[Assam] Los Angeles Times on Northeast India
baruah at bard.edu
baruah at bard.edu
Sat May 31 06:03:55 IST 2008
From the Los Angeles Times
Northeast India is poised to tap economic potential
The eight-state area plans multiple projects to increase its trade
with Southeast Asia.
By Shankhadeep Choudhury
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 29, 2008
NEW DELHI — India's remote northeast region has been both blessed and
cursed by its geography. The region is rich in natural resources but
is landlocked and surrounded by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan,
leaving it impoverished.
The eight-state region may finally get a chance to start living up to
its economic potential with several projects to enhance connections
with Southeast Asia and to increase outlets for such commodities as
organic foods, orchids, tea, coal and oil.
Now, the only way to move major quantities of goods between northeast
India and Southeast Asia is through Bangladesh.
But authorities in Myanmar and India are nearing final approval of a
$100-million river project giving northeast India direct access to the
Indian Ocean through Myanmar, said Abhijit Barooah, chairman of the
northeastern chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry, India's
premier business association.
The project envisages facilitating movement of cargo from India's
Mizoram state to Myanmar's port at Sittwe, via the Kaladan River.
In addition, talks have begun between companies in northeast India and
Thailand after a trade-promotion conference in Bangkok in October,
said Lemli Loyi, assistant general manager at the state-run North
Eastern Development Finance Corp. Loyi expressed hope that the talks
would result in increased business and possible joint ventures.
India first enunciated a "look east" policy, an economic and strategic
orientation toward Southeast Asia, in 1992. It had its genesis at the
end of the Cold War, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having
lost the Soviet economic and political support on which it had relied,
the Indian government embarked on a program of free-market
restructuring at home and sought new markets and economic partners
Officials envisaged that the eight northeast states -- Assam,
Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and
Mizoram -- would emerge as a trading hub for two dynamic regions
connected by a network of highways, railways, pipelines and
transmission lines. The region is home to about 40 million people.
But progress has been slow. The region's isolation dates to the 1800s.
"Nineteenth-century British colonial decisions to draw lines between
the hills and the plains, to put barriers on trade between Bhutan and
Assam, and to treat Burma as a buffer against French Indochina and
China severed the region from its traditional trade routes -- the
southern trails of the Silk Road," said Sanjib Baruah, a professor of
political science at Bard College in New York and an expert on
The British built railways and roads mostly to take tea, coal, oil and
other resources out of Assam and into the rest of India and also to
The problems increased with the partitioning of India and Pakistan in
1947. Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in the 1970s.
Barooah said trade would be boosted by an expected move by the Indian
and Myanmar governments to expand the list of mostly agricultural
commodities allowed to be traded by land between northeast India and
Myanmar, from 27 to 42 items.
"The northeast is the closest land mass connecting the dynamic
economies of south and Southeast Asia," said Pradyut Bordoloi, Assam's
minister for power and industries. "Besides deep-rooted cultural
linkages, we can reap multidimensional benefits in this era of
regional economic cooperation."
Bordoloi is closely associated with a campaign to reopen the World War
II-era Stillwell Road, connecting Assam's town of Ledo to southwest
"If reopened, this would be the shortest surface route to Yunnan
province of China and other Southeast Asian countries hooking onto the
trans-Asian highways," he said.
The road served as the supply line into China during Japan's wartime
occupation, but it was shut after India's independence from Britain in
Bordoloi said his campaign to reopen the road, initiated after he
became a state legislator in 1998, scored a victory when India
upgraded the road to a full-fledged national highway, developing it up
to the Indo-Myanmar border.
Officials say infrastructure development, power, bamboo-based
industries, orchids and organic foods are prospective areas of
cooperation with Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand.
But significant hurdles remain, including concerns that booming trade
relations may fuel rises in insurgency, narco-terrorism and AIDS, all
of which plague the northeast. Security in the region is tight, with
the army out in force to combat armed groups battling for greater
autonomy or independence from India.
"The official restrictions that prevail in northeast India -- in terms
of travel, land and labor markets -- are hardly conducive to intensive
cross-border economic relations," said Baruah, the political science
"Both the reality of insurgencies in the region and the security
anxiety of the government of India . . . are major obstacles to
dynamic cross-border economic ties," he added, calling current efforts
hardly more than "a bare beginning."
Also, Baruah said, it was difficult to imagine a big increase in trade
given the political situation in military-led Myanmar.
India's relations with China, a country it has long regarded with
distrust since a 1962 border war, would also have to become much more
relaxed, Baruah said.
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