The Assam Chronicle

News and Views from Northeast India

Southern Silk Road

North East in BCIM-EC: Challenges and Prospects

The second phase started with the British colonisation of Assam following the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. The British first began tea plantation in 1830s and soon established monopoly over tea industry in Assam. The growth and development of tea industry was fully dependent on international market especially European. In addition to tea industry, a number of resource-based industries like petroleum, coal and plywood flourished during the colonial period. The British had built road and railway networks linking Assam with mainland India basically to promote its business and colonial interests. The building of transport infrastructure increased the volume of trade and commerce between Assam and the outside world and generated local employment. But in the process, the colonial power totally ignored the indigenous small scale industries. Besides, the import of consumer items, particularly textile from England had a debilitating impact on the local handloom and handicraft industries—the pivot of the then Assam economy. On the whole, the internationalisation of Assam’s economy with the aid of an export-oriented tea industry failed to contribute to the region’s growth and prosperity.

The partition of the sub-continent in 1947 inflicted further damage to the economy of North East as the rail, road and water ways which existed throughout the colonial period, were closed one after another. The other factor which is crucial for continuing commercial ties with the North East’s neighbours such as China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, has been India’s political relations with them. Barring Bhutan, India’s relations with these nations had hardly been warm consistently.

Another key constraint for North East to expand trade and commercial ties with the neighbouring countries was the absence of political will on the part of Indian ruling elites to remove infrastructural bottlenecks of the region. Some major projects had been launched since the late 1990s to improve the overall infrastructural facilities in the region. But the people of North East are yet to be benefited from those projects as their implementation has remained very slow. Factors such as chronic insurgency, periodic political instability and rampant corruption have also stood in the way of speedy completion of the projects.

At present, there are many plans to link India especially it’s North East with Southeast and East Asia through Myanmar. Some of them include India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, Mekong-India Economic Corridor, New Delhi- Moreh- Hanoi rail link. India has taken the initiative of developing Kaladan transport corridor which connects North East with Sitwee port in Myanmar. Plans are underway to set up 2000 acres Special Economic Zone at Moreh in Manipur. Similar schemes have been proposed at Sitwee in Myanmar and Champai in Mizoram. Reports suggest that Asian Development Bank may provide financial assistance for upgrading Imphal-Moreh section of NH-39 and the road between Silchar and Imphal. The World Bank is funding the upgradation of the highway that connects Aizwal with India-Myanmar border.

Furthermore, work is in progress for the railway connectivity from Jiribam to Imphal (111km)—likely to be completed by 2015 up to Tupul and by 2018 to Imphal. The broad-gauge conversion project is expected to be completed by March 2015. In addition to Barak valley, states like Mizoram and Tripura are heavily dependent on this railway link for supply of essential commodities. The NDA government has also assured the people of these states that the proposed East-West Corridor linking Silchar with Gujarat would be accorded top priority. Once these roads and railway lines become operational and inter-linkages are established with economic corridor, it would be a game changer for landlocked regions like Barak valley, Tripura and Mizoram. According to reports, the Modi government has selected Haollenphai near the border town of Moreh as one of the 100 sites spread across the country for building of smart cities. India is also pressing Bangladesh to grant transit facilities through its territory and access to Chittagong port for the North Eastern states.

The North Eastern states maintain trade and commercial ties mainly with three neighbouring countries—Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Assam shares 267 km of the total 699 km of India-Bhutan border. The tiny Himalayan nation depends on Assam for trade and supply of essential commodities. The major part of Indo-Bhutan trade is conducted through Jaygaon in North Bengal. The three states of North East—Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya, have commercial ties with Bangladesh. Some of the key items of trade between North East and Bangladesh include cement, readymade garments, processed food, bicycles and plastic products.