Seamless causeways in North East: The Indo-Japanese way

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It was during a seminar on India and Japan that this author opened his speech by invoking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s elegantly terming the North East as “Ashta Lakshmi”, or the eight forms of our culture’s Goddess of Wealth. Indeed, since there were senior delegates from Japan in the assemblage, Modi thought it correct to compare Lakshmi with the Japanese Daikoku, the sixth pair alongside Ebisu in the Japanese Shichi Fukujin, or the Seven Gods of Fortune. The comparisons of the two deities of the two cultures may not have been too apt, but this author nevertheless succeeded in stating that both Modi’s “Ashta Lakshmi” and Daikoku were coming together to bring forth good fortune to both India and Japan.

The discussion and interaction between the two nations were about the crucial aspects pertaining to connectivity. The North East is the most important land bridge to India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood. Indeed, with the replacement of the old “Look East Policy” with the new and novel “Act East” Policy, India’s engagement via the North East would be much wider. It is expected that with a new thoroughfare via Bangladesh, the region would have a reach all the way to the entire Asia-Pacific region, indeed Japan. Work has begun in earnest to construct the crucial arteries, the roads that would connect the two expanses, but much needs to be done and the call was one of patience. After all, the fifth form of “Ashta Lakshmi” is “Dhairya Lakshmi”, which stands for “patience, strategy, planning and objectivity”.

It must be noted that 67 billion yen worth of Official Development Assistance (ODA) loan projects was earmarked for improvement of road network and connectivity in the North East region, and Mizoram and Meghalaya were the two fortune firsts of the North Eastern states. The two road projects: the two laning from Aizawl to Tuipang in Mizoram (380 Km) and another two laning from Tura to Dalu in Meghalaya (48 Km) were being worked upon in right earnest and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is working closely with the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (NHIDCL) and other Indian construction agencies and it is expected that detailed project reports for rest of the states would also soon see the light of day. However, a few points require reiteration.

  1. Correct imagination necessitates that construction of roads be complemented with continual maintenance. Future bilateral engagements between the two nations must allow for maintenance of the roads that companies like JICA would have built by JICA itself or their Japanese franchises. This author has been in the Board of Directors of Assam Electricity Grid Corporation Ltd and knows, for instance, that Fuji Electricals of Japan which constructed the turbines for the Karbi-Longpi Hydel Project in Assam regularly visit the site to carry out maintenance work. Therefore, the visualisation is that some force multiplying spin-offs would happen in the road building enterprise as well. Japanese road maintenance hubs would dot the North East’s highways and with it may come Japanese Sushi outlets. With the fetish that the North Easterner has for fish, this tourism-like endeavour would literally swim and thrive like the Samurai Crab. So, the plea was for the consideration of a “Build-Operate-Maintain” sort of a plan as a future strategy.
  1. The North Eastern states must take advantage of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 to mitigate the threat of landslides which occur every year in the region.
  1. There have been reportedly some disagreements between JICA and NHIDCL about cost involvement, about the manner in which environment and social impact assessment are being carried out and even about the technique that is to be adopted. It was expected that these would soon be ironed out, but even the non-technical mind of this author fathomed that the adoption of the latest “slope protection techniques & methods to balance cut and fill volumes” was best suited for the North Eastern terrain, a technique which the Japanese have mastered.
  1. Three phases have been earmarked for road construction and improvement. [First: NH 54 (Mizoram) & NH 51 (Meghalaya)/ Second: NH 127B, NH 40 NH 53, NH 39/ Third: NH 62, NH 102A & NH 44] There is some talk about JICA’s reluctance about the third phase because the Japanese have expressed some apprehension about a corruption case in one of the sectors. It is recommended that the Surface Transport Ministry should look into the apprehensions and take corrective steps without delay. Also, it was opined by this author that JICA should step into the crucial East-West Corridor as also aid the railway network in the North East. The NEFR network comprises a route of only 2,600 km, of which 1,454 km is on BG (mostly in Assam) and the remaining in MG. Japan can aid in the Gauge Conversion & Double Lining process in a big way.
  1. Bullet train capability for the North East should be the future objective of New Delhi. Now that SHINKANSEN is beginning work on such a link for the distance between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, it was appealed that a feasibility study is instituted for a bullet train between Dibrugarh to Delhi. As a matter of fact, a case was also made for All Nippon Airways to start a helicopter service in the inaccessible areas of the North East.
  1. Japanese expertise in building durable and environmentally sustainable roads on tough mountainous terrain is known throughout the world. However, there is some apprehension among the Japanese about taking up construction work in Arunachal Pradesh, a state which is an integral part of India, and a state where sturdy, sustainable roads is needed the most, especially in the construction of the Trans-Arunachal Pradesh Highway from Tawang to Kanubari [NH1412] which would interlink 11 district HQs. India’s so-called “territorial dispute” with China should have nothing to do with Japanese construction exercises in the strategic state. As far as India is concerned, Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and not a single inch of land would ever be given away to China. Therefore, a clear rethink of the Japanese consideration to keep off Arunachal Pradesh should, therefore, be decisively made. It is not understood as to why a comprehensive briefing is not provided to allies like Japan about firm Indian stand on baseless Chinese territorial claims on Indian territory. Such misperception squarely stops at the doors of India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

Once we have defeated inhospitable terrain, overcome odds and ousted apprehensions of sinister Chinese territorial design for the North East, it would be the beginning of seamless travel from Dimapur all the way to Tokyo.

The author is a conflict analyst and author of several best-selling books on security and strategy. Views expressed are personal.

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Seamless causeways in North East: The Indo-Japanese way
Seamless causeways in North East: The Indo-Japanese way
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