On the occasion of the 11th BCIM (Acronym of Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) forum meeting, held in Dhaka on 23-24 February 2013, a car rally from Kolkata to Kunming was flagged off.
The initiative has ambitions of Indo-China road connectivity passing through Bangladesh and Myanmar. In the pattern of ASEAN-India car rally, the rally followed the route through Dhaka, Silchar (Assam), Imphal (Manipur) and Mandalay and Ruili (Yunnan). But this long route has been explored for BCIM as an alternate to Ledo road.
Ledo is a small town in Tinsukia district of Assam. From Ledo, Ledo Road popularly known as Stilwell Road has connectivity between India and China, constructed during World War II and now in a fragile and inactive condition.
The road itself is now a strategic issue in regional connectivity. The issues associated with it resulted in exploring the other alternative. Precisely, strategic apprehensions and technical problems along the Ledo road are among the major issues.
Answering the questions related to Ledo Road is complex which covers both strategic and technical/physical conditions in the area. It is therefore, exploring opportunities for re-opening the Ledo road has apprehensions associated with it.
Alternate to the route of the car rally is Kolkata-Guwahati via Bangladesh to Ledo. The road condition and associated strategic issues never attracted connectivity plan through the route. And most important deterrent is strategic fear from Indian side.
In the National Development Council meeting held in Delhi in December last year, the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh urged for re-opening the route for trade under the ambit of vibrating India’s Look East Policy.
He persuaded the idea and stated that “most of the 1,726-km road is now in a usable condition and only about 160 km in Myanmar needs renovation”.
While Chinese side of the road is developed into six lanes, the route from Bhamo to Ledo requires to be developed on this pattern.
In case of good condition of road infrastructure, the route can provide shortest travel distance from India to Kunming traversing mountains and rivers enroute.
In this context, restoration of mobility through the route would broadly have two important areas of interventions which the governments of participating countries are supposed to make. The first area is stabilising the region from local insurgency.
Notably, the region has been severely affected by uprisings in India as well as in Myanmar and the second is the technical and infrastructure constraints.
India’s most prominent apprehension is Chinese territorial claim on Arunachal Pradesh. In addition, India’s stand is also affected by the competitive nature of geopolitics between India and China. In view of this, the main dispute is McMohan Line which was never accepted by the Chinese government.
Later, a legal status of Line of Actual Control by both the countries brought optimism and a ray of hope to reinforce peace and stability in the region.
However, occasional claims by the Chinese over Arunachal Pradesh ingeminated India’s apprehensions. As a result, India chose not to go to rejuvenating connectivity through disputed territorial areas which also include Ledo Road for India-China connectivity programmes.
India has been, therefore, closely watching the re-building process of this road in Myanmar. Since connectivity in the Northeast region particularly in Arunachal Pradesh is in abysmal condition, it is also believed that India should establish transport infrastructure before going for opening border trade through the area. It is therefore, facilitation of infrastructure projects in Arunachal Pradesh is on priority.
Most of the territory in Arunachal Pradesh is spread on mountainous ranges and forests. Road connectivity in the state needs to be sliced through these mountains.
Moreover, as a less accessible region, the state is considered an asylum to major insurgents. It is also claimed that Arunachal Pradesh is frequently used as a transit route by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to reach Sagaing region in Myanmar.
Rebel movements on Ledo road, which has Tirap-Changlang corridor, are another reason for India’s worry.
The corridor has also been highlighted by the Home Ministry Consultative Committee on Security in the Northeast. A recently held meeting of the committee, exclusively pointed out that Arunachal Pradesh largely remains peaceful except this corridor which has presence of National Socialist Council of Nagaland.
The physical characteristics of the corridor help seek hideouts by insurgents from the region particularly from Assam. In addition, India has been regularly claiming Chinese support to Indian insurgents in the area.
Nevertheless, hope of peace is concurrently rehabilitated by India through inviting ULFA for tripartite meeting with the official of Ministry of Home Affairs, India.
It is also believed that the victorious regional party like Naga People’s Front in Nagaland would work as catalyst to maintain peace and ceasefire in Naga populated areas. Such progress of peace and settlement would further open a window to re-open the Ledo Road.
Technical problems in connectivity from India to China through Bangladesh and Northeast India have also been an important area of concern.
The whole region has both natural and operational impediments affecting the technological specifications of infrastructure in place. Natural impediments are rivers and mountains such as Himalayan ranges, Chin Hills and Shan Hills.
Generally rivers, in the region, emanate from Chinese side and meets Indian Ocean. Major rivers are Brahmaputra/Jamuna in Bangladesh, Irrawaddy, Mekong and Salween.
Road connectivity from India to China needs bridges on these rivers across both the terrains of plain and mountains. The loadability and technical specifications of bridges are therefore devising the physical conditions of infrastructure which created different technological platforms.
Mountains on the other hand have negative impacts on speed of vehicles. It is therefore, traveling through mountain ranges becomes costly translating higher travel cost and thereby trade cost as well.
This is also a fact that in comparison to other trade routes, trade through Ledo road would not be a costly deal for business. However, the different technical standards and specifications owing to natural impediments would result in transshipment at border points.
Therefore, conditions creating different technological standards have also been spoken at different forums. In order to facilitate connectivity, presence of different traffic load norms, operational standards, driving norms and customs examinations regimes, amongst others, need to be addressed.
These factors have potential to prevent seamless border trade. In addition, transit from Bangladesh has always been the main deterrent to such proposals.
On Ledo road, the condition is not compatible for the movement of both passenger and freight traffic. Particularly on the Indian side from Jairampur in Changlang district to Panshau pass, the road condition is dangerous and needs utmost attention for any initiative related to connectivity passing through the road.
Under the above scenario, the BCIM connectivity via Ledo road remains far from reality. In the meantime India has launched Trans Arunachal connectivity project known as Trans Arunachal Highway.
The project is likely to connect the 11 district headquarters of the state with two lanes roads. The project has accommodated bridges across Brahmaputra River in Assam to connect Arunachal Pradesh with main land roads.
Of course, the project is underway. This project has the potential to integrate the region and to further initiatives relevant to India’s Look East policy.
India’s vision for Look East Policy has started accommodating Northeastern region for facilitating connectivity from India to ASEAN.
As a result of gradual development process of infrastructure facilities in Northeast India, the skeptical ethos for Northeast in New Delhi has also been outshined by the idea of Asian regionalism.
Some of the proponents of Look East Policy have also coined the idea of “Looking East through Northeast”. This perspective, of course, has prospects which can lead to the revival of Ledo road.
Benefits from the ongoing projects in Arunachal Pradesh may be drawn for Northeast India as well as for traders in the main land. In case the connectivity through Ledo road is in place subject to the completion of the roads in Arunachal, trade can happen at lower transport cost.
One possibility would be multi-modal transport facilities through improving connectivity of railways to Tinsukia. It can also be an alternate for BCIM connectivity. Upto Tinsukia, railway can serve connecting mode and thereafter the Ledo road can be used for trade.
Another option is Inland Water Transport (IWT) for trade through Ledo Road. Upto Sadiya, IWT protocol route from India via Bangladesh can serve a potential and cost effective route. However, IWT has not received due attention for developing a multimodal transport route in this region.
Moreover, the related technological paradigms also need to be harmonized. Bangladesh and India have to play a major role in materialising these goals.
Similarly, the ardor pursuance by Myanmar for connectivity projects would help evolve the idea of BCIM connectivity and revive the famous Stilwell Road. This would be exemplary in enhancing economic integration through regional connectivity initiatives.
(The author is Research Fellow at Asian Institute of Transport Development, New Delhi.)