Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally launched the construction of three long-awaited transport links in north east India — a strategically-important region abutting the Chinese border.
In a whirlwind tour on Feb. 9, he launched a new airport at Hollongi in Arunachal Pradesh, a six-lane bridge over the Brahmaputra river at Guwahati and a strategically-sensitive road tunnel at Sela, close to the Chinese frontier in Arunachal Pradesh, a mountainous Indian state, claimed by Beijing.
For decades, this part of the country has lagged behind other regions after it was cut off from the sea and almost separated from the rest of India in the 1947 partition which carved out East Pakistan (later Bangladesh).
But New Delhi is rightly now putting money — and political capital — into the North East, principally in response to the growing security threat from Beijing.
As if to emphasize the strategic significance of Modi’s trip, China responded by condemning his foray in Arunachal Pradesh, saying that it was “firmly opposed” to his presence in a sensitive state whose existence it has never recognized, and warning that such visits may “complicate the boundary question.” New Delhi reacted sharply, saying the state of Arunachal Pradesh is an “integral and inalienable part” of India.
Amid repeated border incidents, India is bolstering its presence in the region and countering China’s huge Belt and Road infrastructure initiative with its own more modest but still ambitious plans, that include reaching out to South East Asia overland via Myanmar.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is campaigning to retain power in parliamentary elections this spring, has also seized on infrastructure as a tool for strengthening its foothold in the north east, a region where it had earlier trailed its opponents.
New Delhi, however, needs to have an overall development plan for the north east. While infrastructure is vital, the region also lacks electricity generation, homegrown businesses, good health care and jobs.
Modi was in the north east last only in December, when he opened the nearly five-kilometer long Bogibeel bridge, a road and rail link over the Brahmaputra, the north east’s biggest river. In May 2017, in the same region, he inaugurated India’s longest bridge, the 9.15 km Bhupen Hazarika road link over the Lohit river. Other infrastructure projects include efforts to turn Guwahati airport into an aviation hub, with foreign carriers offered subsidies to use it.
New Delhi’s most urgent concern in the region is security. Northeast India shares borders with Nepal, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. As was shown in the 2017 Doklam crisis, when India and China clashed on the border, New Delhi is right to take seriously the threat from China. It is no accident that the Bogibeel Bridge is strong enough to withstand the weight of battle tanks and allows fighter aircraft to land and take off in emergencies.
Moreover, infrastructure construction is a key element in New Delhi’s “Act-East Policy,” through which India is reaching out to the states of the Association of South East Asian Nations and beyond.
Northeast India is difficult territory for transport links given its mountains, wide rivers and torrential rains but it is the only land connection between India and ASEAN with a border of almost 1,600 km with Myanmar.
Just as immediate as the external security threat is the domestic imperative of fighting the elections, Modi wants to win a second term, and hopes that the BJP and its regional allies can make further inroads into the Northeast with its infrastructure development-plank
But, as so often in India, progress takes time. It is 16 years since construction on the Bogibeel Bridge started in 2002. The foundation stone was laid even earlier in 1997. Billed as a promise of better things to come in the future, the bridge is as much a painful reminder of the past, and of how long such schemes can take in India, especially in the remote north east.
One reason is that northeast India does not have much political clout in New Delhi since its approximately 45 million people return only 25 members to the 545-seat national parliament.
Also, this region is one of the least industrialized regions of India, so the push from commerce has been weak. The terrain is difficult and expansive. Mawsynram, in the Northeastern state of Meghalaya, is the rainiest place in the world.
However, activity is slowly picking up pace. Symbolically, the government of Assam, one of the region’s eight states, is building a 65-storey twin towers block in its biggest city Guwahati.
Tourism is seen as a potential draw, especially given the unspoilt countryside and a strong Buddhist heritage.
Moreover, investors are increasingly positive about neighboring Bangladesh, once a byword for economic disaster, and now thriving. The recent re-election of the pro-India prime minister Sheikh Hasina has made New Delhi’s task of expanding economic ties easier. In Myanmar, political concerns abound, notably over the Rohingya crisis, but business people believe the economy is developing much faster with the civilian government at the helm, even if military influence remains powerful.
In a politically-important step, the heads of state of all 10 ASEAN nations last year attended India’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi.
New Delhi is right to prioritize infrastructure in the north east. But it needs to stick to its policy and not be distracted by other pressing needs in a huge country. As well as a catchy title, the “Act-East Policy” needs detailed plans, consistent financing and, above all, sustained political commitment.
It also needs foreign partners. India is rightly wary of China. But Japan, which has its own reasons for containing Chinese ambitions, is a logical ally. Tokyo has evinced a keen interest in cooperating in the region. The Japan International Cooperation Agency, a government body, will be providing loans for the construction of another key bridge that will connect Dhubri in Assam to Phulbari in Meghalaya.
ASEAN states, at the other end of the Act-East policy, have also responded positively. The Asian Development Bank is involved in providing technical assistance in the region. Without such aid, New Delhi may struggle to deliver these strategically-important schemes. China will be watching.