New Delhi: India is pulling out all stops to expedite the South Asian Sub-Regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) road connectivity program in the backdrop of China’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” initiative aimed at connecting around 60 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe.
As part of this strategy, India’s Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) last week approved a Rs1,630 crore road project for upgradation and widening of the 65-km road stretch between Imphal in Manipur and Moreh in Myanmar. Once completed, the project being developed with Asian Development Bank’s loan assistance will not only help India connect with its neighbouring countries but will also play an important role in the Great Asian Highway.
The Asian Highway network is also referred to as the Great Asian Highway, and is a 141,000-km road network connecting 32 Asian countries being developed under the aegis of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).
“The SASEC program focuses on road infrastructure to improve regional connectivity between Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India (BBIN). The Imphal-Moreh project corridor is also a part of Asian Highway 1 and will also strengthen India’s position at the global level as we are attempting to connect with our neighbours and fulfilling our commitments made at the international level,” said a senior Indian government official, requesting anonymity.
The seven-member SASEC formed in 2001 comprises India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and aims to increase economic growth by building cross-border connectivity.
The Asian Highway network starts from Tokyo in Japan and connects South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, west of Istanbul, where it joins with European route E80.
“Developing road connectivity with neighbours is one of the key agendas of the Modi government,” added the government official quoted above.
With an eye on China, India has tasked state-run National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corp. Ltd (NHIDCL) to work on a slew of road and bridge projects to improve connectivity with Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar,
Myanmar occupies a unique geographical position which India plans to leverage.
“The road is a part of Asian Highway 1 and will be developed at a cost of Rs1,630 crore. It is an important connection from India to Myanmar. As per our plans, the first 20 km would be four lane and next (remaining stretch) two-lane. Once the highway is built, it will reduce travel time by half and will boost the region for traffic and trade,” said Sanjay Jaju, director finance at NHIDCL, which is building the stretch.
India has been critical of China developing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part OBOR infrastructure initiative cutting through Gilgit and Baltistan areas of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). OBOR, first unveiled by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013, aims to put billions of dollars in infrastructure projects, including railways, ports and power grids across Asia, Africa and Europe.
Myanmar’s role has not been lost on SASEC’s playbook either.
“SASEC member countries recognize that most of SASEC’s multimodal connectivity initiatives include Myanmar. Road corridors in Myanmar provide the key links between South Asia and Southeast Asia. Ports in Myanmar will provide additional gateways to the landlocked North Eastern region of India. Development of multi-modal connectivity between North Eastern region of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar has the potential of unleashing tremendous economic energy in the sub-region,” the Indian government said in a 1 April statement.
India is also moving ahead with its plans of accessing transnational multi-modal connectivity to articulate its role in the proposed transportation architecture in the region and beyond. It has been instrumental in implementing the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which will run from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar.