The much-delayed Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project has received a shot in the arm with the Indian government approving funding to the tune of Rs 2904.04 crores to meet the revised cost estimate of the project.
In 2008, when the Indian and Myanmar governments signed the project’s framework agreement, it was estimated to be completed in five years and to cost Rs 535.91 crores. Several roadblocks in the way of its implementation have delayed its completion and resulted in cost overruns.
With the Indian government giving the green signal for additional funding, work on this project is expected to gather momentum in the coming months.
A joint India-Myanmar venture, the Kaladan project envisages providing India’s landlocked Northeastern states with access to the Bay of Bengal.
It involves construction/upgradation of a road from Lawngtli in the Northeastern Indian state of Mizoram to the India-Myanmar border (100 km) and from there to Paletwa in Myanmar (110 km), dredging of the Kaladan River from Paletwa to Sittwe (158 km) and improving the infrastructure of Sittwe port.
While India is providing the funding, technology and expertise for the construction of the infrastructure, Myanmar will provide the land and security for the project.
Several obstacles have made the execution of the project a tough task. Not only is road construction taking place in challenging geographic terrain but also local communities are protesting land acquisition by the government.
India has come in for criticism from rights groups for the opaque decision making process on the project and for failing to consult local communities.
Once completed, goods from the Northeast can be trucked down to Paletwa, where they would be loaded on to boats on the Kaladan River heading to Sittwe port. At Sittwe port, the cargo could be transported further on to other Southeast Asian states or to any Indian port.
At present, cargo from the Northeast has to be transported overland via the Siliguri Corridor to Kolkata port. This is a distance of around 1,880 km. Besides the distance is the heavy traffic along this route.
The narrow Siliguri Corridor aka Chicken’s Neck is a strip of Indian territory linking the Northeast to the rest of India. It is usually heavily jammed with vehicles and transport of cargo via this route takes many days to reach a port.
In comparison, the route from Lawngtli to Kolkata port via the Kaladan River is roughly 900-1,000 kms (the distance via sea between Sittwe and Kolkata port is 540 km). The Kaladan route is thus expected to reduce travel time from the Northeast to Kolkata port by at least 3-4 days.
Since it first proposed the Kaladan project to the Mynamar government in 2003, India has shown far more interest in the project than Myanmar. Its benefits to India are immense.
The access to the sea that the project provides its Northeastern states could boost their economies. Besides, it would strengthen India’s trade and transport links with Southeast Asia.
The Kaladan project’s significance to India is not as great today as it was in the past when Bangladesh was reluctant to provide India with transit rights through its territory.
That changed in June this year when the Indian and Bangladesh governments reached agreement on transport and framework arrangements that will allow Indian goods from the Northeast to transit through Bangladesh enroute to Chittagong and Mongla ports.
The route from the Northeast to the Bay of Bengal via Bangladesh will be shorter than that via Myanmar.
By sanctioning the revised cost estimate of the Kaladan project, India has signaled that the Myanmar route remains important to it despite the longer distance and travel time it entails.
Delhi seems keen on avoiding dependence on one or the other route. The more options it has, the greater its leverage over the long run.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at email@example.com
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