By Sudip Bhattacharyya*
The third North East Connectivity Summit was organized in Agartala from September 21-23, 2016 against the backdrop of a number of positive developments. These are the unprecedented focus on development of roads, inland waterways, railways etc in the Northeastern region, the emergence of a democratic Myanmar, improving ties with Bangladesh, a resurgent foreign policy and above all the emerging potential of Northeast (NE) India as a connecting frontier for the South-East Asian economy.
The recently announced plans of awarding road projects of 1 lakh crore rupees in the NE in the next five years and the declaration of 18 national waterways in the region have put the NE in developmental focus. Along with the initiatives like Make in India, Skill India and the increased attention in improving international economic ties with countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, etc. with NE and West Bengal (WB) at the helm of affairs, there is now a positive and concerted plan of action.
The development of connectivity will have a multiplier effect on the region’s growth besides paving the way for industrial development. It aims to increase economic ties with Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan with the Northeast region. The specific areas for investments in the Northeast region include transport infrastructure (roads; inland waterways; air connectivity), agro-food processing, tourism, energy, IT & ITES, telecom and textile, hand loom & apparel.
The Kaladan Multimodal project, the trilateral highway, Trans-Asian Railway and the Asian Highway Network are some of the game changing projects at various stages of progress. At the same time, the rise of a democratic Myanmar, the improving bilateral ties with Bangladesh, the growth of South Asian rconomic engine-all this has drawn attention of not only India but also the developed world. India and WB stands to gain from the progress of its eastern neighbourhood if they focus on the efforts to capitalise on the crucial advantage it has through the frontier of Northeast India. The timely completion of ongoing infrastructure projects, creation of new green field infrastructure to aid connectivity and trade, policy reforms, cooperation with neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, etc. would be key to the future of the region as a hub of international trade and commerce.
Bangladesh Industry Minister Amir Hossain Amu said at the summit on September 22, 2016: “The Bangladesh government would like to bring substantive changes in terms of connectivity with India. We would restore the pre-1965 railway links on priority basis.” He said: “Air connectivity between Guwahati and Dhaka and Shillong and Agartala via Dhaka could be explored after examining the commercial viability.”
“To boost trade and commerce between Bangladesh and India’s Northeast region, we are improving trade infrastructure, immigration, customs facilities, developing land ports. Bangladesh is Northeast India’s natural business partner,” the minister added. India’s External Affairs Ministry’s Joint Secretary Partha Satpathy said India’s ‘Act East Policy’ has been extremely successful in terms of diplomacy for development, regional security, energy security, political aspects and other vital issues.
“Several connectivity-related projects are now underway to connect Northeast India with South-East Asian countries. India is playing a vital role in important regional bodies like the South East Asian nations or ASEAN and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) to provide greater global exposure to the regional grouping,” Satpathy added.
For economic development, West Bengal has to look east with Northeast as its hinterland. Having regard to current geo-politico-economic scenario, the strategic importance of WB and NE is only going to increase with increased sub-regional cooperation in India’s north-eastern neighbourhood. The Kunming Initiative, or the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Forum, is a robust effort for economic and cultural cooperation between these four countries that are geographically contiguous and economically complementary. The broad goals of the Kunming Initiative are substantially improved regional connectivity for goods and people in the region, through a network of roads, railways and waterways, and establishing the Kunming-Mandalay-Dhaka-Calcutta economic corridor.
For instance, trans-Bangladesh connectivity will mean that the distance between Kolkata and Guwahati will go down from the current 1300 km to 587 km and the distance between Agartala and Kolkata will go down from 2000km to 350 km.
North East Connectivity Summit is a cross-sector initiative highlighting the connectivity gaps and proposing a comprehensive connectivity agenda apart from encouraging private sector investment in connectivity infrastructure. The summit brought into focus the opportunities in developing connectivity of NE and its associated strategic and economic advantages for the entire India. That apart, this year the summit has also highlighted the opportunities in international trade and commerce that improved connectivity will bring about especially with countries like Bangladesh which is a strategic partner for not only the Northeast but the whole of India. Among other issues, the summit has put a major focus on development of international trade and commerce of North-Eastern states including Assam, and also West Bengal, improving connectivity with Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries with a special emphasis on developing connectivity in border areas.
*Sudip Bhattacharyya is a former banker and commentator on contemporary issues. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]