Regional Connectivity: The Gaps ‘on the Ground’

Presentation made in Session 3: Regional Connectivity: Tourism, Transport & Infrastructure at the 10th Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Regional Cooperation Forum, Kolkata, 18 February 2012

Assam has the look of great reserves of strength and potential power…I have no doubt that great highways by road, air and rail will go across her connecting China and India, and ultimately connecting East Asia with Europe. Assam will then no longer be an isolated far away province but an important link
between the East and West.

Jawaharlal Nehru

after a visit to then undivided Assam, December 1945[1]

Nearly 70 years later – including over 10 years of the BCIM initiative – regional connectivity has little to show by way of progress. There is an almost never-ceasing flow of ideas, as well there should be, in a sub-region with a long history of cultural and economic connections. But despite the end of the Cold War and the rapid expansion of regionalism the world over, including in the immediate neighbourhood in the form of various ASEAN mechanisms and the SCO, the BCIM sub-region seems caught in a time warp of sorts. Why is this the case?

One part of the answer might lie in other regional mechanism that neighbours the BCIM initiative, namely, SAARC. With the South Asian grouping still moribund, let us face it – the infection that ails the BCIM process is of Indian subcontinental origins.  The connectivity “gaps” in the BCIM sub-region extend to 4 major areas: population movement, transport infrastructure, communications infrastructure and development infrastructure.

A. Population Movement

Tourism – South Asia is a region where the free and legal movement of people is constrained even within countries and practically non-existent between countries. Take for example, the Inner Line Permit / Restricted Area Permit regime that applies to parts of India’s northeast that restricts tourist inflows not just of foreigners but also of nationals.[2] Visa and immigration facilities are practically non-existent on India’s borders or directed only one way outwards from India.

If these were not enough, there is also the conflict factor in the region that stymies or discourages the flow of tourists to Northeast India and Myanmar.

Labour[3] – The same constraints mentioned above also affect the movement of labour. Labour from other Indian states such as Bihar – contracted in large numbers to work on various infrastructure projects – are for example, often considered unwelcome or threatening to local customs and mores by indigenous populations in Northeast India. However, it is also important to note that for all the talk of the Bangladeshi outsider in Assam, the Indian state faces a serious labour shortage that can only be addressed either by a flow of labour from the underdeveloped states of eastern India or from Bangladesh. That the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants is firstly a political and security issue before it is seen as an economic or development issue and resolved as such highlights some of the inherently anti-regionalism characteristics of the region.

Permanent Settlement – In parts of Northeast India, however, some of the legal constraints just alluded to also ensure that there is no permanent settlement by outsiders so that local interests are still protected. In other parts of South Asia, such constraints are lacking and indigenous populations complain with good reason of being discriminated against and outnumbered by new influxes of the ‘majority’. The problems of both heavy restrictions on outsider settlement or none at all contribute in differing measures to underdevelopment, inter-ethnic conflict and environmental damage. The lack of a balance in this respect is a major shortcoming in the ability of the region to develop an identity of its own that is based not on nativism or assimilation but on pluralism.
B. Transport Infrastructure

Physical Problems – The roads of Northeast India are more often than not in poor condition. There has been talk of the nature of terrain and weather as excuses for the poor quality of roads. All true, but several parts of Southeast Asia have similar terrain and weather conditions, and yet manage to build good and lasting infrastructure.[4] The real problem in this context, has, in fact, been one of a lack of resources and this shortcoming too is largely, being addressed at least in India, by virtue of its economic growth and additional resources available for transport infrastructure development. Indeed, the Border Roads Development Programme of the GoI that covers parts of Northeast India are progressing at a fair clip, if not as fast as it should.

In part the problem is that without even basic infrastructure in place in many regions, getting heavy machinery to a point where they can start work is itself difficult. Sometimes, the heavy equipment has to airlifted, to a spot and often helicopters do not possess the capacity to carry very heavy machinery and so these have to taken apart and transported in several pieces with the resultant inefficiencies or losses of equipment parts, time, and money. Thus, there is in a sense a vicious cycle that can however, be improved the longer the infrastructure development continues.

Conflict and Corruption – The other problem that distinguishes Northeast India and Myanmar from the rest of Southeast Asia or China is the existence of armed political conflict, which plays a big part in why infrastructure remains underdeveloped. There is also the problem of the leakage of resources in the form of extortion by insurgent groups and in the form of corruption.

Opportunity Costs – However, most insurgencies in Northeast India are under control, and those in Myanmar are possibly winding down owing to a number of factors. In this context, the more serious problem is now one of untapped international resources available for development – namely in the form of funds available from multilateral agencies such as the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank, because there are no regional institutional mechanisms that can receive and utilize these funds for a regional initiative. Unfinished projects such as the Kaladan multimodal project in Myanmar could also conceivably be integrated faster with road networks in India and elsewhere with such support.

Technical Issues – these range from basic issues such as driving on different sides of the road in the 4 countries involved to the different rail gauges used in each country. While the big studies have been completed by agencies such as ESCAP and AIT, but it is about time government agencies of the 4 countries sat down together to draw up the list of technical specifications and requirements to ensure the smooth movement of vehicles and freight between them – including immigration and customs modalities, taxation rates, security procedures, accreditation of drivers and other personnel involved in the process. One wonders if some of the same rules that apply to merchant shipmen and international cargo transported on the high seas cannot apply here as well (and preferably with the rapid turnaround times of Chinese ports rather than of Indian ports).

C. Communications Infrastructure

Telephony – ‘National’ security considerations in Northeast India could for the large part over the years since Indian Independence be interpreted as having gone rogue. Until recently mobile telephone connectivity was severely affected with a businessman arriving from another part of India, leave alone one arriving from outside the country, unable to get immediate and unhindered mobile access all around the region while those who the restrictions were targeted against carried on their work anyway. There is a case for some rethinking using common sense and new legal regimes to prevent the general public from being inconvenienced. Mobile telephony also remains pretty poor and expensive in Myanmar. Though the situation is improving, it could be speeded up if New Delhi and Naypyidaw were to bring down the security-related barriers and they could well use China’s production capacities in telecom infrastructure. Perhaps a joint venture to develop mobile telephony in the BCIM region?

Television and Radio – The sub-region is not going to develop in the absence of a steady and dependable flow of information between the parts of the sub-region. By information, I do not mean just the private information communicated through telephones and emails but also news, including public service broadcasts – including weather forecasts and warnings – and cultural news. The sub-region cannot afford to be uninformed of goings-on elsewhere if it is to begin to develop an identity and interest in cooperative action across borders. Further, perhaps the time has to have a larger television and radio network aimed exclusively at the sub-region. This will in turn require all 4 countries, and in particular their bordering provinces to sit down and agree on programming content, agreed languages – including common terminology and script, television band width and radio frequencies, etc. Newspapers from the member countries could also tie up to publish or syndicate each other’s articles and columns.

D. Development Infrastructure

While transport and communications infrastructure can also be classified as development infrastructure, this section focuses on the social and environmental impact of large infrastructure projects such as dams. It also raises the larger question of how connectivity can be beneficial not just in the economic context but also in terms of security considerations – primarily in the form of staving off potential conflict over environmental and population displacement issues.

Dams[5] – The entire sub-region, particularly, parts of Tibet, Yunnan, Northeast India and Myanmar, is in the throes of massive dam-building. However, by their very nature these are not exercises that can limit their impact only to the geographical location in which they are built. Rather, the impact is felt for considerable distances upstream and downstream. The main point here is two-fold: one, the 4 countries should actually draw up an integrated plan for dam building as a tool of region-building rather than allow it to descend into a competitive and politically acrimonious affair and two, both for the sake of local area populations as well as more distant populations, environmental and social impact assessments are necessary and these too can be done jointly.

Electricity Generation – When electricity can be produced at reasonable financial and environmental cost whether from hydroelectric dams or thermal power plants, there will still need to be a grid connecting the sub-region. Cross-border regional power grids make economic sense[6] but they will require attendant procedural and technical issues to be sorted out. Thus, linked to the above points on dam-building, there is a case for joint action in this sphere as well.



The larger point being made here is that while gaps in connectivity have hitherto been caused by problems of conflict, violence and instability, and these in turn fed the gaps in a vicious cycle, today, the regional and global situation allied to technological breakthroughs allows an opportunity to close these gaps. The BCIM sub-region’s relative lack of development and infrastructure are opportunities now, for greater capital investment – especially important for large economies such as India and China and others, including financial institutions looking for both diversification from and greater opportunities and returns than the markets of the West. Further, the sub-region at this juncture enjoys relative political stability and greater openness to economic reforms and transit flows. Improving connectivity in the sub-region can, therefore, not only create economic gains but also security gains for all the countries concerned. 

[1] Quoted in B.G. Verghese, India’s Northeast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development, 2nd ed. (New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1997), 368–69.

[2] In Northeast India today, only Arunachal Pradesh requires ILP / RAP. Parts of Nagaland and Manipur that earlier required the ILP / RAP, have no longer required them since May 2011.

[3] For an examination of issues in this regard with specific reference to Mizoram and Myanmar, see Julien Levesque and Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, “Tension in the Rolling Hills: Burmese Population and Border Trade in Mizoram”, IPCS Research Paper, 14 April 2008,

[4] See for example, Zha Daojing, “China and Its Southern Neighbours: Issues in Power Connectivity, RSIS Commentaries, No. 147/2011, 14 October 2011 on why the GMS region’s shared physical, economic and cultural attributes supported the logic of interconnectivity in electricity generation.

[5] For more on this aspect see Mike Douglass, “Cross-border water governance in Asia,” in G. Shabbir Cheema, Christopher A. McNally and Vesselin Popovski (eds), Cross-Border Governance in Asia: Regional Issues and Mechanisms (Tokyo, New York and Paris: United Nations University Press, 2011), pp. 122-68.

[6] Zha Daojing, “China and Its Southern Neighbours: Issues in Power Connectivity, RSIS Commentaries, No. 147/2011, 14 October 2011.


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