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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 16, April 11, 2015

Act East through the North-East

Sunday 12 April 2015, by Jajati K Pattnaik

The ‘Look East Policy’ changed into the ‘Act East Policy’ under the present political dispensation led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This dispensation has called for a robust and result-oriented diplomacy to attain India’s national interest in its Eastern neighbourhood. The piecemeal approach is supposedly replaced by a proactive one to steer the course with a renewed spirit to secure tangible results in geostrategic as well as geo-economic terms. Contextualised in India’s North-East, the policy has remained a mere rhetoric; yet the recent stride has generated a lot of optimism among the academia, policy-makers and other stakeholders in the region for a relook at the policy with a new paradigm.

India’s North-East

India’s North-East, consisting of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim, shares ninetyeight per cent of its land boundary with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Nepal and Myanmar.1 Its resource-rich region is a national asset. The hydroelectric, oil, gas, coal, bio-diversity and agro-silvicultural potentials ‘hold out the promise of national solutions through regional development’ and ‘will add immeasurably to national security in every respect’.2 Despite its potentialities, the region lags behind develop-ment as compared to other regions of India. The reasons are: their remoteness being landlocked States, inadequate access to markets, poor infrastructure and connectivity with the rest of India, problems of land acquisition, extensive use of traditional methods in cultivation, insufficient cold storage for warehouse and transportation, lack of banking institutions to lend credits as well as lack of confidence among the enterprises to search for credits, unaware-ness of markets, competing nature of demands, raw material sourcing, technology, branding and fixing quality standards, huge dependence of educated persons on government jobs or else moving out of the region in search of jobs, negative or shameful attitude towards labour-specific jobs, reliance on local markets and poor telecommunications connectivity.3

Analysing its potentials and constraints, the ‘North-Eastern Vision 2020’ was unveiled to bring in development which inter alia highlighted to strengthen ‘infrastructure, including rail, road, inland water and air transportation to facilitate a two-way movement of people and goods within the region and outside, communication networks including broadband and wireless connectivity’; connect the NER with ASEAN by opening up the sea route through the ‘Chittagong port and the land routes through Myanmar and China’; develop ‘sectors with comparative advantage on agro-processing industries and sericulture’; make ‘investment in manufacturing units based on the resources available in the region’; harness ‘the large hydroelectric power generation potential and focus on developing services such as tourism to accelerate development and create productive employment opportunities’; create space for ‘capacity development to address the issue of imparting skills among the people to enhance their productivity’; generate ‘a class of entre-preneurs within the region willing to take risks;’ ensure ‘adequate flow of resources for public investments in infrastructure’; implement the ‘framework for private participation in augmenting infrastructure’ and build an enabling environment for the flow of investments to harness the physical resources of the region for the welfare of the people’.4 The fulfilment of this vision lies on how effectively the Act East policy is integrated with India’s North-East by developing connectivity corridors as well as addressing the country’s security concerns.

Guwahati-Kunming Corridor 

The Guwahati-Kunming Corridor has huge potentialities which would bring perceptible change in the economy of the North-East. The corridor, through the Stilwell Road,5 is significant for transnational connectivity and sub-regional cooperation. Covering a distance 2276 kilometres, it starts from Guwahati in Assam (India) and goes across Nampong in Arunachal Pradesh (India) and Shindbwiyang, Bhamo and Myitkyina in Kachin (Myanmar) linking the Ledo-Burma road junction through Wanding and Yunnanyi to the city of Kunming in (China). 

Guwahati-Kunming Corridor
Road Distance in KM
Guwahati (India) 0
Jorhat 315
Tinsukia 483
Ledo (India) 540
Jairampur 564
Nampong 587
Singbiwityang (Myanmar) 716
Warazup 844
Myitkyina 1003
Bhamo 1136
Wanding (China) 1356
Lungling 1441
Paoshan 1589
Yongping 1755
Yunnanyi 1949
Tsuyung 2083
Kunming 2276

Source: ‘Guwahati—Kunming Corridor through the Stilwell Road’, Materials collected by the author from his field trip to Tinsukia-Ledo-Nampong Sector on November 30, 2014.

The Myanmar Government assigned the contract to the Yunnan Construction Engineering Group of China to reconstruct the 312 kilometres-road from Myitkyina in Myanmar to Pangsau Pass in the India-Myanmar border. The rebuilding of the Mytikyina-Pangsau Pass would reduce the cost of transport near about 30 per cent benefiting India, Myanmar and China for bilateral as well as multilateral trade.6 Generally, goods from North-East India are brought through road and railways of the narrow Siliguri corridor to Kolkata covering near about 1600 kilometres and then trans-shipped through the Strait of Malacca to South-East Asia and China. The present route takes near about seven days for the landing of cargo whereas the same consignment through the Stilwell route can land in Myanmar and China in less than two days.7

India pronounced its segment of Stilwell Road as National Highway 153 in October 2000 after having a joint conference with Bangladesh, China and Myanmar in Kunming in 1999. China, in order to strengthen its free trade regime with the ASEAN neighbours, has renovated its own segment of roadways through six-lane Highways from the city of Kunming. Moreover, Beijing is also looking ahead to connect Kunming with Singapore through three trunk-lines traversing Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, and is also upbeat to complete a high-speed rail network connecting Kunming with Singapore through the domestic railways of ASEAN by 2015.8 In the event these infrastructures are fully commissioned, then goods from Singapore can directly reach Nampong, Ledo and other parts of North-East India through the Kunming-Singapore Trunk Road or Kunming-Singapore railways and vice versa.9

Addressing Security Concerns 

The academia, media and political leadership of the region have raised the voice of support for the Guwahati-Kunming corridor by opening the Stilwell Road for cross-border economic cooperation. Albeit there are a few concerns regarding its opportunities. The first security concern of India is that in case the Guwahati-Kunming Corridor through the Stilwell Road is opened, then the region will be swamped with cheap Chinese goods.

This is true. The ground reality also speaks how of late ‘foreign-made’ goods have made strong inroads into North-East India’s markets at the cost of domestic products.10 The customs officials also acknowledge such transactions. ‘’There is no way to prevent it in such a hostile market situation. The Chinese produce quality items and flood them in the market. Their tax structure is also helping the traders.’’11 Thus, this kind of economic threat perception cannot be denied given the nature of easy overflow of Chinese goods into the markets of the North-East. However, this security concern can be addressed by identifying its specific resources and establishing supply-oriented industries to meet the demands of India’s bordering regions in Bangladesh, South-West China and Myanmar.

In this connection, it would be noteworthy to point out that special economic zones should be developed in the North-East and potentialities of the region in pharmaceuticals and petroche-micals (2P) + (5H) hydro, herbal, horticulture, handicraft and handloom + (1T) tourism should be explored by tapping cross-border synergies. However, both the government as well as civil society of the region would have to make conscious and sustained efforts to generate a pro-investment climate and dispel the lacklustre attitude towards investment. This proposition would remain a mere utopia unless the economies of the region undergo structural reforms with the free play of the market forces. The region has just remained a consumption centre; it has not yet emerged as a productive one. Thus, the Guwahati-Kunming corridor can be taken up only when the economies of the North-East come up with specific manufacturing products and earn India’s brand image across the border by capturing the neighbouring markets, specifically in China.

The second security concern is that India’s North-East shares border with the insurgency-ridden North-West Myanmar—a safe haven for the NE insurgent groups in Myanmar.12 How can cross-border trade sustain in this corridor which passes through this region? But this problem can be resolved through multipronged strategies. The first step is to exploit the geo-economic situation for cross-border trade and connectivity to bring in inclusive development while integrating the marginalised sections into the economic mainstream. The second step is to secure peace constituencies across the border-lands which are afflicted with insurgencies. In this respect, both India and Myanmar should generate a congenial atmosphere through back-channel methods and sustain the dialogue process with their respective insurgent groups in order to bring them back into the social mainstream-Moreover, the academia and civil society organisations across the borders should intensify their efforts for the peace building process through the engagement paradigm.

The third security concern is that if the Guwahati-Kunming corridor is materialised for any sub-regional cooperation such as the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM), Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Greater Mekong Sub-region Cooperation (GMS), then drugs and small arms may sneak into the North-East in huge quantities jeopardising the peace and stability of the region. Myanmar, located in the opium producing golden triangle, acts as the only land bridge to such regional/sub-regional cooperation and in the event of cross-border trade, the Guwahati-Kunming corridor may be transformed into a potential drug corridor. Hence, the geographical proximity might have negative repercussions for the region, and there is a possibility of connivance between the drug traffickers, organised criminals and insurgent groups for illegal arms trading, which might pose a challenge to India’s national security. Experts working in this field have observed: “Narcotics and contraband firearms are regularly trafficked across the unmanned border as the routes of Western Myanmar are controlled by India’s North-East insurgents. In recent years, Manipur has witnessed huge quantities of contraband high Pseudoephedrine Hydrochloride (PH)-content drugs, manufactured in India, being trafficked into Myanmar for processing narcotics, especially heroin. The thriving ethnic insurgencies of Manipur with their own ‘tax structure’ help to exacerbate the problem. Pseudoephedrine is smuggled from New Delhi to Myanmar and China via Guwahati by conduits based in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.”13

However, this problem can be addressed by reinforcing joint surveillance mechanisms and intensifying border patrolling between India and Myanmar to check the illegal entry of drugs and psychotropic substances. It is relevant here to mention that the Memorandum of Under-standing (MOU) signed between India and Myanmar this year to share intelligence information, synchronise patrolling across the international border, exchange information for combating insurgency, arms smuggling and drug trafficking and initiate measures for foiling illegal cross-border movements, if realised in the true spirit, would ensure ‘peace, stability and security’ across the international border.14

To recapitulate the discussion, it can be argued that ‘Act East through the North-East’, imple-mented in the right perspective, would bolster the geo-economic significance of the region and fetch huge dividends in terms of its Vision Document facilitating India’s economic relations with its Eastern neighbours in the long run. However, India’s security dilemma cannot be totally wiped out and as a consequence, the AEP is to be continuously reviewed protecting the country’s national interest for the benefit of all the stakeholders in the region.


1. North Eastern Vision 2020’, Ministry of Development of North-Eastern region, Government of India, New Delhi, http://www.mdoner.gov.in/sites/default/files/silo2_content/ner_vision/Vision_2020.pdf Accessed on January 14, 2014.

2. S.P. Shukla, “Transforming the North-East, High Level Commission Report to the Prime Minister”, Planning Commission of India, Government of India, New Delhi March 7, 1997. http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/ne_exe.pdf Accessed on October 1, 2013.

3. ‘Skills Gap study of the North-East’, National Skill Development Corporation, India, http://www.nsdcindia. org/pdf/sikkim-sg.pdf Accessed on March 1, 2014.

4. n.1.

5. The Stilwell Road is named after the American General, Joseph W. Stilwell who undertook the responsibility of constructing the project in December 1942 as an alternative conduit of supply route for carrying men and materials to the Japanese occupied China during the last part of World War II. For details see, Kishan S. Rana and Patricia Uberoi, ‘The BCIM Forum and Regional Integration’, Monograph, The Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, vol. 1, 2012, p. 37, http://www.icsin.org/ICS/ICSMonographs/pdf/1.pdf Accessed on June 23, 2014.

6. Sudha Ramachandran, “Stilwell Road to be Reborn”, Asia Times,http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/MA12Df03.html Accessed on May 2, 2012.

7. Ibid.

8. Ashiq U Zaman, “Stilwell Road: Connecting Future”,

Seven Sisters Post, May 15, 2012

9. Ibid.

10. ‘Chinese Goods Swamp North-East India’, http://www. rediff.com/business/1998/aug/04negood.htm Accessed on October 24, 2014.

11. Ibid.

12. Subir Bhaumik, ‘Guns, Drugs and Rebels’, http://www.india-seminar.com/2005/550/550%20subir%20 bhaumik.htm Accessed on November 22, 2014.

13. Namrata Goswami, ‘Drugs and the Golden Triangle: Renewed Concerns for Northeast India’,http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/DrugsandtheGoldenTriangle_ ngoswami_100214.html Accessed on November 21, 2014.

14. ‘India and Myanmar Sign Memorandum of Understanding on Border Cooperation’, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi, http://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/23315/India +and+Myanmar+sign+Memorandum+of+ Understanding +on+Border+Cooperation Accessed on November 22, 2014.

Dr Jajati K. Pattnaik is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Indira Gandhi Government College, Tezu (Arunachal Pradesh). He was a Visiting Scholar at the Gulf Studies Programme, Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.