China is breathing down our necks in Myanmar, all because we have so far neglected to take serious interest in this country
We are neighbours, and have a 1,640 kms long border with Myanmar along with our Eastern states, with Mizoram being the closest to them. As against this, Pakistan and India share a 1,800 km border!
Our relations with Myanmar have had their ups and downs and presently, the atmosphere is improving, thankfully, for the better. China, on the other hand, is fully entrenched in Myanmar, and has booming trade relations with them. We need to make our presence felt in as many areas as possible, and our current trade with Myanmar is about $1.87 billion. This can be increased!
In the recent times, not long ago in December, unilaterally, Myanmar closed its land border at International Gate Nos I & II with India and there was an organized rally where local people claimed that India was not honouring its international boundary. As usual, it had to be handled with care by the Union Home Minister.
Our trade and related project developments in Myanmar have been slow but this could have been increased manifold, if only our government had regularly sponsored trade delegations and had held India International trade fairs in that country! Indians would rather take a holiday to other parts in the near east, but shudder to think of Yangoon to visit!
Trade development can take place when we have regular ships sailing between the two countries. At present, only when there are ship loads available, an exporter can ship to Yangoon. Myanmar has three ports and these can handle 800,000 TEUs (twenty feet equivalent units) annually. But we do not have a regular container vessel to carry our cargo!
After a lot of efforts, it appears now, that the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI), a Government undertaking, has volunteered to make available a vessel that can carry 1500 TEUs provided the Union government can give them a subsidy of Rs30 crore annually! If there are regular sailings, there is no doubt that this can increase to 36,000 TEUs over a period of time. Shipping Corp’s container vessel, if made available, under this condition, can cover Chennai, Yangoon and Colombo; and if there is adequate cargo, they can berth at Krishnapatnam also.
The point at stake is, should the government accede to their demand and give them an annual subsidy of Rs30 crore? SCI has made this demand, as they are already a loss making concern, and if regular cargo was not available to the above ports, their loss will only mount! Our stake in Myanmar is too important and large; the government must not dilly-dally on this issue, and confirm their willingness to subsidise the sailings to Yangoon and back. In fact, they could include other ports such as Sittwe also, which is under expansion, if Myanmar has no objection!
Right now, Essar Projects Ltd, a construction contractor from India, is executing the "port-cum-inland waterway" and is building the Sittwe port and a jetty at Paletwa, besides being involved in dredging the 158 kms of the river Kalandan, between these two points, to make it more navigable than it is today. Essar hopes to complete this project by June this year, and will
also supply six cargo vessels.
What is important is to note that from the jetty at Paletwa, our Mizoram border is only 109.2 kms away, though another 250 kms-highway would be needed to connect it to Aizwal, the capital. It is imperative that no time is lost in calling for tenders to build this. No purpose will be really achieved if there is no road communication, of international standard, to transport the goods either way! Many of the Myanmar highways have been built by the Chinese!
Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are important and close friends for India, who have to be handled with care. There can be great trade among all the three. As we now discuss the issues with Myanmar, which has other natural resources to offer, we must move seriously in our public relations campaigns in all the three countries; and promote our trade by conducting fairs that can display our products and services.
We must remember that China is breathing down our necks in Myanmar, all because we have so far neglected to take serious interest in this country.
(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce. He was also associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts; and later to the US.)
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