NE Strategically Located In Govt’s Plans Of Multimodal Transport, Trans-Asian Railway
There is no denying the fact that a robust transportation and communication network is a pre-requisite for rapid industrialization and socio-economic development of a region. It is also a twentieth-century realization that development of any one mode of transportation alone is not going to adequately serve the changing economic and political necessity globally. The need is for synergy among various modes of transportation and communication to support rapid economic growth of the so-called developing countries in the new millennium.
A massive change is happening in the transportation sector in the northeast under the Act East Policy of the government. Some of the changes have become visible, but most of them are yet to become apparent as the scheme of the things are so huge that it would take a few more years to actually materialize. Nonetheless, the intention of the government is clear and if the present plans fructify, hopefully in another 5 to 10 years, the socio-economic scenario of northeast would be permanently altered making it the doorway to south-east Asia.
India is a vast country strategically located in the middle of the major east-west trade route connecting south-east Asia with Europe and America. Our country has a 7,500 km coastline touching 13 states but adequate road and rail connectivity linkage to the ports were not developed in tandem with port development. To ensure post-led development, the Ministry of Shipping, in April 2016, had adopted a National Prospective Plan called “Sagarmala” touted as “Building Gateways of Growth.” The essential component of this plan was to create adequate linkage to ports, thereby reducing logistical cost and to help industries become competitive and thus accelerating economic development.
The cost per tonne kilometre of moving cargo by inland waterways can be 60 to 80 per cent lower than by road or rail. Sagarmala envisioned first developing a number of major and minor ports along the east and west coastlines of the country and then developing inland waterways, roadways and railways connecting these ports through some multi-modal hubs. Northeast finds an important place in this scheme of things as one of the waterways planned for development was through Brahmaputra linking Dhubri with Sadia (Fig-1).
To complement Sagarmala, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had unveiled a massive road-connectivity project called Bharatmala in October 2017. Under the project, construction of almost 50,000 km of highways categorized as National Corridors, Economic Corridors, Inter-Corridors and Feeder Routes were targeted across the country. It is the second largest highways construction project in the country since NHDP, aimed at particularly improving connectivity in border areas and far flung areas with an aim of quicker movement of cargo and boosting exports. One of the selected economic corridors is the Northeast Corridor tagged as EC-44. One of the focuses of Bharatmala is improving connectivity in the northeast and leveraging synergies with Inland Waterways already identified on Brahmaputra.
The plan for improving connectivity in the Northeast under Bharatmala includes development of Northeast Economic Corridor connecting state capitals and development of seven waterways terminals on Brahmaputra River (Fig-2). These terminals have the scope for being developed as multi-modal transport hubs with facilities for trans-shipment of goods from road to rail to waterways for efficient movement of industrial and agricultural produce saving time and cost. Railways have already taken steps to develop Silghat as a terminal station. Bharatmala also has plan for developing 24 Multimodal Logistical Parks, including one at Guwahati, where rail, road and waterways would be interconnected for making economies of scale in transportation available.
One more interesting feature of Bharatmala is the plan for seamless connectivity with our neighbouring countries. Here also, the Northeast would play a pivotal role. The plan envisions an integrated Bangladesh–Bhutan–Nepal–Myanmar and Thailand corridors with transit through Bangladesh for improving connectivity and making the Northeast a hub for East Asia (Fig-3).
TRANS-ASIAN RAILWAY (TAR)
No other plan has probably proposed more elaborate and grand integration of Asian and European countries as the Trans-Asian Railway Network plan under the aegis of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). It was during the 1950s that a continuous 8,750 miles (14,080 km) rail link between Singapore and Istanbul (Turkey) with possible further connections to Europe and Africa was thought of. The idea did not go further until 1990 and the end of the Cold War.
UNESCAP's Transport & Tourism Division began work on the initiative in 1992 when it launched the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development project. And in November 2006, the Trans-Asian Railway Network Agreement was signed by 17 Asian Nations including India to build a transcontinental railway network between Europe and Pacific ports in China. The agreement formally came into force on 11th June 2009.
The Trans-Asian Railway system will consist of four main railway routes which would be connected to realize a seamless network of railway lines from Europe to Asia. The existing Trans-Siberian railway, which connects Moscow to Vladivostok, will be used for a portion of the network in Russia.
Another corridor to be included will connect China to Korea, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. The plan has sometimes been called the "Iron Silk Road" in reference to the historical Silk Road trade routes. The Trans-Asian Railway network now comprises 1,17,500 km of railway lines serving 28 member countries.
The TAR plan includes three lines between India and Myanmar that traverse through Bangladesh. As part of the agreement, India will build and rehabilitate rail links with neighboring Myanmar in projects that are estimated to cost more than Rs 29.41 billion. Bangladesh became a signatory to the agreement in November 2007.
TAR AND THE NORTHEAST
TAR plans to connect Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and then Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and China with a seamless railway network for future trade and cultural exchange. For this, new lines have to be constructed for some missing links. As can be seen from the figure (Fig-4), Northeast is in the middle of this connectivity plan. The TAR connectivity proposes trans-national railway lines from West Bengal through Bangladesh to Tripura and then from Tripura to Myanmar via Mizoram. Another route proposed is from Imphal to Moreh and then to Tamu in Myanmar. There are some missing links in this scheme and the countries signing the TAR agreement has started constructing railway lines to connect these missing links.
Northeast Frontier Railway has already started construction of a railway line from Agartala in Tripura to Akhaura in Bangladesh from where Bangladesh has a railway line connecting Dhaka and Chittagong port. Once this connection is completed, Akhaura would serve as border inter-change point for Indian Railways with Bangladesh Railways and Northeast would have a direct link to the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka and the sea-port in Chittagong via Tripura. On the West Bengal side, India Railway has already established four international inter-change points with Bangladesh Railways. Indian Railway is also constructing a border interchange point with Nepal.
Construction of a railway line from Silchar in Barak Valley to Imphal is in advanced stage of completion. Another line from Imphal to Myanmar border town Moreh has also been sanctioned. Once completed, we will have a border interchange point at Moreh or Tamu and one can possibly imagine travelling on train from Guwahati all the way to Yangon in Myanmar in the near future.
There have been increasing international engagements in the fields of connectivity in recent times. For example, a high-capacity undersea cable at Chittagong in Bangladesh providing internet connectivity is connected with Northeast via Tripura. Numaligarh Refinery has built a pipeline into Bangladesh. Bangladesh and Myanmar have opened its road for international drivers from India. Guwahati has got a direct flight with Bangkok. Tripura and Assam have started exporting perishable commodities to countries in the Far East.
All the current connectivity plans of the government of India – be it roads, railways, waterways, telecommunication or air-connectivity - as well as that of all international stakeholders’ points towards a multimodal connectivity revolution in south-east Asia. And northeast is undoubtedly is in the middle of the eye of that revolution.
(The writer is Guwahati-based Public Relations professional, researcher and Media Communicator. The views expressed in the article are his own).
Disclaimer : This article originally appeared in Financial Express in a slightly different form.