Myanmar’s Sittwe port will be operationalized early next year, but its link with India’s landlocked northeast is still uncertain as vital projects are yet to be completed.
The multi-million Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project in India’s border state of Mizoram continues to suffer from delays, with the COVID-19 pandemic being the latest addition to the list of hurdles.
Owing to the pandemic, contractors have been facing hardships in assembling daily wagers for the project who are brought from other states in the country.
“Due to COVID-19, most of the daily wagers have returned to their hometowns. The two companies engaged with the construction have applied for permission for bringing the laborers. Permission has been granted but all these people would have to go through the mandatory quarantine whenever they come,” said Lawngtlai deputy commissioner Dr. Andrew H. Vanlaldika.
Lawngtlai is in south Mizoram abutting Myanmar, where a component of the project is being implemented over 99 kilometers, linking the district headquarters with Zorinpui at the border.
Currently, as many as eight bridges on the highway in Lawngtlai are yet to be completed. Work on Ruankhum bridge has not yet started as approval from the Guwahati-based Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) is pending on the scheme.
Information disclosed by the Lawngtlai district administration suggests earthwork, bituminous coating, and the approach roads to the bridges have not been completed at various spots along the entire stretch.
An engineer employed with the project claimed that almost 90 percent of the highway has been completed. “But it is difficult to give a timeframe for the completion of the entire project. It has often been delayed due to unexpected circumstances which are beyond our control,” he said.
First conceived in 2003, India and Myanmar signed an agreement for the Kaladan project in 2008. The objective of the project comprising of four segments is to link India’s landlocked northeast with the country’s eastern coast through the southern coast of Myanmar.
The Kaladan project is also considered a vital component of India’s multifaceted Act East Policy, which aims at linking up with Southeast Asia through Myanmar. However, completion of the project has been delayed by over three years due to a combination of several factors.
The long rainy season in the region allows work on the highway only for five months. Fuel and spare parts for construction equipment and machines are sourced from distant locations.
An engineer claimed that there have been occasions in the past when work along certain stretches had come to a grinding halt since machine parts had to be transported from manufacturing units in Gujarat, which is around 3,000 kilometers from Lawngtlai.
These hurdles apart, landowners in Lawngtlai have also been claiming compensation for the land acquired by the government for the project. Some among them have already been paid, but there are others whose claims are yet to be settled. Incidentally, a few cases are currently being examined by the state Anti Corruption Bureau.
Another key segment of the project, a highway that connects Paletwa river terminal to Zorinpui, has been in limbo for the past several months due to the raging conflict between Myanmar’s military (the Tatmadaw) and the rebel Arakan Army.
Last year in November, the rebel group had abducted five Indian nationals engaged with the project. One of the abductees died due to a heart attack; the others were released unharmed. It is learned that the issue came up for discussion during the recent visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane to Myanmar.
Sources claimed that Naypyitaw has assured the delegation of measures it will take for the early resumption of work on the 109 kilometer highway, which passes through rugged terrain and thick forests.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam, India.