By: Lunminthang Haokip
Introduction: For more than a decade, there was talk of one of the Asian Highways passing through the state of Manipur before it exits through Moreh, the state’s border trading point, to Myanmar or the other way round. Villagers and small town dreamers residing on the Mao – Moreh stretch of India’s NH-39 knew little about the preparation of the road, serpentine in most parts, and adjacent to their houses, for the big cross-country thoroughfare. Ignorance, however, did not stop them from hoping that, one day, the value of the land-holding under their possession, even if acquired for the ASEAN purpose, will shoot up. Some had started the mental plan to open eateries, motels, shops etc along the ‘imaginary’ AH that would be passing through their premises, if the Lord tarries. But, like the title of Harold Robins’ best seller novel, dreams die first. As of now, for the locals, trans-national highway is still a ‘notional highway’, highway lorry rubbery, a costly drudgery and ‘Look-East’ policy, just a ‘hook-minds’ policy in power-point presentations.
Advantage Tamu: The big picture of the total coverage of the concept of Asian Highways is to link the whole of Asia by road . China had already made its trading presence felt in almost all the ASEAN countries. The resurgent and reformed communist nation, projected to overtake the US in economic growth by 2050, not only floods the world market with its cleverly manufactured and heavily under-invoiced consumer goods, but has Mandarin as the language spoken by the largest number of people. Myanmar’s proximity to China provides the oxygen of trade for its citizens. Making capital on daily sale of such stuff, sprawling Namphalong market, built at the edge of the border opposite Moreh’s gate no.2, does a trading arm-twist on the hitherto thriving Moreh markets to leave the latter with few or no visitors, like materialism does to the Churches of England.
All roads lead to Moreh: The glut of consumer durables at Tamu, Moreh’s richer twin-brother, is with thanks to Asian Highway-3 that vertically runs into China from Mongolia to Myanmarese towns, Mongla. Taunggyi , Meiktila, Mandalay and Tamu. Yet another roadway to be marked AH-14 goes north from Mandalay to Lashio to enter southern China through Myanmar’s border town, Muse. It’s for nothing that Burmese tourism had advertised their land as “the home of Asia”. Four Asian highways run into the “Golden Land” as they give a second name to their country. AH-1, starting from Tokyo in Japan takes a long winding route through South Korea, eastern and southern china, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangkok to finally enter southern Myanmar to Yangon. Then it turns north touching Toungon, Meiktila, Mandalay and Tamu. AH-2, in turn, takes off from Indonesia, cuts across Singapore, Malasia, Thailand to finally exit into Myanmar through northern Thai town, Mae Sai. The awesome good news for Manipur is that all the four highways to be stretched from China and Thailand, to wind through Myanmar, will meet at Tamu and Moreh first, and then link various towns and cities of Bangladesh, NE and mainland India.
The Commercial Equations: Formed on 8 August, 1967, step by step, ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations (for economic development) roped in in its fold 10 nations – Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. ASEAN take 10% of India’s exports mainly through the sea route. The 8 North East Indian states populated with 45 million people, only 11 millions short of Myanmar’s total of 56 millions, are by and large landlocked. Despite abundance of natural and human resources, NE Indians cannot have a share in the nation’s sea-route business. Of course, there is a proposal to connect Sittwe port in the western coast of Myanmar with Aizawl, Mizoram’s capital and other NE Indian states through river and road transport. The project may take years to complete. So, in the given situational paradox, the most logical means to push up the economic growth of NE India to be on par with the national average, is to speed up the proposal to build the 7603 KM long road network in the back-block regions of NE by 2003, and having done so, get cracking in do business with ASEAN.
The Road-block: Blockade or no blockade, the condition of the roads between Mandalay and Kalemyo in Myanmar, Moreh to Pallen and Kangpokpi to Mao in Manipur is bad, and nowhere near ASEAN standards. Contractors are on the job of the first phase. Unless the second phase follows suit swiftly, the bad portion, though helps in making the motor work-shop owners get fat, will remain a blot on the otherwise smooth run of the trans-Asian highway. The BRTF-paved 160 KM Tamu to Kalewah passage may be motorists’ delight but provides no total solace. A chain is as strong as its weakest link. The present focus is on the 1639 KM Guwahati – Bangkok surface route. It is no big deal compared to the 1959 KM distance between Guwahati and Delhi. The deplorable condition of the above stretch also slowed down, and threatened to bring to a screeching halt, the pace and volume of the well-begun Indo-Myanmar Trade Agreement. In also accounts for the pathetic state of affairs at Moreh border town. Once nick-named the El Dorado of North East India, Moreh, today, at its best, may be described as the proverbial cow which every visitor milks but forgets to feed.
Can Moreh carry the international Load?: That’s the million rupee question. Crores of rupees had been pumped in for development of the cutting-edge township. Buildings, hospitals, super-markets and guest houses had come up in good measures. Yet, tourists are naturally inclined to side-step Moreh and go to the well-planned Myanmarese counterpart, Tamu, for a sight-seeing or quality shopping. And they have reason to do what they do. Tamu simply is several times better-prepared to burn holes in its visitors’ pockets than our old-fashioned Block head quarter. The buzz across the border among Burmese traders is, “let us work hard like the Chinese, save money like the Marwaris, but let us not eat and make merry like the Burmese”. The wisdom in the resolve may smack of taking a dig at themselves, but it works wonders. With no high technology, no liberty and no big industries, they had put the high tech of India to shame in trading, at least in the twin towns of the disorderly border. If Tamu is leader, Moreh cannot be a follower; if Kate, the latter is a duplicate. With all the natural resources of river water, forest products, minerals, educated manpower, proximity to a teak-rich neighbour and with the might of an IT-super power sub-continent at its beck and call, Moreh still is the poorer brother of a conjoined inter-dependent twin-township. At this rate, the change-resisting and discipline-hating de-globalised citizenry of this potential ASEAN destination will soon be treated by its affluent better-half like a back-water step-brother.
Action Plan: As a mid-level Administrator of sub-district governance in this far-flung part of my great country who, for no fault of his, is often treated like a “Tulsi” plant in Independent India’s own “Angan” (courtyard), I strongly feel Moreh needs immediate attention. The burgeoning urban settlement that does a daily business of tens of millions of Rupees and that attracts domestic tourists like a misplaced piece of broken cake does to hungry ants, demands restructuring on war footing. The success of ICP, Integrated Check Post, at the periphery of Moreh’s Gate no. 1 calls for the deep checking of our mental gate no. 1 –the mind, and gate no. 2 –the heart, amenability to better sense and imaginative response to out-of-the-box vision. Fiddling pretence must give way to a permanent sense of belongingness to the place we live in and will die in. Our education should challenge us. Why is Moreh the worst ill-planned future stop-over on the Asian Highway? When Bangkok can build skyscrapers, Mandalay has neat star hotels, Tamu has wide roads and spacious restaurants, China can make many things out of bamboo, and South India produces weather-proof hollow bricks out of sand and cement, why can’t we? And why shouldn’t we? Are we born to buy and watch only? It’s the will that charts the way. The blocking letters in the word ‘IMPOSSIBLE’ is I M meaning I am..
Connectivity: The be-all and end-all of the concept of Asian Highway is connectivity. Air, water and railway connectivity are the props but not the main issue here. The aim is road linkage. Along with it will come people, culture, media, technology and religion connectivity. Dietary tastes differ from country to country. International business transactions at the meeting point of 4 AHs will be unbecoming without the operation of Nationalised and Scheduled Commercial banks at the action station. So, it goes without saying that if trans-Asian Highway is not a joke played on us, which we know is certainly not, it’s high time we start building infrastructure commensurate with the shape of things to come, shortly.
Air Connectivity: A stitch in time saves nine. Flights save a lot of time. If Moreh is to take on the trade load of ASEAN and NE India, deals will be clinched at the rate of mobility of the trading functionaries across the nations in the fray. On road signs, we see warnings like, “Better to be Mr. Late than Late Mr.” It amuses commuters. But the road-side philosophy will find no takers in trans-national conferences. Mr. Late will cause delay for others and take business backwards in reverse gear. Delays, experience reminds, have dangerous ends. As a self-styled social analyst for the liveable border town I would like to, God willing, spend my retired life with re-tyred vigour in, I think it is not asking for too much to demand Aizawl’s Lengpui Airport-like airstrip at Moreh. Whether we like it or not, Moreh is not only the best port of call for Indian Chambers of commerce to export and import trade items to and from ASEAN through surface transport, but is the only corridor for the nation. The route of Asian Highways is no more up for negotiations at this stage. Unless we want to see ourselves caught napping and don’t desire to see NE India catching up fast with the rest in modernisation, all concerned will do well to give a serious fresh attention to the infrastructural requirements of the Region’s only inlet and outlet to boom-time.
Wholesome Approach: A port has a hinterland. A river is joined by its tributaries. To promote Moreh as the happening place, the importance of road connectivity of the border destination with other key towns of Chandel and the neighbouring districts should not be soft-pedalled. The construction of the 60 odd Km DC road from Moreh to New Samtal in the south easternmost corner of Manipur is already underway. Likewise, black-topping of the Chandel – Sugnu – Chakpikarong – Lonpi – Joupi –Khengjoy – road that ends at Molcham near Myanmar’s Zohmun will move things faster and lighten the burden of Moreh. Widening and improving the BRTF road from Tengnoupal to Machi and Ukhrul district will connect the hill districts better and enhance people to people contact. But all these ongoing proposals and projects will sadly miss its target unless Moreh becomes accommodating enough to welcome all the communities of North East India with open arms and psalms like, for example, Goa does to its own prosperity.
Love is the Greatest: All said and done, the Bible that we swear by, commands us to love our neighbours, to love strangers in our land and take good care of them. All the ASEAN metros prosper in direct proportion to the warmth of the hospitality they exhibit to strangers in their cities. God warned the Israelites that they too were strangers in Egypt when he planned their way out. Let us always remember that “Giving never empties the purse and loving never empties the heart”. Foreigners go again and again to Singapore, Bangkok, Kerala etc. because they know they will be treated well. Moreh ought to take the initiative to create an investment climate for big cash to flow in. Let us not be narrow-minded but be Nehru-minded.