Myanmar President Htin Kyaw’s recent visit to India, the first by the head of a civilian government in Myanmar in over five decades, saw the two sides focus on improving connectivity and counterinsurgency cooperation.
In addition to reaffirming their commitment to “fight the scourge of terrorism and insurgent activity in all its forms and manifestations,” and “not allowing any insurgent groups to use their soil for hostile activities against the other side,” the two sides signed four agreements, two of which are aimed at accelerating completion of the much-delayed India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) highway.
Under these agreements Delhi has undertaken the construction of 69 bridges, including approach roads on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa section of the IMT highway, and also upgrade the Kalewa-Yargi section of this highway. The new deadline for completion of the IMT trilateral highway has been set at 2020.
The 1,400-km-long IMT highway links Moreh in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur with Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. It is the first overland link between India and Southeast Asia.
India is implementing several infrastructure projects in Myanmar. These are aimed at accessing Myanmar’s rich natural resources, improving connectivity between the two neighbors, and facilitating bilateral travel and trade.
Additionally, since Myanmar is India’s land-bridge to Southeast Asia, this infrastructure is aimed at linking India to markets in the region. It is expected to boost development in India’s economically backward northeastern states, several of which share borders with Myanmar. Importantly, Myanmar provides landlocked northeast India with an outlet to the sea, a route that is shorter than the current one via the Siliguri Corridor to Kolkata port.
India began construction of the 160-km-long India-Myanmar Friendship Road linking Moreh with Kalewa and Kalemyo in Myanmar in 1997 to link to Southeast Asian markets and to provide a fillip to its “Look East” policy. In 2002, India, Myanmar and Thailand decided to make this a trilateral highway by extending this road to Mae Sot. Delhi now plans to extend the IMT highway to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
Clearly, India doesn’t lack for ambition when it comes to infrastructure building. Where it falls short, however, is in implementing projects; almost every Indian project in Myanmar is running behind schedule.
The IMT highway, for instance, was scheduled to be ready by 2015. Indeed, a bus service on this route was inaugurated late last year only to be shut down immediately as bridges along the route that were of World War II vintage were found to be unusable. Hence the signing of agreements during Htin Kyaw’s visit that will see India repairing bridges and approach roads with a view to putting the trilateral highway project back on track.
Like India, China is engaged in upgrading ports, extracting oil, and building roads and bridges in Myanmar. Indeed the two Asian giants often compete for infrastructure projects here.
According to Khriezo Yhome, research fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation’s Neighborhood Regional Studies Initiative, “In terms of the objectives of accessing natural resources or building strategic alternative routes in and through Myanmar, there is not much of a difference between what Delhi and Beijing want to achieve.”
However, India’s investment in Myanmar is a fraction of that of China. India invested just over $224 million in Myanmar during fiscal year 2015-2016, and no new investments were made in the first four months of fiscal 2016-17. In comparison, China invested $3.3 billion in Myanmar in 2015-16.
“China has left India far behind” with regard to infrastructure projects, Yhome told The Diplomat, drawing attention to the delays plaguing India’s infrastructure projects in Myanmar. Lack of coordination among different implementing agencies, poor monitoring, and financial constraints are among the main reasons for India’s failure to meet deadlines, he said.
There are other challenges too. “In areas where some Indian infrastructure projects, particularly roads and bridges, are being implemented, feeder roads are usable only for some months due to difficult terrains,” Yhome observed. There is the question of security too. Roads linking India with Myanmar run through insurgency-wracked regions, “creating problems for smooth implementation of projects,” he pointed out.
In addition, “flawed feasibility studies are hindering timely completion of projects,” an official in India’s Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (MDONER) told The Diplomat. This is the case with the Kaladan multi-modal transport project, which envisages linking Lawngtlai in India’s northeastern state of Mizoram via a road and the River Kaladan to the deep-sea port at Sittwe in Myanmar’s Rakhine province.
The India-funded and executed project involves developing Sittwe to handle 20,000-ton vessels (up from the 2,000 to 3,000-ton ships it handles at present); dredging the River Kaladan from Sittwe to Paletwa (a 158 km long stretch) to improve its navigability; building an inland terminal at Paletwa where cargo will be shifted from barges to trucks; and constructing a 129-km-long highway linking Paletwa to the Indian border.
However, the Kaladan project is running behind schedule. “Every stage of the project has suffered delays,” the MDONER official said, pointing to the fact that 13 years after the project was conceived it remains incomplete.
Delhi brought the multi-modal transport project to the Myanmar government in 2003. It then took five years for the two sides to enter into a framework agreement and it was only in 2010 that construction work began. It was originally due to be completed in July 2013. Several more deadlines were set and missed.
According to the MDONER website, the Myanmar government delayed in handing over land at Sittwe and Kaletwa to India.
But also, India had to revise its plans midstream. Under the original plan, the inland terminal was to be located at Kaletwa, north of Paletwa. However, the Kaladan River was found to be unnavigable beyond Paletwa. This required the road from Lawngtlai to be extended up to Paletwa.
This “underestimation of the road length on the Myanmar side” has resulted in cost escalations. A “more thorough feasibility report” could have prevented the “inordinate delay” in the project’s completion and the added cost incurred, the MDONER official said, adding that India’s “failure to deliver projects on time” in Myanmar has eroded its credibility there.
Like Chinese infrastructure projects in Myanmar, some of India’s projects are also opposed by activists and local communities. The Kaladan movement, an umbrella group of civil society organizations and environmental groups, for instance, has criticized India for opacity in the implementation of the project. Local communities were apparently not consulted or informed about the project’s impact. They are not being included in the project’s benefits and are being discriminated against with regard to wages. Activists are also drawing attention to the Kaladan project’s destructive impact on the environment and impacts on local livelihoods.
India has denied some of these allegations. While admitting that an environmental impact assessment was not done for the Kaladan project, Delhi argues that this is not necessary as the dredging of the river involves “minimum intervention.”
However, Yhome points out that India has been responsive to concerns raised by activists. It has “addressed these issues and been willing to discuss any issue with local protesters.”
Importantly, when activists raised environmental and social concerns over India’s construction of the Htamanthi hydropower project, with an installed capacity of 1,200 MW, and the Shwezaye hydropower project with 880 MW on the Chindwin River, India “suspended the projects at the request of the Myanmar government,” Yhome said.
This is in sharp contrast to China’s refusal to pull out of unpopular projects in Myanmar. The Myanmar government’s decision to suspend the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project in response to mass protests against the project evoked Beijing’s ire. Five years after the suspension, Myanmar is still under pressure from China to reverse the decision.
Myanmar’s civilian government is reportedly keen to diversify its economic partners in order to reduce China’s overwhelming influence over the economy. This would open up greater opportunity for India to play a role in Myanmar and expand its influence there.
The question is whether India would accelerate implementation of its infrastructure projects there. Should India continue to drag its feet in this regard, it could lose future projects to western and Asian investors like Japan. The window of opportunity opening up for India will not remain open forever.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist and researcher based in Bengaluru, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.