India’s Act East Policy has been in discussion for a long time. The Policy has raised hopes in the landlocked North East India in terms of exit route for its products. However, Act East have so far been an unrealized dream for the North East India. The main project of Look East Policy, the Trilateral Highway, was started way back in 2005 and still not completed. Progress of Kaladan Multi Modal point have been extremely slow. Slow execution of Act East Policy Project has dampened the spirit in the region and cynicism has cropped up.
The recent initiative by China on One Belt One Road (OBOR) Project, which connects China through Pakistan up to Europe, will open up entire Western World to China. India has decided not to participate in OBOR for strategic region.
With that backdrop, Act East becomes much more relevant for India in view of its dream to become an Economic Superpower. The prosperous ASEAN region opens up a large market for India. Of late, the speed of execution of Act East Policy projects has increased raising some hopes and it is expected that finally by 2022 the road will be ready for use.
From the periphery of India, North East is poised to become the Center point of India’s future economic ties with South East Asia. In this article we shall discuss about North East India’s strategic positioning, economic importance of South East Asia, Act East Policy Projects our recent initiative to connect India’s North East to Thailand.
India’s North East with 98% international border
India’s North East connected to Indian mainland through a 22 km corridor through North Bengal has unique geographical positioning. The North East region shares an international border of 5,182 kilometres (3,220 miles) i.e. about 98 per cent of its total geographical boundary, with several neighboring countries – 1,395 kilometres (867 miles) with Tibet in China in the north, 1,640 kilometres (1,020 miles) with Myanmar in the east, 1,596 kilometres (992 miles) with Bangladesh in the south-west, 97 kilometres (60 miles) with Nepal in the west, and 455 kilometres (283 miles) with Bhutan in the north-west. It comprises an area of 262,230 square kilometres (101,250 sq miles), almost 8 per cent of that of India.
During Independence North East was a prosperous place
Due to its unique geographical positioning, North East needs a different treatment altogether. Pre-Independence North East was a prosperous region. Seamless movement with open border through Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan had ensured North East got connected all over the world. Assam, Burma (now Myanmar), China (ABC) Gas Pipeline used to feed allied force in China during the War. Chittogong Port was very active with tea, timber, coal being exported through it from Assam to various parts of the world. Brahmaputra river was a very vibrant river way between Dibrugarh and Kolkata. Dibrugarh Airport was a very vibrant Airport connecting entire Asia at that time.
Undivided Assam’s per capita income was the 5th highest in the country during independence.
Post independence things have changed.
Post Partition North East India lost its connectivity and has become a landlocked region. Chittogong Port is gone, connectivity through Myanmar gone. A shipload of timber used to take 8 days from Dibrugarh to Kolkata and now takes around a month. From a very prosperous region now North Eastern States stands amongst the lowest-per-capita-income States of India.
Without market linkage with outside world, North Eastern products have become unviable. Small market and diverse cultural landscape of the region have combined to create a breeding ground of separatist movements in the region.
India’s Act East Policy can change all that
India’s Act East Policy (Previously known as Look East Policy) talks about linking India to South East Asia. Connectivity through road, rail and air, people-to-people exchange, trade are the main focus of Act East Policy. India’s trade with ASEAN is expected to reach 100 Billion Dollar by 2020 and North East can play a major role in increasing it further.
Economic Cooperation between India and ASEAN Countries:
South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) comprise of Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam. India-ASEAN trade and investment relations have been growing steadily, with ASEAN being India's fourth largest trading partner. India's trade with ASEAN stands at US$ 81.33 billion, which is approx. 10.6% of India's overall trade. India's export to ASEAN stand at 11.28% of our total exports. Investment flows are also substantial both ways, with ASEAN accounting for approximately 18.28% of investment flows into India since 2000.
India’s Look East Policy:
"Look East Policy" of India was launched by the former Prime Minister P.V Narasimha Rao in 1991.The main focus of this policy was to shift the country's trading focus from the west and neighbours to the booming South East Asian economies. This policy continues till the formation of NDA government in 2014. Since the formation of the new government in the centre, the government upgraded it to “Act East Policy”. The “Act East Policy” was launched at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar in November 2014.
The focus of the “Look East Policy” was to increase economic integration with the South East Asian countries and the area was just confined to South East Asia only. On the other hand the focus of the “Act East Policy” is economic and security integration and focused area increased to South East Asia plus East Asia.
Objectives of ''Act East Policy” are:
1. Promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop strategic relationship with countries in the Asia-Pacific region through continuous engagement at regional, bilateral and multilateral levels.
2. To increase the interaction of the North-Eastern Indian states with other neighbouring countries.
3. To find out the alternatives of the traditional business partners like; more focus on the Pacific countries in addition to the South East Asian countries.
4. To curb the increasing impact of China in the ASEAN region. Two-way trade between India and ASEAN moved up to $71.6 billion in 2016-17 from $2 billion in the early ’90s. In contrast, two-way trade between China and ASEAN stood at $452.31 billion in 2016.
5. Experts say that under the “Act East Policy” the government is relying on the 3 C's (Culture, Connectivity and Commerce) to develop better relations with ASEAN nations.
Projects under Act East Policy
Currently two projects are underway to improve connectivity between India and Southeast Asia. One is the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, running from Moreh in Manipur state in Northeast India to Mae Sot in Thailand passing through Myanmar, and the other is Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. The 1360 Km trilateral highway is also expected to be further extended to Laos, Cambodia upto Singapore in the long run. The Kaladan project will connect Indian’s state of Mizoram (again in Northeast India) with the rest of India as well as with Southeast Asia. This project is a combination of shipping, inland water and road ways. Both these connectivity projects are expected to increase trade between India and Southeast Asia as well as facilitate easy movement of people.
Where does it stand now
The 1360 kms long India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is an initiative pertaining to India, Myanmar and Thailand. It traverses from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand through Myanmar. India is undertaking two sections of the Trilateral Highway namely, (i) construction of Kalewa-Yagyi road section in Myanmar, and (ii) construction of 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa (TKK) road section in Myanmar. The work on both these sections has been awarded on Engineering, Procurement and Construction mode and is underway since May 2018 for Kalewa-Yagyi section and November 2017 for the TKK section. The contractors are mobilised on project site. The scheduled time for completion of both the projects is three years from the date of commencement at the project site by the executing agency. However, the project is delayed for various reason.
A Motor Vehicles Agreement along with protocols for regulating and facilitating movement of cargo and passenger vehicular traffic is under inter-governmental negotiations between India, Myanmar and Thailand. The Myanmar Government has conveyed that it would proceed further once it has comprehensively reviewed the implementation of similar arrangement with other countries.
These are few other issues are being addressed by Government of India and by 2022 the project is expected to operational. Recent Meet on ASEAN, the countries have deliberated and converged that the Trilateral Highway should be taken forward upto Singapore which is likely to be become reality in coming days.
Act East Policy vis-a-vis Assam and North East
The Act East Policy projects are expected to address the land locked issue of North East in a big way. Once the road opens up fully, the North East becomes gateway to the prosperous South East Asian nations. For long, entrepreneurial activities in the North East have suffered due to small market. With opening up of South East Asia, Assam and North East will get a big market to cater. Lots of interest is generated specially on trade and tourism between both the region.
North East India Festival at Bangkok
To promote India’s Act East Policy, North East India Festival was recently organized at Bangkok during 8th and 10th February, 2019 at Centara Grand Hotel and Central World at Bangkok. It was a part of North East Festival Initiatives and was driven by socio cultural Trust Trend MMS with support from NEC, Indian Embassy at Thailand and various NER States.
The main components of the Festival were:
a) A Cultural Exchange programme wherein around 300 artistes from North East India performed during the Festival. Naga Warrior dance, Manipuri martial arts, Axomiya Bihu, Tiwa, Bodo Bagrumba etc. Musical performance from famous musical bands of North East such as Zubeen Garg and Band, GATC, Minutes of Decay, Featherheads, Fourth Element etc. Around 10 designers of the North East showcased various designs of North East. An Exhibition of cuisines of North East also organized showcasing varieties of North Eastern foods. Naga, Manipuri, Arunachali, Assamese delicacies were displayed.
b) Trade Exchange Programme: The main focus of the initiative was to promote bilateral trade and investment facilitation. On the Inaugural evening a dinner was organized which was attended by top investors of Thailand who interacted with North Eastern Governments. Trade and Investment organized next day was a platform of interaction of traders of North East with traders of South East Asia.
c) Tourism Meet: A B2B Meet on Tourism was organized which was attended by 115 tour operators of Thailand. Around 40 tour operators of North East, State Govts of North East interacted with Thai tour operators. After the Meet many Thai tour operators have started sending tourists to North East.
d) People to People exchange Programme: With support from Guwahati University, People to People Exchange was organized wherein top Tai scholars of Thailand interacted with Tai scholars of North East. Tai Ahom, Tai Phake, Tai Khamti etc experts presented the historical linkage of North East and Thailand. From Thailand side top researchers, historians from various Thai Universities participated in a long deliberations with scholars of North East.
During this exchange, one could feel the chemistry between both the regions. Thailand have embraced us with open mind and they are very aware about the similarities between both the regions. Large trading activities between North Eastern States and Thailand and other ASEAN countries are possible, it’s a matter of time. Tourism have already taken of after the initiatives, many of Assam’s tour operators have got business already from their Thai Counterparts. One major announcements was made during the Festival that Indian Airlines Company Spicejet will start regular flights between Guwahati and Bangkok very soon.
The Second edition of North East India Festival was supposed to be organized during February 21-23rd, 2020 at Bangkok. However, due to Corona, the programme was deferred. We plan to organize it soon, once Corona issue comes into control.
With opening up of Trilateral Highway, we can expect large investments coming up along with Asian Highway catering to ASEAN market. Many large MNCs have already started exploring the North East as investment gateway to South East Asia. Agri Horti trading will be a major business which could be transported by Cargo flights introduced by Spicejet. Plenty of activities on people to people exchange will also take place and in next ten years,
We can hope for some positive development in the coming days.