The dissolution of Soviet Union and end of cold war had major political implication onIndia. In terms of broadening relations, it shifted India's focus from the west to itsneighbors in South East Asia. The historical linkage between India and Southeast Asia interms of geography, culture, and trade has been well known. The former Prime MinisterP.V. Narasimha Rao initiation of the 'Look East Policy (LEP) in 1992' intended toreinforce this economic relation with its neighbors through liberalizing its economy.
With the UPA government in power again, PM Narendra Modi has placed new vigor onthe LEP in a deliberate effort of 'not just to look east but to engage east and act east'.Modi's redefined version of 'Act East Policy' (AEP) launched in 2014, aimed for 'a moreactive economic engagement and speedy implementation of the programme and policies'(MEA, 2016). But, despite in existence for twenty-five years, the policy has failed tosubstantially developed India's Northeast region infrastructure.
Importance of Infrastructure Development in Northeast
India's northeast occupies a strategic location in the region. While a narrow strip of landconstituting just about 2 percent links the northeast region with the rest of India, it sharesinternational boundaries with South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.Similarly, India shares border with East Asian state of China and with ASEAN memberof Myanmar through Arunachal Pradesh (520km), Manipur (398km), Nagaland (215km), and Mizoram (510km). It assumes a critical position in the LEP through its potentialof integrating India's economy with what is beyond doubt the fastest growing anddynamic region in the world.
The development of northeast region is merged into the policy as it is expected to provideeasier transport connections to Southeast Asian markets. Former Minister of ExternalAffairs, Pranab Mukherjee in 2007 had been the first to publicly acknowledge thedevelopment of northeast region as of paramount importance for attaining comprehensivesub-regional objectives.Look East/Act East Policy Initiatives
The second phase of the LEP has brought the Northeast region in the forefront. LEP'sobjective predominantly remained economic engagement through focusing ongeographical proximity of the regions (Bhattacharjee, 2016: 3). AEP, on the other hand,has gradually acquired political, cultural and strategic significance. On economicengagement with ASEAN, AEP prioritizes regional integration and implementation ofprojects (MEA, 2015). Hence, the crux of both LEP and AEP objectives remain the sameentailing the development of India's northeastern region.
On the policy front, LEP has ushered in massive development projects having economicdividend for northeast. Modi's reiteration of AEP was to pro-actively pursue the policyand work to improve infrastructure in northeast.
The proposal to link Northeast region with Asian Highway, Asian Railway and NaturalGas pipeline was undertaken during the tenure of Narasimha Rao Presently, AsianHighway 1 or Ah-1 is the only road link with Myanmar. However, the road is insecureand poorly maintained (Downie, 2015).
The railway system of India and Myanmar are planned to be linked at the Dibrugarhrailhead, giving northeast access to the Asian Railway link (North East Vision 2020: 264)The construction of railway line from Jiribam- Imphal-Moreh (Manipur) and Tamu-Kaley-Segyi line in Myanmar would add up to the New Delhi- Hanoi railway linkinitiated in 2003. Both countries are yet to have an operational rail link with 34%progress since its execution in 2004 (MoDoNER, 2013).
In 2012 construction of India-Thailand-Myanmar (IMT) trilateral road system stretchingfrom 3,200 kilometers from Moreh in India to Thailand's Maesot via Myanmar's Tamu,Mandalay and Myawaddy would gain access to Asian Highway once implemented(ASEAN Briefing, 2017). To this end, the UPA government constructed only the Tamu-Kalewa Friendship road in 2012. As part of AEP, Modi plan to propose extending IMT toCambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam.
Furthermore, India and Myanmar signed MoU in 2012 for construction of 80 km Rhi-Tiddim road from Rhi (Mizoram) to Tiddim (Myanmar). It has the potential to entirelylink Aizawl (Mizoram) to Mandalay (Myanmar) and with the rest of the route fromKalemyo following the IMT trilateral highway (Seshadri, 2014: 25).
The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport project was started as a part of the LEP,based on a bilateral agreement between the Government of India and Myanmar in April2008. It envisaged a transit route through the eastern Indian ports in Kolkata to Sittweseaport in Myanmar for shipment of cargo. It also links Sittwe to the landlocked area ofMizoram through Kaladan river and road transport. Under Modi's AEP, a revised costestimate of Rs. 2904.04 for continued implementation of the Kaladan Multi ModalTransit Transport Project in Myanmar was approved (Government of India, 2015).
Much awaited bus service from Imphal-Mandalay appeared to be faced with majorimpediments. PM Narendra Modi had signed an agreement with its leaders to construct71 bridges along the road where the Indian buses will ply. The Myanmar government hasstarted construction of two bridges. The Union cabinet has also sanctioned Rs.371.58crore for constructing the remaining 69 bridges (Eastern Mirror, 2016).
Besides physical connectivity, both India and Myanmar have signed Air Servicesagreement in 2012 to enhance direct flight connectivity under PM Manmohan Singh.Moreover, India has Open Sky Policy in air cargo for a long time. Currently, there is nodirect flight to Yangon from northeast, with only one direct flight to Yangon fromKolkata that flies twice a week (MoDoNER, 2011: 18).
The account of outlining the various connectivity initiatives in Look East and Act EastPolicy is mainly to exhibit: one, in both phases the development of India's northeastregion is a pre-requisite to attain its far-reaching aims of regional integration withASEAN. Hence, the necessity has been felt for a long time. Secondly, majorinfrastructure projects were initiated as part of LEP. Also, there has been flurry ofmeetings in a bid to formulate "Act East". Nonetheless, of LEP/AEP operations havebeen repeatedly delayed reflecting a complex array of factors.Impediments to Policy Implementation
The delay in executing concrete infrastructural development in the northeast is affectedby three main factors.
One of the major constraints is poor infrastructure within the northeast region. Limitedroad link has also isolated it from the rest of the country as well as the cross borderregion. In terms of quality of road in this region, merely 29 percent of the total road issurfaced (Nandy, 2014: 138). Moreover, the failure to maintain and manage the existinginfrastructure is a major reason for the poor connectivity in the region (Saikia, 2016:208). Besides road, rail transport is mainly confined to Assam and water transport isalmost non-existent. Although few cities in the region have air connectivity, the traffic islimited and connected to Kolkata and Delhi only (Nandy, 2014: 138).
Secondly, meetings at the level of highest-ranking officials in the country have failed tomeaningfully engage the local actors. Both the Manipur and Nagaland state governmentswere in the dark about the operation, with the Manipur chief minister saying he had learntof it from media reports (Deka, 2015). Local engagement and account would give betterground reality but, 'very few people understand why it is important for them, or how itwill improve heir lives on a daily basis' (Goswami, 2015). To realize the policy, formerambassador Yogendra Kumar rightly points, 'major effort is required so that the northeastern states can feel a sense of ownership of the LEAP and of being major stakeholdersin this policy (The Morung Express, 2015).
Thirdly, another major constraint that is holding up work is the issue of insurgency in thisregion. Amarjeet Singh demonstrated that insurgency affects development by examiningthe growth of key development indicators in States, which are either affected or notaffected by insurgency (Singh, 2016: 191). The Ministry of Railways Northeast FrontierRailway (2013) reported security concerns faced by the companies working in theproject. For instance, in Jiribam, Imphal, between the year 2006 -mid 2013 a total of 23incidents of manhandling by insurgents, 5 firings, 11 kidnappings, 1 killing has beenrecorded (ibid. 2013: 142). Also, Myanmar traders are reluctant to start trade with Indiaalong the border in Moreh due to poor roads and security concerns (Eastern Mirror,2016). However, 'the Manipur government has done little to control the situation thatthreatens to derail one of India's most ambitious infrastructure projects' (The Hindu,2016).
In conclusion, the implementation of LEP/AEP through its northeast has the potential toremarkably transform India's economy and the region into a hub of trade and commerce,given its geographical proximity. However so far, the policy has not substantiallydeveloped northeast infrastructure and as such there has been no fundamental changefrom Look East to Act East Policy.Endnotes
Bhattacharjee, D. (2016), 'India's Vision on Act East Policy', Indian Council of WorldAffairs, pp. 1-15, available at
Seshadri, V.S. (2014), 'Transforming Connectivity Corridors between India andMyanmar into Development Corridor', Research and Information System forDeveloping Countries, pp. 1-65.
Government of India, North Eastern Region Vision 2020: Volume 1, Ministry ofDevelopment of North Eastern Region and North Eastern Council, pp. 260- 276.
Ministry of Railways Northeast Frontier Railway (Construction Organization),(2013), 'Master plan for the Development of Rail Infrastructure in the NortheastRegion'.
Downie, E. (2015), 'Manipur and India's Act East Policy', The Diplomat, available athttp://thediplomat.com/2015/02/manipur-and-indias-act-east-policy/
Government of India, (2016), 'Question No. 2578 India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway',The Minister of the State in the Ministry of External Affairs, available athttp://www.mea.gov.in/rajya-sabha.htm?dtl/27794/QUESTION+NO2578+INDIAMYANMARTHAILAND+HIGHWAY
ASEAN Briefing, (2015), 'ASEAN Highway to Link India, Myanmar, and Thailand',available at http://www.aseanbriefing.com/news/2015/09/04/asian-highway-to-link-india-myanmar-and-thailand.html
Government of India Cabinet, (2015), 'Implementation of the Kaladan Multi ModalTransit Transport Project in Myanmar at the Revised Cost Estimate of Rs 2904.04Crore', available at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=128699Eastern Mirror, (2016), 'Myanmar reluctant traders for trade across Moreh border',January 12, available at http://www.easternmirrornagaland.com/myanmar-reluctant-for-trade-across-moreh-border/
Government of India, (2011), 'Look East Policy and The North Eastern States', Ministryof Development of North Eastern Region, pp.1-50.
Nandy, S.N. (2014), 'Road Infrastructure in Economically Underdeveloped NortheastIndia: A District Level Study', Journal of Infrastructure Development, 6(2): pp. 131-144.
Saikia, P. (2016), 'Embracing India's Northeast in BIMSTEC: experimenting the GMSECP model', in Das, G. and Thomas, C. J. (2016), Look East to Act East Policy:Implications for India's Northeast, Routledge, pp. 184- 212.
Deka, K. (2015), 'How India's 'look east' policy has failed to involve its North Easternstates', Scroll in, May 7, available at https://scroll.in/article/741262/how-indias-look-east-policy-has-failed-to-involve-its-north-eastern-states
Goswami, N. (2015), 'Act East Policy: Northeast India as a Strategic Catalyst',Institute Defense Studies and Analyses, pp. 70- 84, available athttp://www.claws.in/images/journals_doc/1548193442_NamrataGoswami.pdfMorung Express (2015), 'NE states at the centre of 'Act East Policy', May 26, availableat http://morungexpress.com/ne-states-at-the-centre-of-act-east-policy/
Singh, M. A. (2016), 'Narendra Modi and Northeast India: development, insurgency andillegal migration', Journal of Asian Public Policy, 9:2, 112-127.