The great Asian Highway : Tokyo to Istanbul

Lunminthang Haokip *

FROM NH-39 TO AH-1: Highways always were a fascination to me. The broader motor-way creates a panoramic view that's appealing to the senses. Even in a train journey, when the tracks are changed from meter gauge to broad gauge track, comfort level of travel is enhanced. In the State of Manipur, the most frequently talked about highway was NH-39.

It was also known as the Dimapur-Imphal road which was stretched upto the cutting edge border town of Moreh. Till recently, the Imphal-Jiribam road, which was better known as NH-37 was the 'Road less-travelled.' Of late, NH-39 was renamed as NH-102. Before one could get habituated to the new 3-digit number, the road-side signage on Dimapur-Imphal-Moreh route became Asian Highway-1. AH-1 was sounded decades back.

But nothing tangible was seen save for the portions of smooth motor way we whizzed across. It became relevant to our conscious mind when we began to see wide and smooth road in an Imphal-Moreh highway rubbery.

The erstwhile accident-prone route to Myanmar border was upgraded to Asian standards. To the common man, AH-1 sounds a trifle outlandish. With knowledge I picked from Wikipedia data on the issue, let me try to explain what the new cross-country double and multi-laned expressway is all about.

BIG PLAYERS AIDED THE AH-1 PROJECT: The concept of Asian Highway was initiated by United Nations way back in 1959. The ambitious project was aimed to make maximum use of the continent's existing highways to avoid construction of new ones, except in cases where missing routes necessitated their construction. The UN-conceived move was meant to promote development of international road transport.

The mega-project made a considerable progress in the 1960-70 period. But the speed of construction slowed down and came to a screeching halt when financial assistance to the project was suspended in 1975. But the trans-Asian roadway plan was salvaged by the endorsement of the same by UN ESCAP-United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

In the year 1992, ESCAP endorsed ALTID-Asian Land Transport Development- Project. There was no looking back ever since. Most funding came from the richer Asian countries like China, South Korea and Singapore. Financially muscled international agencies like ADB-Asian Development Bank-came into the scene. Big players like AIIB - Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank - also rallied behind ADB to aid the Great Asian Highway project.

IT'S LIKE TRANS-ASIAN RING ROAD: AH-1 is the longest route in Asian Highway Network. From Tokyo to Turkey, the international highway meanders through 20,557 Kms of land. The countries AH-1 touches and passes through are Japan, South Korea, China, Hongkong SAR, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, India (East), Bangladesh, India (West), Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey.

The route will exit between Bulgaria and West Istanbul to finally join the E80 European route. Also known as the Great Asian Highway, AH-1 project was inked as a cooperative undertaking among 32 countries of Asia. The United Nations ESCAP, ALTID - Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Investment - project is one of the three pillars of the trans Asia road construction plan.

Under the project, new highway route numbers begin with AH which means Asian Highway, followed by 1, 2, and 3 digits. Single digit route numbers from 1 to 9 are assigned to major Asian Highway routes which cross more than one sub-region.

2 and 3 digit route numbers are assigned to indicate the routes within subregions, including those connecting to neighbouring subregions, and self-contained highway routes within the participating countries.

FEAR ON OUR PART OF AH-1: The immediate concern for us, the citizenry of Manipur, in connection with AH-1, is thé route from Mao Gate to Moreh Gate No. 1. Till the early 1990s, commuters travelling from Imphal to Moreh were not sure whether they would reach their destination with their purses intact. Some of the more unfortunate travellers on the dangerous road never reached home.

As the fear of being looted on the the then single-laned stretch from Pallel to Moreh loomed large, commuters then, hid their money safely inside their socks and shoes. But there was no guarantee that the bandits would not rob them clean. As the road was in bad shape and narrow, many deadly accidents occurred at vulnerable spots.

Two heavy vehicles criss-crossing on certain critical turns of the British-built World War Ii road was highly risk-ridden. To make things doubly worse, before area clearance was made by the AR patrols, commuters were frequently harassed by highway thugs.

In those days, the road in issue had no paved shoulders and there was no protective iron bars to guard vehicles from turning turtle down the deep gorge below the old highway. Troubled by the hunch of the probable shape of things to come on the way, relishing a well-cooked fish curry at Pallel's Basant eatery could not be fully enjoyed. Every passenger on the buses, enroute to Moreh, had to take their own risks. Such was the ordeal commuters had to cope with.

WORKS TAKEN UP PRESENTLY: Coming to the big picture of Trans-Asian Highway, the sole objective of AH-1 is to facilitate greater trade and social interactions between Asian countries. The project also aims to improve personal contacts of the citizenry of the stake-holding Nations.

In the course of trading, project capitalisation, and connecting of major container terminals with transportation points will take place. Existing roads will be upgraded and new roads will be constructed to link network. As for the Imphal-Moreh stretch of AH-1, the works taken up as of now are : * Earthwork up to subgrade including excavation in soil/soft rock/hard rock and clearing and grubbing.

* Sub-Base Course.
* Non-Bituminous Course.
* Bituminous Base Course.
* Wearing Coat.
* Reconstruction and New Culverts on existing roads, and realignment of bypasses.

Agencies engaged in the above-mentioned works changed hands recently. Delhi-based REPL handed over highway work between Imphal and Moreh to LECPL - Lions Engineering Consultants, Private Limited. The earlier functionaries of REPL, presently, are employed by Bhopal-based LECPL. Their task is to survey, supervise, monitor and send periodical reports to their National Hqs.

The time-tested road-making agencies have made highway cruising a joy. The commuter driving from Khongjom to Lokchao bridge on Moreh road has reason to smile from hairpin bend to hairpin turn.

WE ARE INTEGRAL TO INDIA'S ACT-EAST POLICY: We must thank the Creator of heaven and earth that we Manipuris settle in a strategic location which any upgradation of a trading route to South-East Asian countries cannot do without. We stand to gain much in the the proposed trading on the IMT - India-Myanmar-Thailand highway that was designed to connect our border town Moreh with Mae Sot in Thailand through the length of the land of the Pagoda.

The route is 1360 KM long. Even now, Myanmar and Thailand are transacting trade on IMT road surface. The north-west frontier Burmese town of Tamu cannot reap the benefit of IMT project because there's a 101 KM traffic bottleneck between Kalewa and Yagyi in Myanmar.

The four Asian Highways entering and exiting the golden land are AH-1 and AH-2 touching Tachilek in Shan State, AH-1 which is routed via Mae Sot; and AH-14 that exits Myanmar through its northern town, Muse, to enter China via its border business hub called Ruili. Among the NEI States, Manipur stands to benefit most in surface business on IMT road due to its all weather connectivity with Burma.

ICP- Integrated Check Post - had been set up in 2018 to facilitate visits to and from Myanmar on India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway. Covid-19 put a coma on the course of inter-country visits via ICP, Moreh, and the latest political turmoil in Myanmar further dotted a semicolon and a question mark on it. Now, on both sides of the international boundary line, wannabe traders are in anxious wait for a 'Look-Ease Policy.'

WAY TO MAE SOT WILL BE CLEARED SOON: The IMT Trilateral highway connectivity project was conceived in April, 2002 in a Ministerial Conference in Yangon. In the 1360 KM route from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand, there are four sections of road stretches that require widening.

They are Moreh-Kalewa Section (160 Km), Kalewa-Yagyi Section (120 KM), Myawaddy-Kwakareik Section (25 KM) and Ein Du-Thaton Section (68 KM), all inside Myanmar. The Moreh-Kalewa section of road construction was done by the BRO - Border Roads Organisation - of the Indian Army in 2001 as a part of India-Myanmar Friendship Road.

Due to delays and disruptions that postponed completion of IMT project, NITI Aayog 2017 proposed a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) owned by all the three stake-holding countries of India, Myanmar and Thailand. In 2018 and 2019, I personally encountered many daredevil international motorcyclists in their stopover stay at Moreh. They rode all the way from Europe to our border town.

From Moreh, they continue to bike their way to Bangkok or Malaysia, and then, pack up and fly back bag and baggage to home cities. The counters of ICP Moreh, then, were busy stamping on the passports of many cross-border travellers. COVID-19 and the recent political instability in Myanmar halted all travels through Burma.

Religious tourism thrived before Covid scare scarred the zeal to globe-trotters. The Imphal-Moreh AH-1 construction will be completed in April, 2023. So is IMT Trilateral route supposed to be. Let's hope that by then, all 'speed-breakers' and 'road-blocks' hindering smooth road-ride to Mae Sot and beyond are cleared.

* Lunminthang Haokip wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is an IAS (Retd)
This article was webcasted on November 13 2022 .

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