Come 2015, the people of northeast India will be able to use a seaport in Myanmar for transport and trade. The Sittwe port in the Bay of Bengal is expected to link Mizoram in the far east of India to the ocean through riverine transport and roadways. Construction work for jetties and other port facilities, which started in December 2010, is expected to be completed this year.
Called the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, the venture is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2015. The project includes the improvement of Sittwe port in Arakan province, west Myanmar, construction of an inland waterway on Kaladan river and preparation for a highway transportation system linking up with the Mizoram capital of Aizwal.
The Kaladan (also rendered as “Kolodyne”) river actually originates in central Mizoram and is known as the Chhimtuipui river in Indian territory. The river enters Myanmar and crosses two very underdeveloped and poverty-stricken provinces – Arakan and Chin – before it finally empties into the Bay of Bengal. A 1999-2000 feasibility study revealed that the Kaladan is navigable within Myanmar from its confluence point at Sittwe to Paletwa. Beyond that point, the shallow waters and sharp curves make navigation infeasible. Consequently, road transport is proposed from Paletwa to the Indian border in Mizoram.
Once the project becomes operational, vessels will arrive at Sittwe port and the goods will be transported via the Kaladan river. From Paletwa, goods will be trucked via a road that will enter India through Lomasu trade point on the southern border of Mizoram. The project was conceived by New Delhi ten years ago and formalized in 2008 under its Look East Policy, primarily to develop trade with Myanmar and other Southeast Asian nations. Political observers believe that New Delhi was wanted to invest in the project, India’s largest development initiative in Myanmar, to woo the country as it slowly transforms from a military regime into a quasi-democratic government.
The trade route should also bolster India’s economic ties with other Southeast Asian countries, while benefiting the 60 million people of land-locked northeast India. Besides trade, the project seeks to expand Indian economic and political influence in East and Southeast Asia. Although the Kaladan project is a bilateral initiative between New Delhi and Naypyidaw, the Indian government is footing the bill, estimated at $214 million. The former military government of Myanmar committed the required land and security for the project, but baulked at investing money. Hence, New Delhi offered the regime a soft loan of $10 million.
At present, work is focused on dredging and widening the Kaladan river from that port at Sittwe to Paletwa, in Chin province, adjacent to India’s Mizoram. The 160 km inland waterway transport system for cargo ships terminating in Paletwa is expected to be completed by June 2014. Meanwhile, construction of a 62 km two-lane highway from Paletwa (also known as Kaletwa or Setpyitpyin) to the India border point Lomasu is also underway, after a delay. Myanmar authorities have been somewhat coy on revealing the status of the work. Progress on the Indian segment of the highway is certainly visible. Once competed, the 100 km stretch (from Lomasu to Lawngtlai in Mizoram) will connect to the Indian National Highway 54. This part of the project is slated to be completed by early next year.
Still, not all is well for the project, as criticisms have surfaced in India and Myanmar from those who claim that the project will have serious social and environmental implications for thousands of residents in both the countries. Moreover, activists under the banner of Kaladan Movement, an alliance of civil-society organizations worried about the human rights, social, economic and environmental impacts of the Kaladan project for local residents, allege that officials have not disclosed sufficient information about the project to the public, keeping indigenous people in the dark about its environmental risks.
“We urge the governments of Burma and India to ensure that the Kaladan project is developed with full local public consultation and participation; to ensure that the benefits of the project go to the least advantaged members of the local communities,” says the movement, which has three core members: Arakan Rivers Network, Chin Human Rights Organization and Zo Indigenous Forum. Twan Zaw, director of Arakan Rivers Network has called for comprehensive environmental, social and health impact assessments on the Kaladan project, to be made public.
“So far we haven’t seen any report about the environmental, social and health impact assessments on the project,” he says, arguing that once completed the project might facilitate a major illegal route for wildlife trade across the border. He also claimed that the project could disrupt the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous families because of land confiscation and forced evictions. Salai Za Uk Ling, program director of the Chin Human Rights Organization insists that “unless and until the essential elements of full transparency, public consultation and participation, and accountability are met, the Kaladan project should be suspended.” He has criticized the increased military activities along the route, claiming it may be used to create more forced labor to complete the project. He says that the Burmese Army has a long history of forcing villagers to build roads and even work on government farmland without remuneration.
Meanwhile, the Mizoram-based Zo Indigenous Forum argues that nearly 1.2 million people living in the project areas want the Kaladan project to be sustainable, bringing local economic benefits without destroying much the ecological balance. Talking to The Diplomat from Aizwal, C. Lalremruata, director of Zo Indigenous Forum insisted that the indigenous people of both the countries should be involved in all decision-making regarding their ancestral lands and should receive fair compensation packages. He added that the principle of free, prior and informed consent must be the foundation of this kind of infrastructure development project.
Whether this happens remains to be seen.
Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati-based journalist who covers eastern India and neighboring countries such as Bhutan, Burma and Bangladesh.