Ambitious declarations were made by eminent participants at the recently-concluded ‘Asian Confluence River Conclave 2022’ in Guwahati, Assam. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that efforts were on to make the state the ‘gateway’ to the ASEAN countries. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar focussed on the importance of the land route through Myanmar as a means to enable faster connectivity with South East Asia.
Such announcements have an appeal on the foreign dignitaries present at such conclaves. However, the Northeast remains unprepared for the plan. An apt illustration of the state of infrastructure in the region, and the glaring gap between the declared vision and ground realities, comes from the devastation caused by the recent floods.
Five states were impacted by the floods, with Assam being the worst hit. What was unusual this time around is how fast the railway network was uprooted in the hill district of Dima Hasao. This route is considered among the most crucial in the frontier region as it is envisaged to link up with Bangladesh and Myanmar. As it appears, the railways did not heed the warning in a 2010 audit report which made a scathing indictment of the scheme, and the manner in which it was being executed. The rains also submerged Guwahati — the gateway to the Northeast — for two days in an unprecedented manner.
These incidents have underscored the poor condition of the cities in the Northeast, the brittle infrastructure, and the faulty manner in which large development projects are conceived, and executed. Floods bring life to a standstill in Assam’s vulnerable districts almost every year compelling the government to go on an overdrive to provide relief, and control the damage. Reaching many district headquarters in the hill states continues to be a nightmare for the truck drivers and travellers although the condition of the roads in many zones has improved over the years.
Another indication comes from the Good Governance Index 2021, where four states in the Northeast including Assam and Manipur registered a negative growth. The two states will have the most vital role in the schemes to forge connectivity with the neighbouring countries. All this means that the region will not be in a position to reap the benefits of emerging as the bridge between South and South East Asia.
It will take years before the Northeast is optimally equipped to fit into the ambitious Act East Policy. For this to take place there must be a realistic plan that takes into account the fact that the Northeast is not only geologically fragile and part of a biodiversity hotspot, but is also socially and politically hyper-sensitive. Transforming the region into an industrial hub based on imported models could trigger disturbances with adverse long-term implications.
Connectivity with Myanmar through the land route remains uncertain. The three points along the border — Moreh, Zokhawthar, and Zorinpui — envisaged to link up with the neighbouring country are contiguous to zones that are reeling under turmoil as a result of the ongoing civil war. The situation has assumed a different turn in Myanmar with resistance groups determined to continue the fight against the military regime. Many of these groups in Chin State and Sagaing Division have strongholds along the border with Mizoram and Manipur. The flagship Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project in Mizoram remains stalled for different reasons. Even if it becomes operational in a brief span, the infrastructure in Mizoram would be unable to handle a large volume of traffic. The project was executed without considering the need to broaden the highway from Lawngtlai to Silchar in Assam which is linked to the East-West Corridor. It is only recently that plans have been firmed up for the project, which would take years to complete.
Establishing connectivity with Bangladesh would be easier than Myanmar through the land and riverine routes. It does not suffer from the turmoil that the latter is reeling under currently. Still, a lot remains to be done on infrastructure to facilitate the movement of large volumes of cargo. The East-West Corridor connecting Assam’s Barak Valley to Gujarat would be the most crucial artery, but it remains incomplete to date.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a Guwahati-based senior journalist.
Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.