Beyond Patkai

The North East region of the nation, a ‘bio-diversity hotspot’ is also home to a lineage of people whose cultural affinity is more with the people across the Patkais then mainland India. Though years of separation and interaction with people of a different origin have affected the livelihood of these people basically they are more like the Chinese than Indian in many ways.

The Indian government has been very careful not to let grow this eastern connection by restricting movements of goods and people from the North East into Burma, now known as Myanmar and beyond. Endowing Hindi as a link language in Arunachal Pradesh also has the same agenda. Their reluctentness to let the people of the region interact with the brothers across the border is prevalent from the fact that New Delhi has not at all shown any interest in the much demanded reopening of the road to Kunming.

The Burma Road better known as the Stillwells road, named after the energetic World War II American commander, connected Upper Assam’s Ledo to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. Cutting across hills and jungles this road once used to be China’s life line to safeguard itself from the advancing Japanese forces. The Chinese part of the road which traverses through rough mountainous terrain was constructed in 1937. What remains of it today is just a jungle track in the Indian side, while the Chinese have developed their end to have an access to the Indian Ocean through Burmese ports.

It is an open fact that the Chinese have established a sophisticated monitoring base off the Andamans in the Burmese waters. In a way this move proved healthy to North East as it stirred the minds of think tanks in New Delhi’s Ministry of External Affairs. The fallout was an opening of a road into Burma from Moreh town in Manipur. In a twist of its stand on the ‘undemocratic’ Burmese Junta, New Delhi now propagates flourishing of border trade between the two nations.

The frequent visits by Indian dignitaries to its eastern neighbours, the Ganga-Mekong Initiative and a positive outlook by the country’s business community to invest in these regions have given birth to a new term in the diplomatic circles “The Look East Policy”.

It’s a long delayed step but one that will hopefully bring significant changes to the economies of the otherwise landlocked North East region of India. At present a well maintained road links Kunming the capital of Yunnan to Bhamo in Upper Burma. From Bhamo, the road leads to the economic hotspots of South East Asia-Bangkok, Kualalumpur and Singapore cutting across Lashio, Mandaley, Rangoon down south. If we look westwards, Bhamo is linked to Myitkyina that leads to Pangsau pass and across the Patkais to Mung Dun Shun Kham or the land of golden gardens, Assam.

Inside China, Kunming is well connected to major trade centres across the nation that ensures that what the Chinese consumer gets in Beijing or Shanghai is available in North East within a short span of time. Further east, another network of road inter connects Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Vientiane the capital of Laos. Most of the places also have railroad connections for movements of large volumes of goods in within a reasonable cost.

This apart the places are well connected by major airlines of the region like Thai, Air Malaysia, Singapore Airlines, Ansett, Cathy Pacific etc. Interestingly, places like Bangkok and Kualalumpur are closer to even Guwahati and the region have airports in places like Imphal, Dimapur, Dibrugarh also. So one could imagine where would people prefer to go for their vacations. The Central Government on its part has declared Guwahati airport as an international one but so far its far from reality in practical terms.

Markets in the region are already flooded with goods from the eastern neighbours. A visit to markets in Aizawl, Imphal, Kohima, Dimapur and even Diphu would puzzle every visitor from mainland India on whether he or she is really in his own country or somewhere else. As one would hardly find much Indian goods here among the racks of electronic gadgets from Taiwan and China, garments from Thailand, Malaysia and food stuff from Burma, Singapore etc.

Once the trade barriers in the North East are completely lifted, the Indian companies are also going to gain, specially those from the pharma sector. North East can act as a trade post connecting the booming South East Asian economies with South Asia. The region could also network with tourism agencies in these countries to promote each other. Nepal that is so near to us is growing with the revenues coming from the tourism sector alone. Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Yunnan are also pulling huge crowds promoting eco-tourism. North East can seek help of these countries to develope the sector.

For the time being, what we could hope is that the Congress Government will pressurise New Delhi on the matter. As New Delhi’s intendments are still not clear on whether its real intention is development of the North East or it’s just another diplomatic ritual to win back the East.

It would be nice to see for how long Delhi’s babus are able to keep the heat of Far East’s economic winds from transforming North East into a little Dragon.

- Santanu Buragohain