Friday, August 5, 2011

Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project

India and Myanmar encircle Bangladesh through the sea.

Even after 12 years of intense negotiations and massive investment in infrastructure projects in Myanmar, India has so far failed to operationalise its desired connectivity through that country. In case of Bangladesh, though, it has pushed through with a free corridor passage within months to connect the troubled north eastern region with its mainland.

After almost a decade long negotiation, Myanmar finally signed the `Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project with India in 2008, offering its land and river passage through the country via a sea route in the Bay of Bengal that encircles Bangladesh on its coastal line.

Estimated at a cost of IC (Indian Currency) 545 crore the project proposes 826 km route by sea, river and road from Kolkata to Mizoram. The highest distance of 539 km will be covered from Kolkata port in India to Sittwe port in Myanmar encircling the coastal line of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. The proposed sea route is then connected with the riverine channel through river Kaladan up to 158 km in the upstream before being linked to a land route that stretches about 129 km through the mountainous terrain in the Chin State of Myanmar before finally reaching Mizoram in India.

The full cost of the project is being borne by the Indian government and it is scheduled to take off in June 2013, according to official documents The Myanmar government also received a minimum interest loan of USD 10 million in 2007 from the Indian side, to make up for the cost of its contribution.

As can be seen from the diagram of the sea route developed by Inland Water Authority of India (IWAI), the executing authority of the project, the coastal line of Bangladesh virtually encircles it. The diagram makes no indication of the locations of the Sunderbans, Saint Martins Islands and the Teknaf jetty on Bangladesh territory while demarcating the sea route on the map.

Several questions arise. Why have the Indian authorities deleted those locations of vital importance from their connectivity diagram? Does it maintain the standard distance required under the international law on seas while crossing over Sunderbans in Bangladesh starting from Kolkata port or before ending at Sittwe port in Myanmar passing over the Saint Martins Island and Teknaf jetty?

Can the authorities of India and Myanmar justify encirclement of Bangladesh's coastal line morally while claiming to be a friendly neighbour?

Can it be presumed that India and Myanmar both having maritime dispute with Bangladesh conceived the project with utmost secrecy and did not even bother to consult the country in the middle? Is it possible that the two countries have come to terms for encirclement of Bangladesh through the Bay of Bengal?

Are the authorities in Bangladesh not aware of these developments? Is not it time for the ruling elites in the country to act and rally for the legitimate interests of the people?

Kaladan Multimodal Trans-port Project

With a view to provide ‘an alternate route for transport of goods to North-East India’, the project is considered ˜significant in view of ‘severe pressure’ on the Siliguri Corridor, the project documents point out.

India and Myanmar signed the Framework Agreement on Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project on April 2, 2008 ˜considering development of infrastructural projects including transport facilities as important for facilitating greater economic integration and people to people contact.

The six page document containing 21 Articles was signed in Delhi by Pranab Mukherjee and Nyan Win respectively Minister of External Affairs of the Indian government and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the government of Myanmar.

The agreement provides for the Indian government to bear the full cost of the project estimated at USD 134 million while government of Myanmar is required to provide its land and security.

The April 2008 agreement does not explicitly mention any financial obligation for the government of Myanmar regarding the Kaladan Project being piloted and funded by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) will execute the construction work on Sittwe port and the jetty in Paletwa, as well as the dredging work, with Essar Projects Ltd, a division of the Indian Essar Group appointed in May 2010 as the main contractor. The gigantic excavation work on the Kaladan River, as well the sea will bring about many changes in ecosystem and bio-diversity of the region inhabited by over 10 million people, however, was totally ignored in the framework agreement.

IWAI document reveals as much as 5,61,954 cubic meter of dredged material will be excavated from the approach channel and the port areas of the Sittewe port. The dredged material from the approach channel will be dumped in the sea the document points out adding that those from the port area will be used in reclamation of 48,000 sq m land.

The approach channel in Sittwe port area is planned to be developed for plying of 6000 ton vessels while the jetty at Port will be constructed for catering to up to 30000 ton vessels, added the document prepared in 2009.

To allow passage to large vessels the river Kaladan will be dredged on at least 35 locations excavating a total of about two million cubic meters of sand, pebbles, boulders and rocks. The volume of the dredging work can be also assessed from the fact that it covers about 20 per cent of the total project cost.

The framework agreement of the project mentioning the detailed project report prepared and submitted by RITES in April and December 2003 concludes that there is no reflection of having any adverse impact of the project on environment.

Another vital part of the project - the road construction component - however, has been left with the government of Myanmar for execution. India seems to be totally unaware of the fact that the authorities in Myanmar are internationally accused and condemned for enforcing the practice of forced labour in its different projects. The framework agreement does not contain a single word about the system of forced labour in that country or any measure against it during the construction phase under the Myanmar authorities.

Denying environmental impact on the people and ecology and remaining silent over the issue of forced labour system introduced and practiced by the state machinery of Myanmar what kind of ˜people to people contact India wants to establish in that country remains a big question.

According to reports of Danish Immigration Service, ˜approximately 28,000 Burmese Rohingya are registered as living in two official refugee camps in Bangladesh, and more than 200,000 unregistered Rohingya live in surrounding towns and villages outside of the two camps.

The report titled Rohingya Refugees and Bangladesh and Thailand was released in May 2011 following a fact finding mission in the two countries. Talking about the Rohingyas in the Rakhaine State of Myanmar the report mentions them as ˜stateless, with their approximate number at 750,000.

It probably will not be very difficult to assess as to who are likely to be victimized by the state when the project enters into the phase of execution. The possible environmental fall outs of the Kaladan project and its impact on the people may be discussed in detail some other time.

The Framework Agreement however, says, ˜on completion, the project will be handed over to the Government of the Union of Myanmar on terms and conditions mutually agreed upon.

The Kaladan project is a glaring example of India's double edged policies pursued in the region for ages. Decade long Indian manoeuvring and its covert negotiation with the military regime of Myanmar can be well understood from the Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES) activities with regards to the Kaladan Multimodal transport project.

Starting with a feasibility study more than a decade ago the Indian establishment gradually entered into a massive investment programme into Myanmar’s infrastructure projects.

As its first step RITES had conducted technical feasibility study for IWT on river Kaladan and Highway along the river Kaladan from Sittwe to India-Myanmar border (Mizoram) during 1999-2000. On the basis of its studies and finding RITES submitted a report to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), in March, 2001.

Is Kaladan project designed to encircle Bangladesh coastline? Indian official documents claim that the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project through Myanmar and the Ashuganj-Agartala transport corridor through Bangladesh have been designed to establish direct connectivity between the north-eastern region and the mainland.

Desperate Indian moves cast doubts whether connectivity programme between north eastern region and its main land are being designed with some other motives in mind. An in depth study of the Kaladan Project and its possible ramifications on Bangladesh will probably unfold some of its underlying machinations.

Bangladesh sandwiched between India and Myanmar and also having maritime dispute with the two countries, in all likelihood will face another new challenge in its maritime boundary when Kaladan project takes off. The sea route designed between Indian ports on the eastern sea bed and Sittwe port in Myanmar in all likelihood will encircle the coastal belt of Bangladesh.

The question is whether international laws will allow connecting the sea ports between India and Myanmar when disputes over maritime boundaries of those two countries vis-vis Bangladesh are pending in the international court.

Another important aspect in this regard probably is that the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project has been agreed upon between Myanmar and India without any record of prior consultation with Bangladesh.

Will the international laws on seas allow such direct connection of ports between two countries by passing a third country in the middle? Will not this sea route create a natural encirclement of Bangladesh or create maritime blockade for it?

While analyzing the impact of Kaladan project on Bangladesh, some questions relevant to maritime boundary came up automatically during our discussion. We, however, feel the issue of maritime boundary and the dispute over it between Bangladesh-Myanmar and Bangladesh-India is too vast a subject to be dealt with in this article. It should rather be discussed separately some other time.

Will the ruling elite resist encirclement? The question is relevant from the experience of the free transport corridor operationalised between Bangladesh and India on March 29 last.

A technocrat advisor to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh went out of his way to ensure a free transport corridor for movement of Indian, Over Dimensional Cargo (ODC) through the Ashuganj-Akhaura link road.

Even public position taken by two cabinet ministers failed to bring about any change in the scenario. The Bangladesh National Board of Revenue (NBR) terms the waiver as ‘suspended and considers the issue to be disputed.

The visible rift within the ruling party was not enough for the BNP, the main opposition party in the parliament, to raise the issue vigorously among the public. The party leadership which is on record to have stated earlier to lay down their lives to resist transit with India, however, now appears to be comfortable with its demands for realizing the legitimate fee.

As things stand today, movements of ODC continue without any indication as to when the dispute will be resolved. Handling of this dispute till date seems to be favouring the Indians, since they are not required to suspend movement of their goods, while collection of fee on part of Bangladesh remains in the cold storage.

Entering into covert negotiation with the Myanmar regime since 1999, India continued with its superficial support for the democratic uprisings in Myanmar to protect its global image as the largest democracy in the world and its champion among the developing countries.

India's bid to woo the Myanmar junta, can be well understood from the fact that they went to the extent of violating all diplomatic norms in their official document of Kaladan project using objectionable phrases and terminologies against Bangladesh. There is however, no record of any rebuttal either from the government quarters or from the free press of Bangladesh.

Justifying the validity of the project the Indian official documents on Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project blamed Bangladesh for what it termed ˜continued intransigence to provide them ˜transit rights for connecting the mainland with its territory in the North-East.

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project facility, the documents reveal is envisaged as ˜an access route to what it terms land locked North-Eastern region of India.

Other implications

There is the Indian projection of the north east as being ‘land locked and its claim of ˜transit rights through Bangladesh to connect the region with the mainland.

Why do the Indian think tanks and policy makers project its north eastern region as landlocked? Are they not aware of the fact that land locked status is awarded only to sovereign states recognised by the United Nations, that has no coastal line and is surrounded by more than one country in its border.

For over half a century the north eastern region is connected with mainland India through the Siliguri corridor. Does India suffer from a fear psychosis of losing grip over the narrow strip particularly after its experience in Nepal that borders with the terrain?

Ever since elections in Nepal, that brought Maoists to power and led to the ouster of its 200-year-old monarchy, India seems to be getting a little more desperate, fearing its waning influence over the tiny landlocked Himalayan country may have catalytic impact in the region.

If the Nepalese experience is causing the fear psychosis in the minds of the Indian policy makers, then they probably should think of redesigning their policies towards their neighbours instead of blaming them.

Was not Nepal the only country after WWII that suffered from a trade embargo imposed by the Indians though being a landlocked country?

Indian policy makers are not unaware of the fact that transit rights are guaranteed only for the landlocked states from its immediate neighbours having coastal areas. Does India fulfill its obligations of transit rights with regards to its landlocked neighbour Nepal? Does India treat both Nepal and Bhutan equally to fulfill its transit obligations towards them?

Claiming transit rights for the people of the north eastern region from Bangladesh could be also an Indian ploy to divert the attention of those people and to shift the responsibility of the Indian establishments failure to redress their genuine grievances.

Can it be ruled out that the Indian establishment is playing the transit rights’ card as a double edged sword with an aim to maintain distance or rather to foment a hostile attitude between the people of the north eastern region and Bangladesh?

Bangladesh always generously granted river transit to the people of north eastern region to provide a cost effective mode of transport to maintain connectivity with its main land.

Over the years the Indian establishment has been choking and flooding the rivers of Bangladesh, violating all provisions of international law that has resulted in change in river course and caused rise in river beds leading to reduced navigability and hence adversely affecting the communication system.

Was this not designed to deprive the legitimate rights of the lower riparian Bangladesh? Was this not an attempt by the Indian establishment to de-link the people of the north eastern region from waterways – its historic, ttraditional and cost effective mode of transport system?

Claiming free transit rights through land route of Bangladesh, though illogical, its denial or even a delay by the country is enough for the Indian establishment to create a negative impression about the people of Bangladesh in the north eastern region with regards to their development.

Similarly executing the free corridor route through Bangladesh, in collaboration with its cohorts in the ruling elites, the Indian establishment is also playing a double game. In this case people of Bangladesh are given the feeling that they were denied of their legitimate rights and were made to pay for the development of the north eastern region.

The experiences of the corridor deal between Bangladesh and India can lead to certain conclusions.

Corridor passage to Indian, Over Dimensional Cargo through Bangladesh has been allowed on the basis of the joint communiqu issued on January 12, 2010, on behalf of the prime ministers of the two countries. The 50 point joint communiqu was issued, on the occasion of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinas India visit almost a year after her massive election victory that brought her to the office of the Prime Minister for the second time.

To allow India passage through Bangladesh, the Hasina-Momohan joint communiqué provided for amending the IWTT Protocol and also agreed that Ashuganj in Bangladesh and Silghat in India shall be declared ports of call.It also allowed for assessment by a joint team for the improvement of infrastructure and the cost for one-time or longer term transportation of ODCs (Over Dimensional Cargo) from Ashuganjâ

Based on the joint communiqu a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed in Dhaka on November 30, 2010. OTPC, a subsidiary of Indias state owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC) signed the MOU with Roads and Highway Department of Bangladesh that allowed a multimodal but single purpose transport corridor’ for Indian ODC through the river and road of Bangladesh, for a period up to June 2012.

Amidst secrecy and haste the free transport corridor for Indian ODC through land and river routes of Bangladesh was operationalised on March 29 last within four months of signing of the MOU on multimodal project between the two countries.

According to the rules of business of the government, consultation with the ministry of foreign ministry is mandatory prior to signing any international deal, which, however, in this particular case was not adhered to. Officials of the foreign ministry, not even consulted with regards to the first ever Multimodal MOU between Bangladesh and India felt that the document of was faulty and needed to be modified in future.

Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), the regulatory body in road transport sector that played a very crucial role during process of direct bus service between Dhaka-Kolkata in 1999, however, remained ineffective with regards to Indian ODC movement through the corridor, officials said.

The roads and highways department that does not have jurisdiction or expertise on enforcement of traffic discipline, registration of vehicle, issuance of fitness certificate, driving license, route permit, or sanctioning capacity of load on road, however, is now representing the government on the issue.

Failure of the government and helplessness of ruling elites are established from the fact that the movement of Indian over dimensional cargo (ODC) through the Ashuganj-Akhaura transport corridor was allowed without formulating a guideline protecting life and property of the people of the country.

ODC is cargo which is indivisible in configuration with respect to length, width, height or weight also necessarily to be transported from point A to point B in one piece generally within legally specified limits. The legally specified limits however, vary a little from country to country. Fee charged for ODC movement is generally higher than the freight charges of normal cargo, across the globe. Without defining the term ODC or framing the guideline for its movement did the people at the helm of affairs protect the interest of the people of the country?

Could the Indians ever imagine that they would successfully get the facilities of corridor passage through Bangladesh free of cost? Report of the Task force of the Indian Planning Commission on connectivity and promotion of trade and investment in the NE states, however, does not speak of that.

Government of Bangladesh/ Myanmar may provide access to Chittagong/Mandaly port for exports/ imports from and to the NER to the outside world. This would help neighbour earn substantial revenue by charging a fee for use of Roads/ Rivers observed the Task Force report of Indian Planning Commission as back as in 2006.

What prompted the Indians to change their minds and demand a waiver of fee for use of roads and rivers of the corridor passage through the Bangladesh and who collaborated with them in its execution to deprive the people of the country of its legitimate earnings are also not unknown.

The Indian establishment also does not seem to be comfortable talking about the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project. This was evidently reflected while answering to a question to that affect by the minister of state of external affairs during a question answer session last February 23.

Asauddin Owaisi, a parliamentarian of the Lok Sabha asked the foreign minister about half a dozen questions with regards to the Kaladan project. Two questions were. whether the Kaladan project ‘has finally been conceived after 12 years’, and another one was on ‘the extent to which this project is likely to increase the trade between the two countries especially in north eastern regionâ

Answers given by Minister of state of External Affairs Preneet Kaur reflect that the Indian establishment is still probably shying away from making public any detail with regards to the Kaladan project particularly in relevance to people to people contact as claimed under the project.

The Framework Agreement and Protocols for the implementation of the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project were signed in April, 2008’, said Kaur, elected to the Lok Sabha for three consecutive terms since 1999. Kaur wife of Maharaja Amrinder Singh of Patiala became minister of State for foreign affairs in May 2009.

Without giving any detail of the present volume of trade and its expected rise in the near future, the minister said, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project is being developed to provide an alternate route for transport of goods from eastern sea board to North-East India. However, the completion of the Project will open up possibilities for better connectivity and movement of goods between India and Myanmar.

Does not it signify the underlying implications of the connectivity projects?

Were the Bangladesh authorities not aware of the Kaladan project over the years and particularly while executing the Ashuganj-Agartala transport corridor? Will the authorities care to constitute a fact finding mission with regards to the developments along the coastal lines of Bangladesh taking into consideration its maritime interests, as well as project’s possible impact on the environment of the region and the people, particularly in view of the refugee concern from Rakhaine State in Myanmar? 

Kaladan chronology

RITES conducted its first technical feasibility study for IWT on river Kaladan and Highway along the river from Sittwe to India Myanmar border during 1999-2000.

RITES submitted its preliminary report on the basis of its studies and findings to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, in March 2001.

The detailed project report was prepared and submitted by RITES in April and December 2003. this report gave environmental clearance to the project.

Framework Agreement on Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project signed on April 2, 2008. Foreign ministers of the two countries signed the document on behalf of their respective countries in Indian capital New Delhi.

Indian ministry of external affairs appoints IWAI as the project development consultant for implementation of the Kaladan Multimodal transit transport project in Myanmar in March 2009.

Tender process for selection of main Indian contractor for the port and IWT components of the work was completed by the Kaladan Project Management Unit in March 2010.

Indian Ministry of External Affairs appoints M/S Essar projects India Ltd, Mumbai as the main contractor for the development of Sittwe port and other IWT works through the contract agreement on May 14, 2010 setting target for its completion in June 2013.

The foundation stone laying ceremony was held at Sittwe in Myanmar on December 19, 2010, which was attended by the Minister for Transport government of Myanmar and the regional commander for the Rakhaine province while the Indian side was represented by senior officials from Ministry of External Affairs in the Embassy of India in Yangon and IWAI officials.