Myanmar eminently fits within the biblical saying “far better a neighbour that is near than a brother far off”. This was acknowledged last week at the interactive session titled “Indo-Myanmar Trade, Challenges and Opportunities” held in Kolkata and organised by the Bharat Chamber of Commerce. Representatives of both countries spoke of the need to increase the volume of trade while some emphasised the need to curb the activities of unscrupulous traders and smugglers at border haats. Before trade between the two countries was legalised in April 1995 through Moreh, the border town, 110 km from Imphal, had been the favourite haunt of smugglers, drug-peddlers and militant outfits alike.

Consumer items and electronic goods worth crores of rupees found their way into India illegally. As a goodwill gesture the Centre had even reduced taxes on agro-products. The other salient features had been the import of rice, exclusively for Manipur, and auction of teak and timber at the Myanmarese town of Tamu, just six km from Moreh, instead of routing these through Yangon. India even did not object to Myanmar sending third country products. Apart from trade, the understanding on cooperation not only covers prevention of inadvertent violation of each other&’s territory by security forces, but also the trans-border movement of insurgents and smuggling of narcotics. The importance of border haats – long considered crucial for sustaining the economy of people on either side – cannot be underestimated and such markets need to be encouraged.

An upswing in trade is expected only after the completion of the Kaladin multi-purpose project and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway under the ministry of external affairs. These were to be ready this year but have been delayed, the reason trotted out being the drastic cut in the MEA&’s budget. Once completed the highway will make it possible for one to drive to Myanmar and Thailand. When the Kaladin project is ready it will connect Kolkata with Myanmar&’s Sittwe port and further run up to Mizoram through river and road.

As of now, India&’s only direct land link with Myanmar is through the 315-km Dimapur (Nagaland)-Imphal-Moreh Road, part of the Asian Highway. Unfortunately this vital highway has become a nightmare for drivers. They complain they have to grease the palms of personnel manning at least 20 checkposts.

Besides it is a happy hunting ground for rogue elements. The state government is helpless when even on a trifling issue, tribals in the hills impose economic blockades. All this hardly inspires confidence for the future of the Act East Policy.