Our gracious host, Chief Minister, Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma,
My Bangladeshi colleague, Dr. AK Abdul Momen,
Dignitaries on the podium,
Members of Parliament,
Shri Bezbaruah ji, Chairman, Governing Council, Asian Confluence
Colleagues past and present, Dear Friends,
It is a great pleasure to be back in Guwahati for the NADI conference and I must congratulate the organisers, Asian Confluence, who in partnership with the Government of Assam and the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, have put together what promises to be a very focused and stimulating gathering.
2. Conversations help to create change and thoughts about confluences certainly encourage plans of cooperation. So there is a lot before all of you to ponder. As many of the speakers have said before me, Nadi is life and it is but natural that human civilizations all developed on the banks of rivers. And from those habitations arose commerce, which reflected the exchanges of goods and services between them. For that to happen, distances needed to be traversed as smoothly and securely as possible. And therein lay the importance of connectivity to history. It was the pathways that facilitated mobility and migration which determined its course. Who used them, who dominated them, who leveraged them, who blocked them-these have been the ups and downs of societies and nations over time. Nadi itself was often the connectivity. And today, as we gather alongside one of the great rivers that courses our lands, how to connect peoples more effectively is an appropriate subject to discuss. The extent of success in doing so will determine our prosperity and we carry forward our deliberations bearing in mind that connectivity, commerce, culture and capacities are the core objectives of the Asian Confluence.
3. Better connectivity is central to improving the ease of doing business and the ease of living, both key priorities of the Modi Government. When done with imagination and on scale, it can actually have repercussions far beyond the immediate issues of the day. So with Guwahati as the location, let us consider the enormous promise that it holds-not just for the region and our neighbours, but even for the geographies beyond. To comprehend that fully, ponder for a moment on the impediments that we need to overcome. The most formidable and long standing are the physical barriers of topography. But, then as we have increasingly come to realize, these can be solved by engineering and human ingenuity. There are then the human-made obstacles. The outcomes of choices that we ourselves have made in the past. These are best addressed by a vision that realizes the shared gains offered by regional cooperation. And when it comes to the process of connecting, then the broader our definition of that bonding, the more effective will be its impact. Connectivity may have started with roads and waterways or as the Minister said, river-roads. But, today, we also conceptualize it as power grids and data corridors, education and tourism and as energy flows and cultural contacts. In fact, anything that connects is connectivity.
4. Now what happens when we are successful? And that is not a hypothetical question because we can already see before us evidence of some progress. For a start, an India that is more connected to the North East and the North East that is more connected to India’s neighbours will mean a complete transformation of the regional economy. Instead of being regarded as a frontier, it will emerge as a hub in itself. Its resources and skills will have a larger and more ready markets. The supply lines -in and out- will be shorter. The outlets to global access would be diverse and manifold. The intensity of economic activity will rapidly deepen because it will capture many more segments. Bear in mind too that in the long history of the Indian subcontinent, its high points were periods when the east was the most prosperous. Today too, our national resurgence is directly connected to the economic revival of the East. The coming together therefore of the Act East and the Neighbourhood First policies have an enormous reinforcing impact. And it is one that extends beyond the confines of South Asia. The realization of the potential of BIMSTEC is one example and the Thai Vice Minister spoke about it. It is one example that will change the Bay of Bengal. But think what happens if land connectivity through Myanmar and a sea connectivity through Bangladesh become viable. On a commercial scale, a world all the way to Vietnam and Philippines, from Haiphong to Hazira and from Manila to Mundra will open up, creating an east-west lateral with sweeping consequences for the continent. It will not only build on the partnerships that we have with the ASEAN and Japan, but would actually make a difference to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that is now in the making. It is definitely within our ability to overcome geography and rewrite near history if only we can get the policies and the economics right. And as the Chief Minister pointed out, we can draw strength from the far history in this regard. So let us see how this vision can be achieved in real life on the ground.
5. The starting point, I believe, is enhancing connectivity with the Bangladesh, especially with the North East. The restoration of six historical cross-border rail links, dormant since 1965 is one major step. Once operational, the Shahabazpur (Bangladesh) to Mahishasan (Assam) link will be extended within Bangladesh and connected to the Kuluara-Shahbazpur rail line currently being modernised using an Indian line of credit (LoC). Inaugurated in December 2020, the Chilahati-Haldibari (West Bengal) line will further enhance Assam’s connectivity to Bangladesh through New Jalpaiguri, including passenger traffic. A new rail link from Akhaura (Bangladesh) to Agartala (Tripura) too is being developed under grant assistance and we all know that this is already increasing trade between India and Bangladesh.
6. Overland movement of goods is taking place using 28 notified Land Customs Stations (LCSs) and three Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) along the border. The Maitree Bridge over the river Feni connects Sabroom (Tripura) to Ramgarh (Bangladesh) and was opened by the Prime Ministers of the two countries in March of 2021. Negotiations are also underway to operationalise the BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement to ensure seamless vehicular movement.
7. Inside Bangladesh, India is collaborating on a series of road projects, including improving the Ashuganj River Port-Akhaura Land Port Road under an LoC of more than US$ 400 million. The road project connecting Baruerhat to Ramgarh on the India-Bangladesh border, which will increase Tripura’s road connectivity with Bangladesh, is also being implemented under another LoC of US$ 80.06 million.
8. The intricate and intertwined cross-border geography is being synergised by agreements on movement of goods from Indian ports through Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh, and from there overland to Tripura and other parts of the Northeast. The Protocol on Inland Waterways Transit and Trade, which both the Chief Minister and the Foreign Minister spoke about, offers similar potential, using 10 specific routes along shared and intersecting river systems. On February 5 this year, a cargo vessel, and again the Chief Minister I think mentioned that, carrying 200 metric tonnes of food grains sailed from Patna in Bihar to Pandu in Assam using the inland waterways of India and Bangladesh. So remember, transits benefit not only the two ends, but the middle even more as it would see an economic activity that could not be envisaged earlier.
9. The success of four border haats between India and Bangladesh in the period before the pandemic has spurred enthusiasm. This encouraged us to setup three new haats in Meghalaya, inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Bangladesh in March 2021. Nine new haats are being set up, three in Meghalaya, four in Tripura and two in Assam. Cross-border power transmission lines and digital connectivity infrastructure offer additional dimensions of connectivity. Today 1160 MW are already being supplied and 1500 MW more are already in the pipeline from India to Bangladesh. The international gateway between Agartala and Cox’s Bazar is helping provide faster Internet access and broadband services in Tripura. We will be reviewing all these developments and more at the Joint Consultative Commission Meeting with my Bangladesh counterpart in mid-June.
10. The emerging collaborative regional economy includes Nepal and Bhutan as well. A six-lane bridge across the river Mechi connects Panitanki in West Bengal to Kakarbhitta in Nepal. It marks the passage of the Asian Highway 02 from India to Nepal. A road connecting Sikkim to eastern Nepal via the Chiwa Bhanjyang border is also under construction as part of India’s Border Area Development Programme. With its completion, Sikkim will have access to Nepal’s East-West Highway, with a boost to trade and tourism in both countries. The game changing potential is evident.
11. Hydropower too offers great scope for cooperation, and this is relevant even more in an era of climate action. There is an established tradition in this regard between Bhutan and India and a rapidly emerging one now between Nepal and India. From the North East perspective, a hydropower station in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh has been supplying 150 MW of hydropower to Nepal. We are Nepal’s largest trade partner and a significant supplier of petroleum products from facilities in Assam and West Bengal. A pipeline from Siliguri to Jhapa in Nepal is being explored. And with the launching of RuPay cards, Nepal is getting integrated with the Indian fintech and payment systems. Prime Minister’s visit to Lumbini this month was the most recent occasion to take our cooperation with Nepal forward.
12. Where India-Bhutan relations are concerned, its proximity and mutualism is best illustrated by the Manas forest, part of a spectacular biosphere that stretches from here in Assam to Bhutan. The border is also a hub for bilateral trade and through 10 Land Custom Stations in Assam and West Bengal. Specific benefits flow from local strengths and comparative advantages. Sikkim, for example, is collaborating with Bhutan towards achieving 100 per cent organic status, with the objective of boosting agri-production and organic trade. A pilot launch of Bhutanese products in big Indian retail outlets in Guwahati, Kolkata and New Delhi is on the anvil. Meghalaya began exporting low-ash non-coking coal to Bhutan in June 2021. A greenfield oxygen plant has been set up at the Motanga Industrial Estate in Bhutan with 49 per cent FDI from Meghalaya Oxygen. Commissioned in October 2021, the plant has already started exporting liquid oxygen to Assam.
13. Now all these are practical illustrations of a future that without exaggeration is buzzing with promise. We are looking at the feasibility of creating a cross-border rail line between Bhutan and India, running through Assam or expanding the Buddhist circuit to connect cherished religious destinations in Bhutan and Nepal to those in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
14. The development of infrastructure on the India-Myanmar border also serves multiple economic, people-to-people and security imperatives. The ICP in Moreh (Manipur), just across from Tamu (Myanmar), supports the movement of goods and people. The LCS at Zowkhawthar (Mizoram) is already operational. A proposal for the construction of ICP Tamu as a mirror facility to ICP Moreh has been approved.
15. The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project is the most significant of those that we have undertaken in Myanmar. It is also one of the hardest, both because of topography and because of insurgency. The project includes a waterway component of 158 km on the river Kaladan, from Sittwe to Paletwa, and a road component of a 109 km from Paletwa to Zorinpui, on the India-Myanmar border in Mizoram. Efforts are underway to make Sittwe Port operational at the earliest. But let me be frank about where we are. We have genuinely struggled with this very complex enterprise but are more determined than ever to spare no effort in getting it done.
16. India is undertaking two projects as part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway – connecting Moreh to Moe Sot in Thailand, through Myanmar. Being implemented under a grant, these envisage upgrading 69 bridges in the Tamu-Kalewa-Kyigone sector and the 120 km Kalewa-Yargi sector. Separately, a bridge from Mizoram to Myanmar, across the river Bainu, will be built under a US$ 2 million Government of India grant. Modernisation of the existing Bailey bridge that runs from LCS Rihkhawdar in Myanmar to LCS Zowkhawthar in Mizoram is being considered. Border haats with Myanmar are being built or operationalised at multiple locations in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. Additionally, power and digital connectivity corridors from Manipur to Myanmar are already functional and proving to be immensely helpful to the communities on both sides of the border. All these are surely consequential. But just for a moment, step back and think bigger. What happens when the North East, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar get more deeply intertwined? Each of them stands to benefit from more access, opportunities, resources, and markets. These endeavours will literally bring the ASEAN closer to us.
17. Given the prioritisation of the Northeast by the Modi government, it is only obvious that we should work with our most trusted global partners. In 2017, we launched the India-Japan Act East Forum as a platform to bring together all stakeholders and coordinate planning and implementation of projects being undertaken with Japanese assistance. These cover projects in domains as diverse as road and highway connectivity, renewable energy, forest management, urban amenities and strengthening healthcare systems.
18. During Prime Minister Kishida's visit to India just this March for the Annual Summit, the two Prime Ministers launched an "Initiative for Sustainable Development of North Eastern Region of India” as an over-arching framework for enhancing cooperation in new areas such as healthcare, B2B ties, disaster management and skill development.
19. An important element of this Initiative is a programme for "Strengthening Bamboo Value Chain in the North East”. It aims to develop the region as a centre of innovation and design for bamboo-based products. Skill development to train and equip young talent from the Northeast for the Japanese market is another important thrust area. There is a proposal from the Nursing Council of India, for example, to introduce Japanese language courses in nursing colleges in the Northeast, as also a proposal to bring Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers to select institutions in this region. Proficiency in the Japanese language would enable skilled youth of this region to be deployed in Japan under the Technical Intern Training Programme or even to seek employment in Japan as Specified Skilled Workers, once the enabling mechanism is implemented.
20. So my message to you today is that, diplomacy is not just about bridging positions through wordsmithery. It is equally about bridging societies through projects. It is about connectivity, it is about contacts, it is about cooperation. I have today the privilege of both sharing some big picture thoughts on what regional cooperation has to offer as well as detailing activities that make it possible. It is only fitting that I do so in Guwahati in the presence of the Chief Minister. The participation of my Bangladeshi counterpart only highlights the indispensable role of his nation as a partner in this regard. Equally relevant is the presence of ASEAN Ambassadors with us. They too should I hope take away from this meeting a good sense of what all of this means to our future. And the presence of our Japanese colleagues brings out the catalytic role that our Quad partner can play. So once again, I thank you for providing me the opportunity to set all of this forth and wish you a productive conference. Thank you very much
May 28, 2022