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Assam Governor for connectivity with ASEAN countries

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By: Durba Ghosh

Guwahati, Aug 5 :  Connectivity with ASEAN countries is the key to the development of North East and the Assam government, as well as the Centre, have taken several initiatives in this direction to make sure that the region emerges as a major trade hub for South East Asia, Assam Governor Jagdish Mukhi said.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always emphasised that the country as a whole cannot progress unless North East India develops and to make that happen, development of trade through the region with the ASEAN countries is the need of the hour,” the governor told PTI in an interview.

He said the earlier governments had realised about 20 years back the importance of developing the North East but they committed a blunder by trying to develop it only through the chicken’s neck, connecting the region with the rest of the country. However, the present government has extended the initiative to go “beyond the natural boundaries with the rest of the world”, he said.

The Centre has invested heavily on infrastructure development of the region with the aim to develop connectivity through air, rail, road, water and digitisation which will lead to increased trade with the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), he said.

“We want to develop Guwahati as the Kunming of India, where all ASEAN countries will have their consulate and offices and there will be no need for their representatives to go to Delhi for trade needs,” the governor said.

Kunming in South West China houses offices of ASEAN countries and trade is conducted through these offices without the need for one to go to Beijing for all transactions.

“Initiatives have been taken to develop Guwahati with infrastructural connectivity and I have had discussions in this connection with some leaders of these (ASEAN) countries who have expressed their keenness to set up consular offices here,” Mukhi said.

Bhutan and Bangladesh already have consulate offices in Guwahati and other countries may also set up their offices soon, he added.

“I had recently had a meeting with Bhutan Consul General and he informed me that they plan to start a flight to Singapore via Guwahati from Thimphu and they already have a flight through here to Bangkok,” he added.

Mukhi pointed out that he also held discussions with the Bangladesh President during his visit here and he has assured that they have plans to start a flight from Dhaka to Guwahati soon.

“I have also asked the Centre to include flights from Guwahati to ASEAN countries under its UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik) scheme as this will open up immensely the trade possibilities with these countries,” he added.

Guwahati presently handles 80 flights daily although it has the capacity for 100, but with the ongoing upgradation of the airport, it will be able to operate 300 flights. The work of the new terminal has been undertaken at an estimated cost of Rs 1,300 crore, he added.

Under the UDAN scheme, 92 new flights have been sanctioned for the North East, of which about 10 have already started functioning. All the capitals of the Northeastern states will be directly connected with Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati, he said.

Plans are also afoot to develop Guwahati as an international hub for digital connectivity and a discussion on the issue has already been held with Bangladesh following which the neighbouring country has agreed to connect its Cox’s Bazar with Guwahati.

“North East is suffering due to lack of fast internet connection. Currently, Chennai is the international hub but once Guwahati is developed as one, we will have strong digital connectivity and this will be financially cheaper for us,” Mukhi said.

Referring to road connectivity, Mukhi said special emphasis is being laid on ASEAN countries and it has been already initiated with Myanmar.

The Indian side of the road was ready much earlier and Border Roads Organisation (BRO) began constructions inside Myanmar in 2004 and handed it over to Myanmar after completing it in 2009.

“Myanmar was expected to complete the bridges connecting the roads but they were unable to do so and now the Indian government has taken up the project and is expected to be completed by December 2019. Once it is completed, going to Myanmar and Thailand through this road will be opened, thereby increasing trade opportunities with North East and particularly Assam,” he added.

Water connectivity through Brahmaputra was another area which the government was working on but certain parts of the river bed require dredging in both Indian and Bangladeshi side.

“We now have very good relations with Bangladesh and we have entered into an agreement with them regarding water connectivity for the two countries. Dredging on the Indian side is going on very fast while Bangladesh has also taken the matter very seriously and invited tenders for the purpose.

“In less than a year after the dredging is completed, ships from different parts of the country can go straight to Chittagong Port, which will help improve trade in the region,” he added.

To develop rail connectivity, the Centre has introduced nine new trains and during the last four years, 30 trains have been added, hundreds of kilometres of tracks have been doubled, electrified and more than 200 kms of new lines are being created with every NE states to be connected with rail links by 2020, Mukhi said.

North East India had a very high per capita income at the time of partition but the division of the country led to the snapping of ties with the ASEAN countries on whom the region depended on trade and consequently, the states began to lag behind which led to unemployment and ultimately to insurgency, he said.

“Every successive government at the Centre viewed the region only from security angle and tried to solve the problems by giving a financial package and sending the armed forces but this failed to ensure development of the region.

The present governments at the Centre and state have realised the possibilities of developing the region through trade ties with the ASEAN countries,” Mukhi added.

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