Freeing Commerce in Eastern India

By 2015, a US$214 million port project at the town of Sittwe, at the mouth of the Kaladan River on the Myanmar side of the Bay of Bengal, is expected to provide the 60 million people of landlocked far eastern India vital access to commerce by sea.

Sittwe, population 180,000, is the capital of the troubled Arakan Province, the scene of Buddhist-Rohingya violence earlier this year. The seven states of eastern India are only accessible to the rest of the country via the Siliguri Corridor, nicknamed the Siliguri chicken's neck, a narrow strip wedged between China, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Routing cargo through the corridor causes delays and raises costs. Despite long-running negotiations for sea transit access, Bangladesh has never agreed to allow Indian ships access.

In addition to gaining access to the sea, as much as anything the Kaladan River Project, a network of riverine transport and roadways projected to cost a total of US$500 million, is a strategic gift to the leaders of Myanmar to attempt to counter Chinese influence. The project was conceived by New Delhi 10 years ago and formalized in 2008 under its Look East Policy, primarily to develop trade with Myanmar and other southeastern nations.

Although the project is a bilateral initiative between New Delhi and Naypyidaw, the Indian government is financing the entire development. The former military government committed the required land and security for the project, but showed reluctance in investing money. Hence New Delhi offered a US$120 million interest-free line of credit to the then-military regime.

Political observers believe that New Delhi was compelled to invest in the project, India's largest development initiative in Myanmar, to woo the Naypyidaw administration, which is being transformed from a military junta into a quasi-democratic government. For decades, China has been Myanmar's closest political and trading partner, although investment has dropped sharply as the country's civilian leadership has opened to the west and sanctions have been dropped. Environmental protest has stopped two major projects, a US$3.7 billion hydropower dam on the Irrawaddy River and a copper-mine project that has been suspended at least temporarily.

The Kaladan River actually originates in central Mizoram, where it is known as the Chhimtuipui. Then it enters Myanmar and crosses the two largely undeveloped and poverty-stricken Burmese provinces, Arakan and Chin, to culminate in the Bay of Bengal.

Once the project becomes operational, seagoing cargo ships will arrive at the Sittwe port, and then the goods will be transported up the Kaladan to the Myanmarese town of Paletwa 190 km to the north, where they will be transported via a roadway which will enter India through the Lomasu trade point on the southern border of Mizoram.

The trade route is expected to enhance India's economic linkages with other Southeast Asian countries and to expand Indian economic and political influence in Southeast and East Asia.

According to the Indian Union ministry responsible for the development of northeastern region (DoNER), the Kaladan project has been implemented by agencies including the Indian Inland Waterways Authority under the foreign ministry for the portion inside Myanmar and the Mizoram Public Works Department under the Department of Road Transport and Highways for the portion inside Mizoram.

Following completion, the infrastructure is to be handed over to the Myanmar authority. "The objective of the proposal is to provide an access route to the land-locked Northeastern region of India. The project is significant in view of severe pressure on the Siliguri corridor and Bangladesh's continued intransigence in providing us transit rights through its territory to the Northeast," stated the DoNER ministry.

The 180 km inland waterway transport system for cargo ships, with a terminal in Paletwa, is expected to be completed by June 2014. Construction of the two-lane highway from Paletwa to the India border point Lomasu -- through mountainous, heavily jungled terrain is also going on although its status hasn't been revealed by the Myanmarese authorities and hence it is not known when the highway will be completed.

However the Indian part of the two-lane highway has witnessed visible progress in construction. Once completed the 100 km stretch (from Lomasu to Lawngtlai in Mizoram) will connect to Indian National Highway No. 54. This part of the project is estimated to be completed by early next year.

There are problems. Indian and Burmese human rights and environmental organizations have challenged the project, alleging that it could have serious social and environmental implications for thousands of residents in both countries. Activists under the banner of the Kaladan Movement, an alliance of civil-society organizations concerned about human rights and the social, economic and environmental impacts, say officials have not disclosed enough information, keeping the indigenous people in dark about its environmental risks.

"We urge the governments of Burma and India to ensure that the Kaladan project is developed with full local public consultation and participation with an aim to ensure that the benefits of the project go to the least advantaged members of the local communities," stated a report by the Kaladan Movement, whose three core members are the Arakan Rivers Network, the Chin Human Rights Organization and the Zo Indigenous Forum.

"So far we haven't seen any report about the environmental, social and health impact assessments on the project," asserted Twan Zaw, arguing that once completed the project could facilitate a major illegal route for wildlife trade across the border. He also claimed that the project could disrupt the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous families because of land confiscation and forced evictions.

Salai Za Uk Ling, program director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, said that "unless and until the essential elements of full transparency, public consultation and participation, and accountability are met, the Kaladan project should be suspended."

He raised concerns that increased military activity may create more forced labor to complete the project. The Burmese Army, he said, has a long history of forcing villagers to build roads and even work in government farmlands without remuneration.

The Chin rights activist argued that "the benefits of the project should go to the least advantaged communities, but how can they benefit from the project if they know next to nothing about it, or how it might affect them?"

On the other hand, the Mizoram based Zo Indigenous Forum argued that nearly 1.2 million people living in the project areas want it to be a sustainable development which brings local economic benefits without destroying the ecological balance.

Talking to Asia Sentinel from Aizwal, C. Lalremruata, director of the Zo Indigenous Forum, insisted that the indigenous people of both the countries should be involved in all decision-making regarding their ancestral lands with fair compensation packages. He also added that the principle of free, prior and informed consent must be the foundation of this kind of infrastructure development project.