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Look East, think North-East

Imagine that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's vision of an Asian Economic Community, which he outlined at the East Asia Summit, comes true — countries of the entire region trading with one another unimpeded by barriers, their goods moving with ease up and down a corridor beginning in China and India through to the countries of South-East Asia and moving east to Japan and Korea. Some of this is already happening. Now imagine how much more leverage India would have in terms of sheer logistics for such a leap if the North-East were developed as a major manufacturing and redistribution hub, backed by all the required infrastructure. The region shares its borders more with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and China than with India. If the first step towards realising Prime Minister Singh's vision is for India to enter into a free trade agreement with the Association of South East Asian Nations, the foundation has to be the solid development of the North-East so that it can fullfil its potential as the springboard for this dream engagement. This cannot happen unless policy makers first line up all their ducks. For one, it means better connectivity between the seven States of the North-East and the rest of India. At present, aside from scratchy air links, this is restricted to a 37-km wide corridor at Siliguri in West Bengal. As an alternative, New Delhi is negotiating a project with the Myanmar military junta for a sea-link between Kolkata and the Sittwe port. This would give India easy access both to the North-East and the countries of ASEAN. A transport lane through Bangladesh would be quicker, and it entails ironing out fundamental difficulties in the bilateral relationship between New Delhi and Dhaka.

That's not all. The plan also demands that India shed traditional security and trade fears to participate in initiatives to establish better links with ASEAN and the East through its North-East. The Chinese Government, for instance, has made no secret that it wants the old Stilwell Road reopened but New Delhi's response is less than enthusiastic. Built in the 1940s, the road connects Kunming, the capital of China's Yunan province to Ledo in Assam, with most of the 1,736-km road running through Myanmar. India has a separate road project to link the North-East to Thailand via Myanmar, and a rail link connecting Manipur with Yangon. But the restoration of the Stilwell road would provide more connectivity and help the North-East emerge as a major transit centre for trade with ASEAN and as a new point in the saturated tourist market of South East Asia. It is for these reasons that Thailand, with which India has a free trade agreement, is also interested in the possible reopening of this old route. For the North-East, the deal would mean employment, infrastructure, and capacity-building. The future, as outlined by Mr. Manmohan Singh, is bristling with challenges and opportunities. India must use them or get left out.

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