THE people of the North-east will soon have an access to Myanmar&’s sea port of Sittwe, Arakan province. Construction of jetties and port facilities that started in December 2010 are nearing completion. If all goes well, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, as it is known, is expected to be fully operational by 2015. It will connect Mizoram through riverine transport and roadways.
 The project activities include improvement of the Sittwe port, construction of inland waterway on Myanmar&’s Kaladan river and a highway that will go right up to Aizawl. Ships will unload cargoes at Sittwe and these will then be transported through the Kaladan river that crosses two Myanarese provinces of Arakan and Chin. From the Myanmarese town of Paletwa, the road will pass through the  Lomasu trade point in Mizoram&’s southern border.
New Delhi conceptualised the project five years ago vis-a-vis its Look East Policy, primarily to develop trade with Myanmar. Political observers believe that India was compelled to invest in the project  with the objective of wooing the Naypyidaw administration, which has now transformed from a full military regime to a quasi-democratic government. Moreover, the trade route is expected to promote India&’s economic linkages with other South-east Asian countries.
The Indian government is financing the entire project, estimated at $214million. The former military government provided required land and also security for the project. India offered a soft loan of $10 million to the then military regime.
According to the Union ministry of development of the North-east region, the Kaladan project is being executed by various agencies like the Indian Inland Waterways Authority under the Union ministry of external affairs for the work inside Myanmar and the Mizoram Public Works Department under the Department of Road Transport and Highways, for the portions inside Mizoram.
The Rail India Technical and Economic Services carried out the preliminary feasibility studies. Once the project is ready, it will be handed over to the Myanmar authority. The objective  is to provide an access route to the land-locked North-eastern region of India. The ministry said that the “project is significant in view of severe pressure on the Siliguri Corridor and Bangladesh&’s continued intransigence in providing us transit rights through its territory to the North-east”.
Work on dredging and widening of the Kaladan river from Sittwe port to Paletwa, adjacent to Mizoram, is going on. The 160-km inland waterway transport system for cargo ships with a terminal in Paletwa is expected to be completed by June 2014.
Since Myanmar has not said anything on the present status of work on the 130-km two-lane highway from Paletwa to Indian border point of Lomasu, it is not known when it will be competed. However. the Indian part of the two-lane highway has made considerable progress. Once completed, the 100-km stretch (from Lomasu to Lawngtlai in Mizoram) will connect National Highway 54. This part of the project is estimated to be ready early next year.
Of late, some some Indian and Myanmarese organisations have alleged that the construction of the project will have environmental implications on thousands of people in both the countries. An Arakan-based outfit called Arakan Rivers Network has demanded comprehensive environmental, social and health impact assessments on the Kaladan project and that these be made public.
On the other hand, the Mizoram- based  Zo Indigenous Forum argues that nearly 1.2 million people living in the project areas want the Kaladan scheme to benefit many without disturbing the ecological balance.
Talking to this correspondent from Aizwal, C Lalremruata, director of the Zif, said the indigenous people of both the countries should be involved in all decision-making regarding their ancestral lands with fair compensation packages, adding that the principle of free, prior and informed consent must be the foundation of this kind of infrastructure development project.
The author is the Guwahati-based Special Representative of The Statesman