By Tanya Shrivastava, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun.
The dream started way back around 1848 when Lord Dalhousie wanted to build a route in South Asia extending from Singapore to Constantinople. It was continued by Lord Curzon who dreamt of building a route between Bengal, Myanmar and China. Many attempts have been made ever since. In 2013, this dream made a group of adventure enthusiasts from four countries, Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar, to undertake the first attempt in the history-to-be-in-making that took them all the way from Kolkata to Kunming via Dhaka and Myanmar in twenty cars. The purpose of this journey was to highlight road connectivity in the four countries of the region. There has been no looking back ever since. Officially, the project was initiated in 2013, after the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India. The two countries agreed to constitute a Joint Study Group to discuss on Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Cooperation.
The concept of BCIM was developed by Professor Rehman Sobhan who advocated that multi-modal transport connectivity, supported by other initiatives and infrastructure development could significantly reduce transaction costs, stimulate trade and investment and consequently accelerate growth and poverty alleviation in Kunming, the Capital of Yunnan Province of China. His concept is supported by the fact that the BCIM region is one of the richest in the world in terms of natural, mineral and other resources. The region covers 9% of the world’s total area, 7.3% of the global gross domestic product and involves 440 million people. The BCIM has the potential to generate enormous economic benefits in the arena of trade, investment, energy, transport and communication.
The first meeting of this “Kunming Initiative” took place in Kunming in the presence of The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) from Bangladesh, Centre for Policy Research (CPR) from India and Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in Kunming, China; Ministry of Trade from Myanmar. The objective of this initiative, and its ultimate evolution to BCIM Forum was to create a platform where major stakeholders could meet and discuss issues that were restricting the economic growth and trade in the BCIM region and identify specific sectors and projects which would promote greater collaboration amongst the BCIM nations thus, leading to the promotion of trade and strengthen cooperation and institutional arrangements among the concerned key players and stakeholders to deepen BCIM ties. The Forum has held 11 meetings since then, the most recent being in Dhaka in February 2013.
December 18, 2013 marked the success of this project when all the four nations discussed the plan to improve the physical connectivity between the Countries whereby it was agreed that the corridor will run from Kunming to Kolkata, linking Mandalay in Myanmar as well as Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh with an aim of improving the seven major areas of development: connectivity; energy; investment and financing; trade in goods and services and trade facilitation; social and human development and poverty alleviation; sustainable development; and people-to-people contact.
Till 2013, India’s participation in the BCIM Forum was wavering and inconsistent. China and India had, until recently, developed a mutually exclusive role in their respective spheres of Politics and Groups. The functional role of China in the BCIM forum meant all the developments were aimed at the prosperity of the Chinese economy. India, which was supposed to be a pillar with China in the project, chose to be miles away from it. The Dhaka meet of the Forum marked the end of this exclusiveness and the beginning of a new era.
Going into the technicalities, the concept of ‘economic corridor’ refers to infrastructure, soft and hard, that helps facilitate national and/or regional economic activities. Transportation routes or networks form the skeleton of an economic corridor. Typically, these are overland (road or rail), or multi-modal, combining overland (road/rail), inland waterway or maritime passageways. It focuses on linking provinces and States, in this case, Yunnan and West Bengal. The main artery of the 2,800 km, K (Kolkata)-2-K (Kunming) corridor is nearly ready. A stretch of less than 200 km, from Kalewa to Monywa in Myanmar, needs to be upgraded as an all-weather road.
From the West Bengal capital, the corridor will head towards Benapole, a border crossing town in Bangladesh. After passing through Dhaka and Sylhet, it will re-enter the Indian territory near Silchar in Assam. The rest of the passage will be connected with Imphal and then pass through the Indian-built Tamu-Kalewa friendship road in Myanmar. Mandalay will be the next focal point of the corridor before the road enters Yunnan, after crossing Lashio and Muse in Myanmar. The Chinese stretch extends from Ruili before reaching Kunming through Longling and Dali. The central corridor will be connected with two supplementary passages to the north and the south. The northern passage will start from Kunming and heads towards Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state in Myanmar, before extending to Ledo in Assam. After crossing Dibrugarh and Guwahati, this road enters northern Bangladesh and joins the central corridor inside the country, before reaching Kolkata. The problem, at present, is the small portion in Arunachal Pradesh over which India and China have a territorial dispute. Moreover, this part is insurgency-prone and therefore unsafe. The project would be incomplete without involving this area into the corridor.
Among the other countries, Bangladesh will have numerous benefits from the success of this project. India shares its longest border with Bangladesh thus it would be easier for it to be connected with the Northeast to the rest of India. Access to the large Indian and Chinese markets will make Bangladesh an attractive destination for foreign direct investment. Bangladesh can also benefit from connecting to China through Myanmar and becoming a commercial hub for South and Southeast Asia. Indian goods will also benefit from access to large markets in East Asia through Myanmar. The BCIM corridor, by creating trading opportunities for Myanmar, will help the country integrate into regional supply chains. In fact, the Dawei port in Myanmar, due to its strategic geographical position, could be a means to increase the country’s international integration.
The Corridor has brought the biggest triumph to India’s North-eastern states which have always been outside of the Central Government’s development list. Among all the North Eastern states, only Assam has an industrial base and an elaborate transport network. It is the largest economy contributing about 60% of North East’s GDP. The state produces more than 65% of thecountry’s tea which is appreciated globally for its aroma.
Though the project still appears to raise questions on being the hostage to concerns of security, economic domination, illicit migration, etc., it is still seen as a beginning of a much required exposure. It provides India with a strong opportunity to improve, formerly hampered, ties with China. Moreover it will help by giving a further boost to its Act East Policy, and further improve its ties with Bangladesh. This will also show that it has the ability to successfully implement ambitious projects. The issues would be addressed eventually, but this initiative marks the beginning of a new era of development in all the four nations.