By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
In a significant step towards enhancing India’s connectivity with its eastern neighbour Myanmar, Chief Minister of Manipur Okram Ibobi Singh flagged off the trial run of the much awaited Imphal-Mandalay bus service on December 9. Although India and Myanmar maintain close socio-cultural and commercial ties, it is the first direct transport link between the two nations. Myanmar acts as a land bridge between South and Southeast Asia and beyond and this 579 km-long bus route will take India’s bilateral relations with the neighbouring country to a new level.
In order to realise the goals envisioned in the ambitious “Act East” policy, it is important for India to liberalise immigration formalities, upgrade border infrastructure and improve transport connectivity between the North Eastern region and Myanmar. After remaining indifferent to the needs and aspirations of North East for several decades, the Centre has undertaken many projects to do away with the region’s infrastructural bottlenecks and economic backwardness.
This peripheral part of India gained prominence in national policy making only after the Centre decided to widen its engagement with the eastern neighbours in the early 1990’s. The present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has attached priority to the overall development of the sensitive North East. While chairing the first meeting of the Executive Committee of the North Eastern Council in New Delhi on October 6, 2015, Union Minister of State for the Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) Dr. Jitendra Singh observed that to “Act East effectively”, the country needs to “act proximal and empower the North Eastern region along the international borders”.
India enjoys historic ties with the port city of Mandalay. It is home to 150,000-strong Indian diaspora who played a dominant role during the British rule. Among the North Eastern states that share border with Myanmar, Manipur has one of the strongest linkages with this Southeast Asian country. About 20,000 Meiteis, Manipur’s major ethnic group, are settled in Mandalay division and the direct bus service will enable them to visit their native land.
The introduction of the cross-border bus service has long been demanded by the people of Manipur. A resolution was passed by the Manipur Legislative Assembly on August 1, 2003 for opening of the bus route. The state government submitted a detail proposal in this regard to the DoNER ministry and ministry of Road Transport and Highways in June 2009.
The previous United Progressive Alliance government took up the issue with the Myanmar government and it was set to be finalised during former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the neighbouring country in 2012. The text of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for a weekly bus service between Imphal and Mandalay was agreed upon in the bilateral inter-ministerial meeting held on September 17, 2012.
However, there had been no forward movement in the project for nearly two years. It received a fresh lease of life after the NDA government assumed office in May 2014. An Indian delegation from the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways visited Nay Pyi Taw on June 14, 2014 to finalise the MoU for the proposed bus route with the Transport Planning Department of the Ministry of Rail Transportation of Myanmar. Subsequently, field survey was conducted by a joint team of India and Myanmar. The Indian team submitted its report to the Centre for signing a MoU with Myanmar.
Since the late 1990’s, India has emerged as one of the major development partners of Myanmar and been consistently engaged in the up gradation of the neighbouring country’s infrastructure. India built a 250 km-long road from the border town of Tamu to Kalemyo via Kalewa. This road is popularly called the India-Myanmar Friendship Road.
As part of its “Look East” policy to expand bilateral cooperation with eastern neighbour Myanmar, New Delhi conceived the road project in 1993. India’s Border Roads Organisation started building the road in 1997 and it became functional on February 13, 2001. The Ministry of External Affairs funded the total cost of $ 30 million for the road. The renovation of the road was essential for cross-border movement of people and goods. New Delhi is currently involved in the up gradation of 70 bridges on the Friendship Road which is a component of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and also chosen route for Imphal-Mandalay bus service.
India is developing cross-border connectivity and Myanmar’s transport infrastructure mainly for strengthening bilateral ties with strategically-located and resource-rich eastern neighbour. India is Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner. The bilateral trade, which stood at $ 557 million in 2005, is now about to reach $ 2 billion. The economic ties between the two nations would further deepen and broaden after the signing of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Motor Vehicles Agreement and opening of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway.
Manipur hold key to India’s growing trade and commerce with Myanmar as the lion’s share of the bilateral business is carried through Moreh. The Imphal-Mandalay bus service could also stimulate the economic activities in North East especially Manipur. The experts believe that the NDA government’s “Act East” initiative has the potential of turning North East into a tourist gateway to Southeast Asian nations. With Myanmar, which is often referred to as “Golden Land”, gradually democratising the polity and opening up its economy in the last few years, the country’s tourism are hospitality are fast becoming booming industries.
India stands to gain immensely from the politico-economic changes that are taking place on its eastern front. New Delhi should seize the opportunity and explore the possibility of health and spiritual tourism and expanding cooperation in the education sector. North East has fairly developed medical facilities, including super specialty hospitals which may be offered to the people of Myanmar. Moreover, every Myanmarese national seeks to visit Bodh Gaya in Bihar at least once in the lifetime. The journey through land route is generally preferred as traveling by air from Yangon to Kolkata is expensive.
Education is another area in which India could provide its expertise to Myanmar. Addressing the delegates at the “International Conference on South East Asian Countries Tourism and India’s Act East Policy” jointly organised by Myanmar and India in Mandalay on July 3-4, 2015, Consul General of India in Mandalay N. Nandakumar noted that the country’s premier tourism institutions may assist Myanmar’s tourism management institutes which are in a embryonic stage.
Thus viewed from various perspectives, the Imphal-Mandalay bus service once become fully operational will not only boost bilateral commercial ties and people-to-people contacts between the two neighbouring nations but also add fillip to India’s “Act East” policy.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst based in New Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]