The infrastructure rush in India’s north-east is reducing logistics costs and positively impacting lives.
A Delhi-based corporate executive recently travelled on road from Guwahati to Silchar in Assam via Shillong in Meghalaya. The 303 km journey, including vast mountainous stretches in Meghalaya, took approximately 8 hours. Five years ago, the same route took him over 12 hours.
This is no stray example. In hilly northeastern India, where distance is measured by time, connectivity is fast improving. From Silchar, the 292 km distance to Agartala in Tripura can be covered in eight hours, down by at least four to five hours.
The unprecedented infrastructure rush by the Narendra Modi government has started impacting lives and opening new economic opportunities.
Reducing logistics cost
The opportunities are huge. Till 2016, when Agartala was connected by broad-gauge rail, almost the entire cargo to the far northeastern state of Tripura used to travel by road. Today rail accounts for roughly 40 per cent of the freight. Reduced demand and better roads (leading to faster turnaround), put a check on truck rentals.
This has had a far-reaching impact on trade. In the past, Tripura used to import reasonable quantities of construction material (rods, cement) and household plastic items from Bangladesh. Better logistics at home reduced the flow of such imports. Some plastic furniture units also sprung up in Agartala.
Interestingly, the import trade was impacted irrespective of substantial improvement in connectivity between Tripura and Bangladesh in the past few years.
Over the last few years, India extended both rail and highway connectivity to Sabroom, at the southern tip of Tripura, to access Chittagong port in Bangladesh. While the Sabroom-Chittagong rail link is under construction; India completed a key bridge in 2020 to reduce the road distance from 130 km to 80 km.
Tripura-Bangladesh connectivity is also improving through other routes. Akhaura (Bangladesh)-Agartala rail link is likely to open this year. Bangladesh is yet to complete the construction of Ashugunj river terminal, but the road connectivity to the river port has improved.
Improving cross border connectivity is opening new opportunities. IndianOil started importing part of its LPG (cooking gas) requirement for Tripura through Chittagong, at a lower transportation cost than the one incurred in bringing it by road from Haldia in West Bengal, covering 1600 km.
The vast region (eight per cent of India’s geography) now sources auto-fuel from refineries in Assam. Distribution is mostly road-based and disruptions in movement, particularly during the six-month-long rainy season, causes sporadic fuel scarcity in the hill States.
Access to Chittagong port and emerging options of rail connectivity coupled with improving road conditions may bring a sea change in the fuel availability scenario. Indian Oil has promised to ride the opportunity and build rail-based storage infra.
Not an easy task
Building infrastructure is not easy in the northeast.
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) government planned to connect all state capitals by rail. The Manmohan Singh government (2004-2014) ended the term by taking the rail to Naharlagun, near Itanagar (Arunachal Pradesh) and initiating meter-gauge rail connectivity to Agartala.
There are reasons behind the delay. Firstly, topography and a narrow work window (six-month) is a major challenge. Land acquisition is a hurdle as 40 per cent of the region is covered by forest. The huge tribal population (90 per cent in Mizoram) brings another set of legal barriers to land acquisition.
Except in Assam and partly in Tripura, land records are extremely weak. Moreover, due to customs and practices specific to the northeastern States, the government and local communities often enjoy dual ownership of the same piece of land.
Getting contractors is a major issue. While local contractors rightly want a share of the work, they do not have the due capacity and contractors from the rest of India as they find it too difficult a terrain.
Last but not the least, there is resistance from ethnic communities to allow the movement of outsiders. Meghalaya is yet to allow rail connectivity to the capital city of Shillong.
To add to this, the previous governments attempted infra-building in a piecemeal manner and never lined up adequate finance. The results were visible. The power transmission line from Tripura to Assam was completed years after ONGC Tripura Power Company started operating.
When Modi came into power, the 5-km Bogibeel (Assam) rail-cum-road bridge, initiated in 2002, was barely halfway through. Construction of the 9.5-km strategic Dhola-Sadiya (Assam-Arunachal) bridge was moving slowly. Both the projects were over in the next four years. Contracts were awarded last year for a new 19-km Dhubri-Phulbari (Assam-Meghalaya) bridge.
Modi brought focus and scale
The big difference that came with Modi is: scale. He opened every front to address connectivity issues. To bring focus and ensure fund availability, National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (NHIDCL) was made a nodal agency for highway development and maintenance in the northeast in 2015.
NHIDCL is now handling ongoing highway projects worth Rs 92,000 crore ($12 billion). Another Rs 120,000 crore ($16 billion) worth of projects is in the DPR (detailed project report) stage.
Roughly one-third of the 34 high projects in Arunachal is complete. Another third is nearing completion. In a land where good roads were a rarity, it brings visible change. One can now drive smoothly in large sections of NH52 and NH37, two major arteries in Assam. North Bank of Assam is now accessible around the year.
Highways in Meghalaya and the valley region in Manipur are distinctly good. The key road connectivity from Imphal to Moreh in Myanmar border (108 km) is partly improved. The rest is moving slowly.
The highway movement to Imphal, Manipur, is not smooth leading to high truck rentals. This is partly due to delay in road projects in the Nagaland side of the Kohima-Imphal segment and partly due to nature. The newly built Jiribam-Imphal highway suffers regular damage due to landslides.
But the woes of Manipur will be over soon as the Jiribam-Imphal broad gauge rail project is 91 per cent complete. The Rs 12,000 crore project will include the country’s longest (10 km) tunnel and the tallest pier (141 metres) bridge.
The proposed 51-km link to Sairang on the outskirts of Aizawl in Mizoram is 79 per cent through. Rail to Sikkim (Rangpo), started in 2017 and is 25 per cent complete. Both the projects suffered major delays during the pandemic due to strict restrictions imposed by the State authorities.
That’s not all. The government is actively considering a host of new rail projects in the region, particularly connecting Arunachal. The Murkongselek (Assam) and Pasighat rail project is already under implementation. Three more proposals are in consideration connecting both the eastern and western parts of the state.
The most important of them is 378-km Bhalukpong (West Kameng, Arunachal)-Tenga (Arunachal)-Tawang (Arunachal) rail connectivity that will reach a height of 10,000 ft to the Tibet border.
The launch of the UDAN regional air connectivity scheme (2016) saw a number of new air links in the region. The most important of them is Pasighat (2018), the first-ever commercial air link to Arunachal.
The Rs 1,000 crore Hollongi airport near Itanagar will be completed next year. The project was conceived in 2007. But the time between 2007 to 2012 went into finalising the location. A DPR was launched after the Modi government came into power, and construction began in 2019.
Miles to go
Connectivity is opening a plethora of opportunities in the northeast. The development so far has converted Imphal into a medical tourism hub, attracting patients from Myanmar. Guwahati is converted into a logistics hub of the region.
Opportunities will only widen in the days to come, particularly in the tourism sector. From World War II memorials in Manipur to forests of Assam or snow-capped mountains of Arunachal, the region can be a major tourist draw. But that needs better effort from the state governments to remove hurdles before connectivity projects.
On 22 August, Kiren Rijuju, the Union Law and Justice Minister and MP from Arunachal, posted a clip of highway travel in Arunachal.
“Some parts of Arunachal Pradesh have excellent roads… There’s no shortage of funds from the Govt of India but many road projects are delayed due to various reasons. To seek people’s cooperation, we need to convince them better,” he said.
The indications were loud and clear. The majority of the ongoing infra projects are either behind schedule or witnessing slow progress. The northeastern states have to be more active in ensuring their completion.
The good news is: most of them are now activated. Meghalaya is trying to convince its ethnic communities to welcome rail. The government is afraid that they may miss the development bus.