NADI 2016: Connecting With India's Northeast

 
 

In 1981, Joseph Montville coined the phrases “Track One” and “Track Two” diplomacy in an article for Foreign Policy. Track One referred to the normal discussions that take place between diplomats, while Track Two referred to contacts between professional experts and industry leaders, among others. A Track Two discussion was seen as a way for two sides to understand each other’s apprehensions and identify common threads that would help establish a partnership. Since then, globally Track Two discussions have become an important part of diffusing tensions and creating a conducive atmosphere for building a more meaningful partnership.

The two day Asian Confluence NADI River Festival is one such example. Organized by the Asian Confluence and India, East Asia Center in Shillong, in collaboration with the Meghalaya government and the Maulana Abul Kamal Azad Institute of Asian Studies, the conference ran from July 15-16, 2016. Noted speakers and experts from Bangaldesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, and the northeastern states of India sat together to discuss issues of connectivity and people. Rivers served as the central theme of discussions, as in addition to serving as a means of transport, rivers have formed as a connective narrative among people for centuries.

The two day conference sought increased connectivity among India’s Asian neighbors, which would indeed help India in its own quest as an emerging global power, and at the same time, giving the northeast a firm footing in India’s evolving diplomatic relations. After all, the Indian states of Punjab and Tripura first started power diplomacy with neighboring countries and redefined how foreign relations evolved in India. Through initiatives such as the NADI festival, the northeastern states can further define diplomacy from a state perspective as well, all while staying on course with the firm ethos underlying India’s diplomatic values and direction.

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The NADI festival discussed connectivity in various forms. Representatives from Bangladesh sought to increase the number of flights between Bangladesh and India’s northeastern region to further people-to-people connectivity. Border haats (border markets) were emphasized as an important form of cross border trade and stress was laid on increasing the number of border haats. Speakers also argued that river basin management should also form a part of the joint initiative. Speakers from India stressed strengthening the dialogue process, arguing that including all stakeholders would pave the way for effective convergence and “actionable” points in using rivers for mutual benefit and prosperity in the region.

At the bedrock of the NADI festival was a desire to capitalize on rivers, both as a conduit of transportation as well as a people-to-people connector. According to a World Bank study,  inland water transport (IWT) far outperforms road and rail connectivity in terms of efficiency. Energy efficiency rates (defined as how much weight one horsepower of energy can carry) for rail and road are 500 kg and 150 kg respectively; for IWT it is 4,000 kg. Similarly IWT is much more fuel efficient than traditional rail and road connectivity. While considering other factors such as land needed, capital invested, and air pollution produced, IWT scores favorably over other traditional forms of transport.

In addition to these general benefits, it is important to understand why inland waterways are especially crucial to India. Northeastern India is a completely land locked region connected to the rest of the country by a thin “chicken neck.” As such, alternate connectivity to the rest of the country — as well as reverse connectivity between India and its Asian neighbors via the northeast — assumes major significance. It is here that rivers have a major role to play. While China conducts almost 43 percent of its internal trade via waterways, in India that figure stands at only 7 percent. Today experts estimate about 640 rivers criss-cross the region and 54 rivers flow from the northeast to Bangladesh. There is immense potential for developing these rivers as inter- as well as intrastate means of transport.

The India-Bangladesh Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT) has been operational since 1972. The PIWTT was later amended to declare Ashuganj in Bangladesh a port of call and transhipment port and it is now used to transport goods to Tripura. This has dramatically cut down on the cost of transporting goods to Tripura. A renewed PIWTT would not only enhance intraregional trade but also open new opportunities for connectivity. The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, which seeks to connect Kolkata with Sittwe port in Myanmar by sea, can be seen as a natural extension to the ideas envisaged in the NADI festival.

Yet an initiative of connectivity via rivers should not be seen in terms of transport connectivity alone. There has to be greater people-to-people interaction; more links between the upstream and downstream inhabitants. A theme of connectivity, centered around such connections, is bound to boost the relationships among nations. On the sidelines of the conference, experts mooted the idea of a Buddhist circuit jointly developed between India and Bangladesh. India, as the birthplace of Buddhism, has a special place among the Buddhists spread across Bangladesh, Myanmar, and other Asian nations. A proposed Buddhist circuit incorporating these dynamics would undoubtedly foster closer people-to-people relations. Another initiative that can work wonders is opening a South Asian University center in the northeast, along the lines of the one established in New Delhi. India’s northeast shares racial, cultural, and historical ties with the Asian nations. A common university in the northeast would doubtless be attractive for students from other South Asian nations and increase people-to-people exchanges.

Today, India and her neighbors jointly face new challenges from both conventional and non-conventional threats. As the deadly attack in Gulshan, Dhaka has proved, no country is immune to the threat of global terrorism. At such a crucial juncture, initiatives such as those discussed at NADI would provide a great boost to confidence building measures among nations. At the same time, climate change is a major threat to all nations today, especially low lying ones like Bangladesh. Experts predict, by the end of this century, a large part of Bangladesh will be under water. This would undoubtedly create pressure on the northeastern Indian states as migration — including cross-border migration — is inevitable. The northeastern states already have a checkered history on the issue of migration from Bangladesh; hence opportunities such as NADI can also be used to discuss the question of livelihoods, cross-border migration, and climate change in the future.

21st century diplomacy has moved from the drawing rooms of diplomats to the hands of the people. This is a positive trend that encourages people’s participation and makes them stakeholders in their nation’s future. As the world order moves toward greater connectivity initiatives such as the NADI festival, it will foster greater people-to-people ties and at the same time help India cement its position as a global leader in a new emerging multilateral world order.

Ibu Sanjeeb Garg is an avid follower of the Northeast and its multifarious dimensions as well as its ethnic contentions. The views expressed here are his own.

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