Zorinpui (Mizoram): It’s past noon and dozens of labourers at a construction site in Zorinpui, on the India-Myanmar border, are hard at work under Mizoram’s mild summer sun. A cloud of dust hovers in the air as they dig deep into the earth.
Amid a hilly terrain, which alternates between rolling greens and sandy, rocky landscapes, the labourers are building a bridge, a heavy-duty structure capable of hosting tanks and other military equipment.
One of eight such bridges being built between Zorinpui and Lawngtlai, which lies deeper inside Mizoram, it is one of the many pieces that will together take shape as the strategic Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project.
A Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) initiative approved in 2008, the project seeks to ease India’s access to Southeast Asia through Myanmar and provide an alternate route between the landlocked Northeast and the rest of India, a purpose currently only served by the narrow Siliguri corridor. The project was launched under the ‘Look East Policy’, which dates back to 1991, and is being pursued by the Modi government under ‘Act East’, its remodeled version of the policy.
The Kaladan project starts from West Bengal and charts an over 500-km course through the Bay of Bengal to Myanmar’s Sittwe Port, where it channels the Kaladan river — which flows from Myanmar to Mizoram — to connect with the northeast.
As the name implies, it’s multimodal and employs a range of infrastructure from roads and bridges to floating barrages.
Work on the project was resumed a few months ago, after being suspended last year on account of Covid-19.
However, the pandemic is only the latest factor of delay for the project, which remains incomplete seven years past its first deadline. The delays — along with the land acquisition costs involved — have caused its budget to balloon six times to Rs 3,200 crore, from Rs 536 crore in 2008.
The Kaladan project faces a new deadline in 2023, but government officials are worried this will be missed too.
Much of this concern is centred on the 110km stretch of road within Myanmar, which has proved particularly tough to navigate, with a series of hurdles — including a company involved going bankrupt, and a Myanmarese militia group — playing truant with its construction. The coup in Myanmar, which has triggered massive protests in the country, doesn’t help matters.
Hanging in the balance of these continued delays, experts say, are delicate regional equations. India, they add, needs to take a good, hard look at its project delivery capacity, lest it allow China — with its reputation for quick work — to steal a march over it.
Where the project stands
The agreement for the Kaladan project was signed between the governments of India and Myanmar in 2008.
The project will first connect Sittwe port in Myanmar with Haldia in West Bengal through the Bay of Bengal (refer to map). Floating barges over the Kaladan will then provide connectivity to Paletwa.
The next leg of the project is a 110km stretch of road that will join Paletwa to Zorinpui at the border. The construction of this stretch is being be done in two parts — 60.8 km from Paletwa to Kaletwa, including a 280-metre-long bridge over the Kaladan at Kaletwa, and 49.2 km from Kaletwa to Zorinpui.
What follows is an 87.8-km stretch from Zorinpui to Lawngtlai, comprising the eight bridges mentioned above. The project envisages 25 bridges — like the ones being built in India — in Myanmar.
Construction on the project began in 2010, with an initial deadline of 2014.
However, the project made little progress until that year. Reasons included coordination issues within the government over a separate power ministry plan to construct hydro-electric projects on tributaries of the Kaladan river. Problems also arose because of some underestimation about the road length in Myanmar.
A second deadline was set at end of 2021. However, with much work remaining, it has now been revised to 2023.
The latest status records for the project show that construction of the sea port at Sittwe is over, with operationalisation scheduled for the first quarter of this year.
Even the dredging of the Kaladan between Sittwe and Paletwa is over. Six barges have already been provided for, and the construction of a jetty at Paletwa has also been completed.
On the Indian side, the 87.8-km road connecting Zorinpui and Lawngtlai is about 80 per cent complete. Work here is being executed by two firms, RDS Project Limited and ARSS.
The first of the eight bridges — located about 15 km from Lawngtlai on the way to Zorinpui — is at the preliminary stages of construction, as is the last one. The rest are nearly complete.
Company officials present at the site say the project is now back on track.
“There was a break in between because of the pandemic. There was also some fear because of the Arakan Army (a Myanmar-based rebel militia), but the work is progressing smoothly,” a company executive at the site told ThePrint.
Last month, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said the project is in its final stages.
But the construction of the road stretch in Myanmar has run into multiple hurdles over the years.
At the start of its first term, the Modi government engaged state-owned Ircon Infrastructure (Indian Railway Construction) as a consultant for the project. In October 2015, it approved a revised cost for the project, and a contractor was selected in June 2017.
A joint venture of EPIL and C&C Constructions started work on the first part of the road in 2017, but stopped in 2019, after the latter declared bankruptcy.
Subsequently, the EPIL-C&C Constructions joint venture subcontracted RK-RPP (joint venture) to carry out the construction work for the second part — the 49.2-km stretch between Kaletwa and Zorinpui.
An executive of RK-RPP, who was present at the site, told ThePrint that the company began work on the stretch after it was tasked with it in March 2020, but the lockdown led them to suspend construction.
“Five km of the road has been constructed (inside Myanmar) though it is yet to be blacktopped. Jungles up to 20 km have been cleared for the road and 10 km of road has been surveyed,” said T.S. Negi, project coordinator at the company.
Meanwhile, work on the first stretch remains suspended.
Apart from the pandemic, defence sources told ThePrint, other factors that have impacted work over the years include the hilly terrain, the six-month annual monsoon season, and red tape — on account of the multiple government agencies involved on either side.
Another factor is terror stoked by the Myanmar-based ethnic militia group Arakan Army, and its frequent exchanges of fire with the country’s army.
In November 2019, the group kidnapped an RK-RPP team as they were carrying out a recce of the area between Paletwa to Kaletwa towards Zorinpui. An engineer of the company died due to cardiac arrest while in a camp of the Arakan Army.
There were also two incidents, involving a round of stand-off firing and a mine blast, between June and August 2019.
It is because of the perceived threat from the rebel group that the construction plan of the second phase was reversed.
Officials present at the site said the construction of the road was to begin from Paletwa to Zorinpui (south to north), but now RK-RPP is building it from Zorinpui to Paletwa (north to south).
Believed to be funded by China, the group was delisted as a terror group by the Myanmar Army following the coup. However, earlier this week it condemned the military coup and the ensuing crackdown on protesters.
The Assam Rifles has deployed a company at Zorinpui, aside from a dedicated battalion deployed by the Myanmar Army, to provide security to the project.
Officials say there hasn’t been any hindrance from the Arakan Army in recent times. “We have been able to start construction of the road from Zorinpui with the immense support of the Assam Rifles,” said Negi.
Brigadier Digvijay Singh, the commander for Assam Rifles in Mizoram, told ThePrint that the Kaladan project is progressing at a fast pace without any hindrance from the Arakan Army. “It will have a huge impact on society, both economic as well as in the development of south Mizoram,” he said.
Joseph Lalhmingthanga, secretary of the NGO Central Young Lai Association, who was present at the site, agreed. “The project looks to open opportunities for the local population here,” he said, adding that the locals have good relations with the Assam Rifles, that is providing pre-recruitment training to youths in the region.
When the eighth bridge at Zorinpui becomes operational, officials hope it will help speed up the construction across the border by facilitating movement of heavy machinery.
But government officials in the know of things say the project could miss the 2023 deadline too.
“Aside from the other logistical problems, such as difficult terrains, monsoons are a big hindrance to the project,” a government official said. Monsoons in the region will begin at the end of April and go on to September-October, during which there is a complete halt on the construction work, the official said.
The China question
According to experts, aside from supporting and financing the Arakan Army and other rebel militias in Myanmar, China has also been investing heavily in the country’s infrastructure projects.
Examples include the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which will connect Kunming in China’s Yunnan province through Myanmar’s Mandalay with Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal, where a deep sea port is under construction. It’s something India must be mindful of, experts say.
Talking to ThePrint, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran said India has undertaken ambitious projects to improve connectivity between India and Myanmar, including the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan transport corridor.
“However, these projects remain incomplete and there have been inordinate delays. China, on the other hand, has earned the reputation of swift delivery on its commitments not only in Myanmar but other countries as well,” said Saran, who has served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar.
“We need to take a deep and careful look at our project delivery capacity and seek to improve it,” he said, adding that setting up an autonomous development cooperation agency under the overall guidance of the MEA may be the answer.
According to Rajiv Bhatia, a distinguished fellow at Gateway House, a Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank, and also a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, the military coup could further delay both the Kaladan project and also the trilateral highway since there is an internal crisis and the priority is to stabilise the country first.
Talking about the Myanmar road stretch, Bhatia added that part of the problem is the way the Kaladan project has been pitched to the Myanmarese population. “Kaladan has always been projected as a development that would cut short India’s transit route and not as something that would equally benefit Myanmar as well,” he said.
Jayadeva Ranade, a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, told ThePrint that the Chinese may use the current political scenario in the country to further consolidate their position by supporting the military.
Bhatia said the Chinese are in trouble as there is a lack of trust between them and the military because of its funding to various rebel groups.
“Simultaneously, there is also a growing anti-China sentiment in Myanmar. But if the military is to stay in power, Beijing will find a way to develop an equation with the military,” he added.