The people of India, Myanmar and Thailand must ask their respective governments why the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project has been dragging on for years despite a very strong political will for completing it. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra reviewed the status of the 3200-km-long highway during their talks in Bangkok on 30 May, and decided to ensure that the project is completed by 2016.
The project’s importance can hardly be overstated. Once completed, it would greatly enhance the connectivity between the Mekong sub-region and India. It would also be a game changer for the Indian northeast, which shares 96 per cent of its border with other countries and only four per cent with the rest of India.
India -Thailand cooperation has not paced up as it should have considering that the two sides have exchanged prime ministerial visits in the past 16 months. Manmohan Singh has just concluded his bilateral visit to Thailand (May 30-31) while Yingluck Shinawatra was in New Delhi last year and she was given the singular honour of Chief Guest at Republic Day parade.
Much is on the bilateral platter but perhaps the highest priority point on the bilateral agenda should be connecting the two countries through road and shipping infrastructure. On this count, the two sides have not been able to have in place this much-needed connectivity in double quick time as they should have. This is despite the fact that in every single bilateral visit between the two sides, including the prime ministerial visits, there is avowed focus on the connectivity issue.
Expectedly, this time also the connectivity issue came up for a pointed discussion between the two prime ministers in Bangkok. In fact, six out of total 41 points mentioned in the Joint Statement released after the prime ministers’ talks pertain to the connectivity issue only. The relevant paragraph reads as follows:
“The two Prime Ministers emphasized the importance of enhancing connectivity between the two countries through regional cooperation and the development of road and shipping infrastructure linking Thailand and India. They welcomed the setting up of the Thailand-India Joint Working Group on Connectivity and Infrastructure to help expedite cooperation on connectivity initiatives in both countries as well as in third countries. They took note of the fruitful outcomes of the first meeting held in New Delhi in September 2012, including the possibilities for cooperation on the Dawei Deep Sea Port and Special Economic Zone projects.”
However, going by the tone and tenor of the talks between the two prime ministers, it seems that the two sides would not allow the latest deadline of 2016 for completion of the trilateral highway project. The Joint Task Force Meeting on the Trilateral Highway was held in New Delhi in September 2012 and it was agreed to make all efforts to complete the trilateral road connectivity by 2016. The meeting also emphasized the necessity to develop the infrastructure to ensure fast and seamless transit along the Trilateral Highway as well as an increase in trade, investment, services and tourism activities.
The next meeting of this task force will be held in Thailand. Besides, Thailand will also be hosting the second meeting of the Thailand-India Joint Working Group on Connectivity and Infrastructure. Both the meetings are to be held in June-July 2013.
The Thailand government has proposed to host the 3rd India-Myanmar-Thailand Ministerial Meeting on Transport Linkages to address the issues of infrastructure and facilitation. This is aimed at maximizing the utilization of the Trilateral Highway as a means of strengthening regional economic growth and integration. Thailand will liaise with India and Myanmar regarding the appropriate date for the Meeting.
During Manmohan Singh’s visit, the Thai side informed the Indian side of the progress that Thailand and Myanmar have made on the project for the development of the Dawei Special Economic Zone in southern Myanmar, which, once operational, would further enhance regional connectivity including port-to-port linkages with India and open enormous business opportunities for the region. In this regard, the Thai side invited the Indian business sector to invest in the Dawei Special Economic Zone, especially in the areas where Indian companies have expertise, such as steel, manufacturing, power, petrochemicals, services and others.
For its part, India is organizing a road show later this year to focus on the road connectivity theme.
India and Thailand have increased their air connectivity considerably but they need to upgrade it further. There are currently around 150 flights between Thailand and India per week. The two Prime Ministers welcomed new air routes by Thai Airways connecting Bangkok with Ahmedabad as well as Phuket - Delhi and Phuket – Mumbai and expressed their support for more air connections between both countries.
Though the Prime Ministers of India and Thailand made right noises, they need to direct their respective bureaucracies to finish the project soonest possible. China has finished much more difficult and much bigger projects in record time. India has its own success story in Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) which has made a habit of completing projects ahead of deadlines.
All it would require is close monitoring of the project by top bureaucrats from all the three countries and a quarterly, if not monthly, status report to their highest political executives. The trilateral highway is such a project that will dramatically improve the Gross Happiness Quotient of the Indian northeast.
*The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst and can be reached at email@example.com.