Trans-Asian Highway: A blended lane for Manipur

Ng. Lisii *

The Asian Highway Project, also known as the Trans Asian Highway, is a cooperative project among countries in Asia and Europe, supported by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ENCAP) to improve connectivity via the highway system.

The Asian Highway project is one of the three pillars of the Asian Land Transport Infrastructure Development (ALTID) project, supported by the ENCAP commission at its 48th session in 1992. It was an agreement signed by 32 countries to allow the highway to cross the continent and reach Europe. China, Japan, South Korea, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are some countries participating in the Asian Highway project.

The project was funded by the Asian Development Bank and some more extensive and developed countries such as China, India and Japan. The Asian Highway (AH) 1 and (AH) 2 passes through the North Eastern States of India following the National Highway Stretches from Indo-Myanmar border at Moreh in the form of Manipur via Imphal-Kohima (Nagaland), Dimapur-Nagaon-Jorabat (Assam), Shillong-Dawki-Tamabil upto Indo-Bangladesh border in the State of Meghalaya having a length of about 750 km.

The most significant aspect of the Trans-Asian Highway of Manipur is that the Asian Highways, AH1 and AH2, also pass through Manipur. The Trans Asian Highway project is no longer a mere dream. Instead, it is becoming a reality. In most countries, the infrastructure preparation and construction for the network have been completed. Likewise, in Manipur along the Moreh-Imphal stretch of NH-2 (erstwhile NH-39), we could witness four-lane road expansion in total swing progress, and we expect the completion in a few years.

Manipur is the jewel of India, surrounded by nine hills with an overlapped valley at the centre. It is famous for its rich culture and tradition, vibrant dance forms and music, scenic landscapes, and delectable local cuisine. It is home to the largest freshwater lake in the North East. Considering India’s Act East Policy, Manipur can play a vital role as the gateway to South East Asia as an economic hub.

Manipur has an excellent potential for investment from South East Asian countries. However, Manipur is in isolation regarding tourism and any updated information about the condition or its people. The media at large portrays this tiny tribal State as a mini civil war zone.

Economic considerations are now central to the Stat’s neighborhood policy initiatives and responses besides the usual political, defence, and strategic considerations. The expansion and diversification of Manipur’s exports in goods and services are significant objectives of the State’s economic diplomacy. The State objectives are sought to promote through various interactions and connectivity.

This Trans network will pave the way for further cooperation and connectivity with Myanmar, South Asia and South East Asia. This initiative will also help North East, a region much ignored, integrate with more excellent India, with Manipur as a wheel driver.

The Trans-Asian Highway, which connects internationally, will be a growth engine for the country’s North-East region. The project is expected to create more employment and business, particularly for Manipur. Manipur, a lesser-explored land, promises to be one of India’s best tourist destinations, offering endless enjoyment and pleasure with its blue lakes and undulating hills.

It is beautiful, calm and serene, with ecstatic simplicity and a moderate climate, making Manipur a must-visit place in North East India. The Trans-Asian Highway has brought new hope for the State as this road network project builds infrastructure and creates a strong tourism sector.

Thus, the Trans Asian Highway network will enormously boost Manipur’s trade, commerce and tourism. It is crucial for socio-economic development in the North East region, specifically Manipur, which has a poor road network. The project would create employment opportunities in Manipur. It is said that the project will create 267 lakh person-days of employment in Manipur.

After the completion of 4-laning, the travel time will reduce from the current three-and-a-half hours to one-and-a-half hour. These transport linkages will facilitate connectivity with Myanmar and onwards to Thailand, Laos PDR, and Cambodia, turning Manipur into a gateway to Southeast Asia.

In anticipation of the increase in trade volume, an Integrated Check Post (ICP) is being built in Moreh, 110 km from Imphal. This ICP will handle cargo transshipment and will be equipped with customs and immigration, a passenger terminal, a warehouse for import, and parking for cargo trucks.

Manipur hopes to benefit from the upcoming Asian Highway connectivity to become an investment destination in the North East. The State could become the main gateway to Southeast Asia via the land route as work on the four-lane highway is in full swing. The project will bring much-needed attention to the State from entrepreneurs.

Manipur produces large amounts of agricultural products, but these products hardly get exported due to lack of connectivity, and the real benefits of such produce don’t go to the farmers or producers as there are mediators who would purchase their products at dirt cheap rates. However, with the advent of the Asian Highway, farmers and local traders will find new trading destinations. The Trans-Asian Highway network will allow local handicrafts and textile items from Manipur to be exported to Asian countries.

Enhancing connectivity between Myanmar and Manipur will open up new opportunities for developing border areas, contributing to narrowing the development gap. Moreh, as a part of ‘India’s Act East Policy’, is the gateway to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos PDR, and Cambodia. The Land Port Authority of India has developed 45.58 acres of land at the Moreh border to facilitate trade and people movement.

The development of the Trans-Asian Highway will not only mean the intensification of the connection between Southeast Asia and North East India, particularly Manipur, in terms of trade and commerce but also in terms of peoples and ideas, which in turn will imply the return of the past and the reawakening of the centuries-old ties, especially between Manipur, Assam and Myanmar.

On the other hand, some dark aspects are associated with Tran-Asian Highway in Manipur. Civil Society Organizations and the general public alleged that no proper compensation is given to land owners and considered it a stepmotherly treatment upon the affected victims.

In most of Manipur, the land holding and ownership systems are feudal, resettlement patterns are limited, and establishing new residential areas is always challenging. It is also alleged that the State Government did not initiate an appreciable measure for the expansion of the Asian Highway by resolving the surrounding issue.

The cross-border movement of insurgents is one of the several security challenges facing the policing of the border. Insurgent crossing and hiding in neighboring countries is not new. Since the dawn of insurgency in the North East in the 1950s, various insurgent groups have been crossing over into Myanmar to set up bases, especially in the Chin State and Sagaing region, where they rest, recoup, train, plan, launch future offensives and take shelter when pursued by Indian security forces.

Besides the cross-border movement of insurgents, rampant gun-running is another significant security challenge emanating across the India-Myanmar border. (A substantial shipment of weapons arrived in Manipur this month, i.e. July 2023, through the Myanmar route. Source – India Today).

While the bulk of the guns from Thailand and Cambodia are smuggled overland through the India-Myanmar border. Thus, it is perceived that the Trans- Asian Highway will accelerate the movement of insurgents and arms along the India-Myanmar border, which will further lead to the creation of mayhem in the State.

The other dimension is that Manipur has become a haven for drugs being smuggled from Southeast Asian countries via Myanmar, and the long porous boundary the State shares with Myanmar, involvement of influential persons in high State contraband drug deals and the rugged terrain of the State have equally contributed toward making it so.

It is well known that heroin is smuggled into India from the notorious Golden Triangle - a mountainous heroin-producing region in South East Asia covering Laos, Thailand and Myanmar through Manipur’s border town of Moreh. In recent years, the State has also seen a massive flow of high Pseudoephedrine Hydrochloride (PH) content drugs manufactured in India being smuggled to Southeast countries.

In many districts of Manipur, certain sections of inhabitants cultivate poppies in the open area in large quantities, and the Trans Asian Highway is foreseen to facilitate even easier passage of narcotics across borders. Thus, the Four-Lane Asian Highway spare a lane for the illegal drug trade, which would make Manipur ravaged by heroin fuelled narco-politics and other related complexities in Manipur.

Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh share a porous border stretching over 1600 km with Myanmar, which remains unfenced mainly due to the presence of ethnic and familial ties, thus creating a suitable gateway for illicit transactions of immigrants. According to the reports from various sources, there are large numbers of illegal immigrants who have entered Manipur recently through the porous border with Myanmar.

Illegal immigrants come to Manipur through the highway connecting Manipur with Dimapur in Nagaland and Silchar in Assam and Moreh. In the bordering town in Myanmar, most of the Rohingya immigrants had come from Bangladesh refugee camps along National Highway 2 and 37, and those who originate from Myanmar are coming via Moreh. Trans-Asian Highway, coupled with its porous border nature, will further facilitate illegal immigration.

The ongoing construction of the Trans-Asian Highway hurts unlawful immigration as it will intensify the already existing issue of illegal immigration in the State. The construction of the Trans-Asian Highway also impacts topography, soil, and vegetation. During the construction, felling of trees, hill cutting, ground clearing, stone quarrying, and construction of auxiliary solid structures would lead to the change of micro-level topography.

Despite the intensive care in designing the blueprint, the interaction between the proposed road feature and the existing land feature could result in significant land instabilities. As several streams and rivers cross the road, the construction work may disrupt natural hydrology and water mismanagement that may further lead to soil erosion besides temporary pollution of rivers and streams water from spillage of chemicals and oil at construction sites. It is also envisaged that with the increase in traffic volume, the concentration of pollutants will also increase accordingly.

Trans-Asian Highway is a praiseworthy project for the North East region, specifically for Manipur. It is understood that the project which was initially introduced to promote connectivity has brought many other developmental avenues when it started implementing and the rates of these avenues is certain to be double once the infrastructural constructions are completed.

However, a critical analysis has revealed that Trans-Asian Highway has both bright and dark side. The bright side is that once the Asian Highway project is completed, a person can travel from Imphal to Bangkok in 16-18 hours. As designed, the Trans-Asian Highway will connect several countries in the continent. Infrastructures buildings and other related economic set ups all along stretch of highway are the repercussions of Tran-Asian Highway project.

The socio-economic condition of Manipur is undergoing a steady growth and it is anticipated that the completion of the project can bring a complete transformation to the region economically and geopolitically. North East as a whole, is now gradually becoming a magnet of attraction. The stretch through Manipur opens up broader possibilities for the North Eastern State, specifically the State, to be connected to Asian countries and play a leading role in connecting other Indian States.

Another perspective which is diametrically converse to the above stated disposition is that many negative ramifications will likely to emerge in the event of the full scale implementation of the project. Issue related to environment came to light. Further, issues like illegal immigration, drug trafficking, small armed proliferation, Gold and Timber smuggling and insurgent’s movement gets intensify.

In addition, it is also fear that the possibility of tearing of socio-cultural identity of Manipur is on high risk. Therefore, when analyzing the significance of Trans-Asian Highway, it is ascertain that project has both merits and demerits, although merits surpass demerits. To lessen the complexities of certain issues, the government and the general public needs to cooperate and work hand in hand is every aspect.

This analysis holds that if the project policies and due share efforts of the people match, the project would benefit Manipur far more than its primary objectives. Hence, considering all these positive and negative outcomes, the Trans-Asian Highway is regarded as a highway of blended lane of pros and cons for Manipur and a bridge of connectivity with the Southeast Asian countries socially, economically and geopolitically.

* Ng. Lisii wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on December 24 2023 .

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