectivity wasn’t the only imperative. New Delhi has also been impelled by growing Chinese presence in its periphery and the assiduous efforts by Beijing to woo India’s neighbours. A significant chunk of these efforts are through loans for money–guzzling infrastructure projects that often leave countries reeling under unsustainable debts. Many of these projects are part of China’s expansionist Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), about which India has deep suspicions and therefore has refused to join it.

 

Kaladan project is vital as it has both economic and strategic benefits. Once complete, it will mean that India will no longer be solely dependent on the narrow Siliguri Corridor to access its northeast

 

The Sittwe port, in fact, can be seen as a wary India’s counter to the Kyaukpyu port being developed by China in the Rakhine state. It lies just a little over 100 km south of Sittwe, overlooking the Bay of Bengal and will give China access to the Indian Ocean. This port is part of China’s grand plans to build a China–Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) under the rubric of BRI.

Given its own strategic stakes in Myanmar and its stated policy of ‘Act East’, India has thus far deftly walked the diplomatic tight–rope with a neighbour where a military junta now rules, having effected a coup to displace Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government. With an eye firmly on China that’s been cosying up to the military generals, India needs to make the best of what is a tricky situation. ■

Similar articles