On road to Mandalay, beyond

The news

  • The India-Myanmar Land Border Crossing Agreement operationalised last week opens up roads between the two countries.

About the agreement

  • The agreement between India and Myanmar on land border crossing was approved by the Union cabinet in January this year, and signed during External Affairs Minister’s visit to Myanmar in May.
  • With India-Myanmar Land Border Crossing Agreement being operationalized, Myanmar officially opened its border with India in a ceremony held at Tamu, twin to India’s border town of Moreh in Manipur.
  • It marks the abolition of the special land entry permission which visitors required to enter Myanmar via land routes. The key change as a result is that any Myanmarese or Indian national with a valid passport and visa can now cross over without requiring special permission.
  • The two crossing points are at Moreh in Manipur, opposite Tamu in Myanmar’s Sagaing division, and Zokhawthar in Mizoram, opposite Rhikhawdar in Myanmar’s Chin state.

 

Status before the agreement

  • Earlier, these crossing points were meant only for people of the border villages on either side — for family visits, buying and selling in the border markets and, from the Myanmar side, to consult doctors or get diagnostic tests done.
  • Border passes valid for up to three days were issued for these visits, and travel was restricted to 16 km from the crossing point. Passes were issued to other citizens, but they could not stay overnight across the border.
  • Indian citizens could travel to Tamu for a day visit with a pass.
  • To travel further on either side, cross-border visitors needed special permits.
  • For Indians, the process had to be initiated by a Myanmar-based travel agent and, in many cases, needed approval from no less than the President of Myanmar.
  • There is already free movement regime for people living within aerial distance of 16 km on either side of the Indo-Myanmar border.

 

Status after the agreement

  • Under the new regime, local residents will continue to have the right to cross over with a border pass within 16 km.
  • For all others with a passport and visa, the crossing points will be open routinely to travel anywhere in the other country.

 

Bus Service only up to the border for now

  • During ex PM Manmohan Singh’s 2012 visit to Myanmar, he and then Myanmar President Thein Sein had agreed on an Imphal-Mandalay bus service, and a trial run was held in December 2015.
  • Last year, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, the modalities of the cross-border service were discussed.
  • However, finalisation has to flow from a Motor Vehicles Agreement but until then the two sides decided to arrange a temporary solution of bus services up to the border on either side, depending on the numbers of travellers.

 

Significance of the agreement for India and Myanmar

  • This historic agreement will strengthen the relationship between the two countries, enhance border trade and increase movement of people and cultural exchange.
  • The operationalising of the Land Border Agreement was “a signal to tour operators to get their act together” on travel groups, especially for pilgrimage to Indian Buddhist sites.
  • India has a 1,643-km border with Myanmar in four Northeastern states.
  • Myanmarese Buddhist pilgrims, medical tourists, and students travel to India.
  • Thousands of Manipuris live in and around Mandalay; going to Imphal for them until now meant taking a flight from Yangon to Kolkata.
  • With the opening of the border crossing, the 110-km journey from Imphal to Moreh will take about three hours, and from Tamu to Mandalay another four.
  • A pilgrim from Mandalay need not go to Yangon anymore, and instead could head to Imphal by road and then fly to Bodhgaya.
  • It is a key step in India’s Act East policy.

 

Other connectivity projects and agreements with Myanmar and their status

  • The Motor Vehicles Agreement
    • It was first proposed in 2015 and is envisaged to include Thailand too.
    • India is building a “Trilateral Highway” connecting the three countries as a key element of its Act East policy.
    • The Trilateral Highway is aimed at increasing trade, tourism and people-to-people contact with ASEAN through Myanmar and Thailand.
  • Trilateral Highway 
    • On a section of the Trilateral Highway — the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa (TKK) Road, also known as Friendship Road was constructed and upgraded by the Border Roads Organisation and handed over to the government of Myanmar in 2009.
    • The second land border crossing at Zokhawthar-Rhikhawdar will be connected to the Trilateral Highway at Kalemyo, near Kalewa.
    • India is repairing 69 bridges.
    • It is also constructing/upgrading the Kalewa-Yagyi section of the highway in Myanmar.
    • Both these projects pass through challenging geographical terrain that prolonged the process of project design and selection of executing agencies.
  • Kaladan Multimodal Transport project
    • Besides the Trilateral Highway, India is also executing the ambitious $484 million KaladanMutlimodal Transport Project, to link the Indian mainland to the Northeastern states via Myanmar.
    • Under this project, loaded freight ships will leave Kolkata port and dock at Sittwe, a port in Myanmar’s Rakhine province.
    • There, the goods will be loaded on barges that will transport them upstream on the Kaladanriver to Paletwa.
    • From Paletwa to Zorinpui on the Mizoram border, and further inland into the Northeast, the goods will be transported by road.
    • While the dredging of the Kaladan, the construction of the unloading and loading terminals at Sittwe port and Paletwahave been completed, and seven barges readied and handed over to the Myanmar government, the road remains a work in progress.
    • The 109-km road construction project from Paletwa to Zorinpui began only in April this year, and given the challenging terrain, the deadline of 2019 is unlikely to be met.
    • The road from Zorinpui to the nearest National Highway also needs to be upgraded.

 

Challenges ahead

  • The Land Border Agreement is 50% of the work done; the other 50% with the Motor Vehicles Agreement has to be done.
  • The other infrastructure projects are pending due to challenging geographical terrain that prolonged the process of project design and selection of executing agencies.

 

Way forward

  • The process of project design and selection of executing agencies should be paced up and completion of the infrastructure projects should be given attention by both the sides.

 

Significance of India-Myanmar relations

  • Myanmar’s vast oil and natural gas reserves and other resources make it a natural partner for many countries in the world and India, being its next door neighbour, cannot be indifferent to this reality.
  • Besides, geo-political considerations, historical and civilizational links, and the ethnic overlap across their borders, have all come together to make India’s North-East the land bridge between the South and South-East Asia through Myanmar.
  • The 1,640 km-long border between Myanmar and the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram signifies the importance of this eastern neighbour for India.
  • India expects to reap various economic benefits by bolstering bilateral trade and investment, which critically depends upon better connectivity in the region.

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