By: Homagni Bhattacharjee (Been a Banker and a Teacher. Genuinely curious about the issues that turn the world. Like a typical Indian, loves cricket but considers Brian Lara to be the batting God.)
Since the NDA government came to power in May, it has upgraded India’s Look East Policy (LEP) to the “Act East Policy” or the AEP. Put in simple terms LEP was designed in 1991 to reorient Indian foreign policy drive towards East Asia and Southeast Asia. But half-hearted commitment to the policy has severely restricted India’s footprint in these regions. This reflects a desire to correct this deficit in the face of increasing Chinese activity in the region. It has coincided with a flurry of visits by the Indian officials to the region that indicate early indication of a genuine shift in Indian policy.
A crucial component to actual implementation and success of this policy would be the North-East region (NER) as it is the gateway to the region beyond as well as being resource rich. Thus far the government is yet to unfold any visible and viable roadmap towards integrating the North-East region within the AEP framework. For AEP to succeed, it is important to quickly identify the potential sites in NER that may act as springboards from which the AEP may be launched. Thus, these would act as hinge-points for the AEP. The attempt is to identify one such potential hinge-point and then extend it to other similar sites within the region.
Within the NER, Assam occupies a central location with all other states ringed around and connected to the rest of India through it. It is also the strongest economically. Thus, both geography and economy dictates that Assam would play a large role in any such scenario- a hinge state vis-a-vis AEP. Hence, considering geography, accessibility and the economy the following cities may be considered s possible hinge-points- Guwahati, Silchar, Nagaon, Dibrugarh and Imphal.
Guwahati is the largest city and the gateway to North-East India. It is a major metropolis in India and one of the fastest growing cities in India. It is a major commercial, educational and transportation hub of the region. It boasts of premier educational centres such as IIT, University etc. It has also seen rapid boom in the services sector. A well developed industrial sector is present particularly in the petrochemicals sector as well as a major tea trading centre. It is very well-connected to all regions of the north-East and houses the only international Airport of the region. It also lies on the Dhubri-Sadiya National Waterway-2 (NW-2). Being the premier city of the region, it is absolutely vital for the overall development of the region and further integration with the AEP.
Silchar, on the south bank of Barak, is the district headquarters of Cachar, and occupies the central point of the Barak Valley region of Assam. The states of Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya as well as Bangladesh are very close to it. It boasts of a Medical College, NIT and a Central University and is a educational hub of South Assam. Crucially, it lies at the on two major multi-national corridors- the BCIM corridor between Kolkata and Kunming and the link path for the Kaladan Multimodal Transport network, both of which are an integral part of AEP. Moreover, Silchar is on the eastern end of India’s East-West highway corridor and lies on the Lakhipur- Bhanga National Waterway- 6 (NW-6). It, thus is an important junction to this whole architecture.
Nagaon lies in the central region of the Brahpaputra Valley. It is situated on the East-West highway corridor which connects it to both to Guwahati and Silchar. It forms an important junction between Guwahati and Dibrugarh, at the far end of Brahmaputra Valley, which is the gateway to the Stilwell road. It is further connected to Tezpur by the bridge over Brahmaputra and via Tezpur, can easily link with the proposed Trans Arunachal Highway. Therefore it forms an important junction connecting the major towns of Assam.
Dibrugarh, is the gateway to the Stilwell Road, which connects Ledo to Kunming in China via northern Myanmar- a particularly key route for the AEP. Once the Bogibeel Bridge is completed, Dibrugarh would also get direct access to the eastern end of the Trans Arunachal Highway. It is also an educational hub of Upper Assam with premier institutions like a Medical College, University etc. It is located close to the major oil and coal producing regions of Assam and is a major tea trade centre- often called the tea city. It is a major commercial centre and acts as the gateway to the resource rich eastern Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. It is well connected by air, road and rail and is close to the easternmost end of the NW-6 and the Assam plains.
Imphal, being the capital of Manipur is the administrative, political and the commercial centre of Manipur. The relatively flat terrain of the Imphal Valley in a largely hilly state offers space to extend and develop. It’s laocated strategically on the BCIM corridor and is the gateway to Myanmar via Moreh crossing. It offers the most viable route for extending to East Asia and ASEAN. It is a very attractive staging point for linkages with Myanmar and ASEAN thus promoting AEP in a big way.
To transform the potential to practice, it is necessary for the govt. to step in and give a major push to transport and communication, skill development and economic well-being of the region. Currently, the BG conversion work of the crucial Lumding-Silchar section is nearing completion. BG conversion work of the rest of the section needs to be given high priority. Ongoing railway projects to Imphal and Aizwal must be expedited to relieve transport bottlenecks. Opening up the Stilwell road, completion of the Bogibeel Bridge and implementation of the Trans Arunachal Highway project must be fast tracked and integrated within the framework of Skill India, Smart cities and Make-in-India to provide a holistic template for the AEP.
Two recent developments may also be easily extended to this architecture and provide even greater integration. Recently, a joint Indo-Myanmar team commenced filed survey for the proposed Imphal-Mandalay bus service that is a part of the proposed India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway. The logical step should be to link it with the BCIM and East-West Highway for greater integration. Also, Tripura is using Ashuganj river port on Meghna in Bangladesh for importing food and other items. Meghna is the downstream name for Barak in Bangladesh that gives a good opportunity to link Ashuganj port to the NW-6. This would give direct access to the sea right upto Lakhipur at the Assam-Manipur border, potentially relieving the landlocked region.
This initiative represents the best chance of developing the NER and integrating it within India’s mainstream narrative. Thus far, the governments approach with respect to NER has been haphazard and lacks a holistic vision. By concentrating on a few well identified hinge-points and expanding via a Hub-and-Hinterland model- while stitching it within the larger AEP framework would help in unlocking the immense potentialities of the NER and consequently, full realisation of the AEP.