A recent visit to Myanmar by the Foreign Secretary of India, Harsh Vardhan Shringla and the Chief of the Army Staff of the Indian Army, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, on 4th and 5th October, 2020, should be backed by people-centric initiatives for fostering future economic ties. Advantageously, consensus towards an early operationalisation of the Sittwe Port and India’s offer of $6 billion for establishing an oil refinery and for joint vaccine production, among others, are some promising steps.
Likewise, with a bilateral trade worth $1.5 billion in 2019-20, the decision to import 150,000 tonnes of urad dal from Myanmar is a win-win proposition for both the countries. It is time for bilateral mechanisms such as the Joint Trade Committee to shape their future ties with people at the centre stage.
A glimpse to the proximity
Myanmar is flanked by the Northeast Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland with a shared border of 1,643 kilometres. The land-locked nature of these states becomes a myth when we look at their connectivity through Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal. This provides opportunities to develop and institutionalise the massive land, coastal and inland waterways transport and transit linkages, which existed for centuries.
As respective gateways to South Asia and Southeast Asia for each other, India and Myanmar should place a greater importance to their bilateral relations. Myanmar’s independent, active and non-aligned foreign policy augurs well with the objectives of India’s Act East Policy and Neighbourhood First Policy.
Bridging the border and transit linkages
Their cross-border trade mechanism is equipped with trade and immigration facilities at the Tamu-Moreh and the Rihkhawdar-Zowkhawthar border posts. There are other border posts but the demand for providing similar facilities near the Pangsau Pass in Nampong is getting increasingly vocal.
Furthermore, in accordance with the 2018 Bilateral Land Border Crossing Agreement, free movement of the local people within 16 kilometres of the respective border with a border pass is allowed. It enables a better access to the Burmese people from across the border to India’s healthcare infrastructure, among other facilities.
Similarly, there are demands for establishing border haats with adequate bio-security measures so as to enhance the livelihoods of tribal communities and other marginalised population. The impact of border haats in respect to enhancing people-to-people connectivity between India and Bangladesh has been quite remarkable. India-Myanmar border haats together with trading posts and transit infrastructure linkages can potentially transform the border areas as an epitome of shared prosperity on the ground.
For establishing a better connectivity, alternative and complementary infrastructure linkages between India and Bangladesh can serve as a template for India and Myanmar to follow. Despite an initial halt to bilateral trade via land border as a result of the pandemic, India-Bangladesh trade has started to pick up again owing to the availability of functional riverine and railway routes.
This underlies the importance of fostering diversified connectivity linkages both for the continuity of business and safeguarding jobs and livelihoods. Moreover, they should finalise a trilateral (along with Thailand) motor vehicles agreement and resume the bus service between Imphal and Mandalay in a bio-secured manner.
Keeping this in mind, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project can be a game changer as unique inter-modal linkages will become available. With the Sittwe Port in the offing, the two countries could also consider a bilateral coastal shipping pact. Among others, that will also attract Bhutan and Nepal to diversify their infrastructure access linkages.
Galvanising the relationship
With the advent of popular democracy and as Myanmar is normalising its relations with the rest of the world, India’s assistance in providing humanitarian and socio-economic infrastructure and skill development support, among others, has been consistent. With its democratic credentials, India is well positioned to help Myanmar transform its image.
Towards that goal, the two countries should collectively map the existing and potential opportunities and bring them to the attention of the global investment community. Their potential of exploring complementary linkages in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, information technology and telecommunication infrastructure, traditional and renewable energy, among others, can present a compelling case for commodity-linked, export-oriented investment.
Therefore, it is an imperative for the two countries to jointly explore their efforts towards accelerating bilateral, regional connectivity, improving market access, banking and financial cooperation, tourism and security cooperation, etc. Institutionalisation of a Track-2 dialogue process between their think-tanks and community-based organisations will galvanise bilateral trade and economic ties with people at the centre stage.
(Bipul Chatterjee is Executive Director, CUTS International and Prashant Sharma is Assistant Director, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulations and governance)