Connectivity as India’s neighbourhood policy

Making India’s extensive regional borders ‘progressively irrelevant’ will not be easy, but it is necessary.

The Indian government's effort has been to construct an overarching vision for South Asia, so that India does not deal with its neighbours in an ad-hoc and reactive manner, but in accordance with policies that fit into and promote this larger vision.

The vision of South Asia as an integrated and single entity is not new. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had spoken about our aim to establish a South Asian Economic Union on the basis of a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). At the SAARC Dhaka Summit in November 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh elaborated further on this vision. He said that although South Asia is divided by political boundaries, it forms a single geographical and economic unit. It occupies a shared cultural space and inherits a shared cultural legacy. He said that though we cannot erase political boundaries or redraw them, we can certainly work together to make them progressively irrelevant. There should be a free flow of goods, peoples and ideas across our borders in the same manner as in the European Union today. Over a period of time, this would erase the sense of division among our people.

The prime minister emphasised the overriding importance of connectivity to the realisation of this vision. The Subcontinent today is not even as connected as it was before 1947. We must restore crossborder transport linkages through highways, railways, air and sea links, as well as electronic communications. India must start looking at national boundaries not as impenetrable walls which somehow protect it from the outside world, but as 'connectors', bringing us closer to our neighbours. Better connectivity requires a change in mindset.

Border regions, too, must be viewed differently. We must stop seeing them as peripheral, serving only as 'buffer zones' preventing ingress into the Indian heartland. We must rid ourselves of this 'outpost' mentality and accept our border states and regions as being as much a part of our national territory as is the heartland. The idea that such regions must be left largely underdeveloped and remote – as reflected in the outdated system of 'inner line permits', whereby Indians and foreign nationals require permits to enter certain areas – must be jettisoned. Borders connect us to our neighbours, and border regions are extremely important as areas of mutual interaction. This fact should be leveraged for their development. Again, a change in mindset is required.

It is in this context that the prime minister's address at the Dhaka Summit elaborated a different approach to our interactions in the neighbourhood. When the prime minister said, in relation to Pakistan, "I do not have the mandate to change borders; but I do have the mandate to make these borders irrelevant over a period of time," he was enunciating a principle applicable to all our neighbours. To promote the connectivity that will make this possible, it is important to have the best infrastructure possible for easy crossborder movement. We may set up a SAFTA, but unless we have what I would call 'transmission belts' across borders to permit the uninterrupted flow of goods, peoples and ides, SAFTA would yield little practical benefit. Over the past two years, a major effort has been made to try and bring about such a high level of connectivity.

Another significant component of our neighbourhood policy derives from the recognition of the crucial diplomatic role of culture and people-to-people contact. There are very strong cultural affinities among the people of the Subcontinent; by giving full play to these affinities we can reinforce a sense of togetherness, a sense of shared identity. We have a plan to set up cultural centres in each and every one of our neighbouring countries. New embassy projects in Kathmandu and Dhaka have incorporated such centres. We are also not insisting on mechanical reciprocity in the promotion of cultural exchanges, adopting instead a liberal and proactive policy of funding exchange of visits of scholars, artists and others.

Politically, our neighbourhood policy is now based on the recognition that what can best secure India's interests in the region is the building of a web of 'dense interdependencies' with our neighbours. We must give our neighbours a stake in our own economic prosperity. This would impart a certain stability to our relations. We want a neighbourhood policy capable of adjusting, of shaping events. There will be moments in history when it may be difficult for us to influence events in our neighbourhood. We should assess when a neighbour is in the midst of a transformational process, and take steps to make ourselves relevant to that change. There will be other moments in history where we may be able to play a more definitive and active role to orient change in a constructive direction. Making the right judgement and adopting policies appropriate to the nature of change is a big challenge to our diplomacy.

There is, for instance, momentous change taking place today in Nepal. We do not quite know in what this will culminate but, in retrospect, by aligning ourselves with the country's democratic forces, by supporting the transformation in progress, we have done rather well.

A major transformation is also taking place in another very close neighbour, Bhutan. His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has decided to introduce over the next couple of years what would essentially be a constitutional monarchy. Here, as in some other countries, we will soon be dealing with much more diffuse political structures, instead of with a single powerful leader or an established elite. We must keep ahead of these changes rather than always play 'catch up'. We must identify and interact with emerging leaders and institutions.

The same is true of Pakistan. We are engaging with President Musharraf because he happens to be the current leader of the country. But Pakistan is also undergoing a transformation. We need to reach out beyond the government, to the people in Pakistan, to political forces emerging on the horizon. The policy of promoting people-to-people contacts assumes significance in this regard.

Dense interdependencies

We can claim credit that our policy has been quite successful. Within just two years, traffic across India's border with Pakistan has reached over 200,000 people per annum – an incredible figure given the history of India-Pakistan relations. The train service between Khokrapar and Munabao, connecting Sindh and Rajasthan, was carrying 700 passengers every week. That number is now 400 because Islamabad has restricted the number of passenger bogies. India-Pakistan relations are changing because they are increasingly people-driven. We need to reinforce that rather than set up barriers. Our motto must be that we are prepared to go as far as the comfort level of our neighbours allows.

I will now give you a sense of what we have been able to achieve in the promotion of regional connectivity. The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service across the Line of Control was inaugurated two years ago. Following this landmark event, we have recently inaugurated the Poonch-Rawalkot bus service.   We have proposed another bus service between Kargil and Skardu, and Jammu and Sialkot. In Punjab, we have the Amritsar-Lahore bus service, the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus service and the proposed service to Kartarpur Sahib.

We have a major plan for the upgrading of border checkpoints and their backward linkages. Thus an Integrated Check-Post (ICP) is planned at Wagah, which will house customs, immigration and warehousing, health facilities, a shopping complex and parking facilities. The road leading from Amritsar to Wagah is also going to be upgraded into a four-lane highway.

A number of ICPs are being planned on the India-Nepal border, as well as the upgrading of highways and the extension of train links into Nepal. We have plans to develop Integrated Check-Posts at Jogbani (Bihar)-Biratnagar, Raxaul (Bihar)-Birgunj, Sunauli (Uttar Pradesh)-Bhairawa and Nepalganj Road (UP)-Nepalganj. The road links to these check-posts from the Indian side will also be upgraded. The Indian government is also working on the development of a 'garland road' along the border for better patrolling, surveillance and border management.

As regards rail links, we are setting up new links and upgrading existing ones between important border towns of India and Nepal. These include the Katihar-Jogbani (Bihar)-Biratnagar line, the Gonda (UP)-Nepalganj line, the Nautanwa (UP)-Bhairawa line, the New Jalpaiguri (West Bengal)-Kakarbhitta line and the Jaynagar (Bihar)-Bardibas line. We are simultaneously working to develop link roads to the east-west highway in the tarai region of Nepal; as well as to implement a pipeline between the Indian Oil Corporation and the Nepal Oil Corporation for channelling of oil supplies between Raxaul (Bihar) and Amlekhgunj.

When it comes to Bhutan, India has invested in the development of road infrastructure within the country, but there has not been commensurate investment on our side of the border. We are, therefore, planning to upgrade several approach roads to Bhutan, including the Rangia-Tamalpur (Assam)-Jhonkar road, the Pathsala (Assam)-Nangalam road, the Santabari (Assam)-Gelephu road and the Baribesa (WB)- Kalikhola road. In addition, we are working on establishing rail links between border towns in India and Bhutan, including between Hasimara (WB) and Phuentsholing, Darranga (Assam) and Samdrup Jhonkar, Kokrajhar (Assam) and Gelephu, Banarhat (WB) and Samtse, and Pathsala (Assam) and Nangalam. There are also proposals to establish ICPs at Jaigaon (WB), and a dry port at Phuentsholing.

With Bangladesh, India shares a land border of more than 4000 km, yet there are at present only a few operational road links between the two countries. These include the Kolkata-Petrapole and Siliguri-Phulbari road link through West Bengal, the Agartala-Akhaura road link through Tripura, and the Shillong-Sylhet road link through Meghalaya. Of these, the most important road link is the Kolkata-Petrapole highway, which carries more than 80 percent of bilateral trade.

The infrastructural facilities on our side of the highway, however, are woefully inadequate, both at the checkpoint and on the highway leading to it. This only hampers the development of economic linkages. We have therefore decided to expedite upgradation of the Kolkata-Petrapole highway, including the building of bypasses and overpasses. There is also a proposal to establish ICPs at Hilli (WB), Changrabandha (WB), Akhaura (Tripura), Dawki (Meghalaya), Sutarkhandi (Meghalaya) and Kawarpuchiah (Mizoram). We are at the same time working to complete border fencing and construction of border roads for effective border management.

Similarly, with Myanmar, we are developing a network of linkages. These include crossborder developmental projects such as the upgrading of the Tamu (Manipur)-Kalewa-Kalemyo road, and the Rhi-Tiddim and Rhi-Falam roads along the border in Mizoram; the upgrading of the Jiribam (Manipur)-Imphal-Moreh road, and integration with the proposed Trilateral Highway; the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project, which links Mizoram with Arakan province of Myanmar and provides, in the form of the historic port of Sittwe (Akyab), alternative access out of the Northeast bypassing Bangladesh; and the Jiribam-Imphal rail link, which may be extended to Mandalay as part of the Delhi-Hanoi railway.

The border trade point at Nathula in Sikkim has been inaugurated, and the backward linkages on the Indian side are being upgraded. Here, too, we intend to set up an Integrated Check-Post. We have suggested another border trade point at Bumla (Arunachal Pradesh) in the eastern sector, for which a response is being awaited from Beijing. We have approached Nepal for transit to Tibet. In general, there are plans to upgrade the entire road network in the Northeast – including two inter-basin roads in Arunachal and seven roads leading up to the Line of Actual Control – and to review the Inner Line Permit system so that tourism can be promoted.

From a speech given on 9 September 2006 by the outgoing Indian Foreign Secretary to the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Printed with permission.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian