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Assam rues India's stand on World War II road

Assam officials upset that WWII-era Stillwell Road won't be used in transnational highway linking four Asian nations.

Last updated: 01 Sep 2014 08:38
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India feels reopening Stillwell Road could be used against it during war with China [Pronib Dasa/Al Jazeera]

Pangsau Pass, India-Myanmar border - India, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar plan to connect their volatile frontier regions with a transnational highway - one that Beijing ultimately aims to convert into an "economic corridor", involving huge investment in industry and tourism.

But amid misgivings in India and Myanmar, China has given up on using the World-War-II-era Stillwell Road, which some said was ideal because it merely required renovations.

Instead, officials from India and Myanmar have confirmed that Stillwell will only be used for limited cross-border trade between India's Assam and Arunachal Pradesh states and Myanmar's Sagaing and Kachin regions.

If we open this road, it can be adversely used against us during any war with China.

- J R Mukherji, Retired Lieutenant General

"The Stillwell Road will not form part of the the BCIM [Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar] highway," Rajeet Mitter, a career diplomat now heading an Indian study group evaluating the Chinese "economic corridor" proposal, told Al Jazeera.

"In all likelihood, this highway will follow the route taken by the BCIM car rally in February-March 2013."

The rally route was developed by interlinking existing national highways in each of the four countries.

Mitter has been consulting with stakeholders in eastern India about the project over the past few months, after former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to "joint research" for the proposed corridor during his last visit to China in October 2013.

During a recent consultation in Calcutta, former military officials strongly objected to using Stillwell as the northern arm of the BCIM highway.

China fear

Built by Allied Forces during World War II to supply China in its war with Japan, the 3026km Stillwell Road starts from the town of Ledo in Assam and enters Myanmar through the Pangsau Pass.

It traverses Myanmar's insurgency-ravaged Sagaing and Kachin states before winding into China's Yunnan province.

"If we open this road, it can be adversely used against us during any war with China," retired Lieutenant General J.R. Mukherji, former chief of staff of India's eastern army, told Al Jazeera.

The 3026km Stillwell Road was built by the Allies during World War II to supply China in its war with Japan [Pronib Dasa/Al Jazeera]

China and India fought a month-long border war on the Himalayas in 1962, and the humiliating defeat of the Indian army still haunts soldiers and citizens alike.

Mukherji says in the event of any future war, China could use an opened Stillwell to better facilitate the movement of its own troops.

Indian commerce ministry officials say the road could also be used by the Chinese to dump cheap electronics and other consumer goods on India's under-developed northeast, where there is very little local manufacturing.

Although others, including former Arunachal Pradesh Governor J J Singh, have spoken in favour of opening Stillwell for trade with China to boost local economies and spur investments in northeastern India, the fear of potential negative impacts has weighed heavily on Delhi.

Binoda Mishra, secretary-general of the Kolkata-Kunming Forum, set up decades ago to improve relations between India's and China's frontier regions, said Stillwell is "not in the BCIM connectivity map".

Rather, he suggested the BCIM highway would, like the rally route, originate in the Indian city of Calcutta, pass through Dhaka and Sylhet in Bangladesh, and then wind through Silchar in lower Assam state and Imphal in Manipur state before linking up to the highway leading to Mandalay, Myanmar.

It would continue on to Kunming, China, from there.

'Rethink' in Delhi?

The situation has dismayed residents of upper Assam and eastern Arunachal Pradesh, where Stillwell begins.

"If the Stillwell Road was opened to trade with China, our local economy would boom," said Saroj Roy, chairman of the municipal committee running the coal town of Margherita, south of Stillwell's origin in Ledo. "We are sorry to hear that is not happening, and we request a rethink in Delhi."

The upper Assam region around Margherita is the only developed industrial zone in India's northeast, with rich tea, oil and coal industries, Roy told Al Jazeera. Ripunjoy Das, a local newspaper editor in upper Assam, said if the country opened trade with China via Stillwell, "Indian industrial groups would rush to our area to set up units for exporting to China."


RELATED: Indian tea tastes success in China


Assam's industries minister, Pradyut Bordoloi, agreed. "This is the best route for trading with China," he told Al Jazeera. "This will save our exporters huge transport costs and delivery time because China's eastern seaports are far away. And if the trade opened up with what is perhaps already the world's biggest economy, the spinoff to our area will be considerable."

Indeed, the removal of Stillwell as an option for the BCIM highway is bad news for the state of Assam, which is considered a pivot for northeastern India's industrialisation - but one whose growth has been seriously impeded in recent years by raging ethnic insurgencies, which have challenged India's control over the region.

"India… intends to boost growth in the region, but if upper Assam misses out on the proposed BCIM economic corridor, it would be unfortunate," C.J. Thomas, northeast regional director of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, told Al Jazeera. 

Myanmar rebels' gain

Reservations about using Stillwell, however, extend beyond India to Myanmar. The area in Myanmar around the historic road has been controlled for decades by ethnic rebels, including the Kachin Independence Army.

"The Myanmar government, now run by former generals, fear the benefits from cross-border trade through Stillwell Road will accrue to the rebels, so they are less than enthusiastic about opening it to India-China trade," Alok Sen, the former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, told Al Jazeera.

Saroj Roy says Delhi must rethink the Stillwell Road [Pronib Dasa/Al Jazeera]

While parts of Stillwell are already paved, other parts remain undeveloped; the stretch from the Indian border into Myanmar is a dirt track, in which heavier vehicles often get stuck during the monsoon season.

At the Pangsau Pass, soldiers with India's paramilitary Assam Rifles force stand guard, although there is no customs or immigration unit.

"They are not yet needed here," soldier Havildar Suresh Kumar told Al Jazeera, as he checked to ensure Indian residents crossing the checkpoint had the necessary permits for travel along Stillwell.

"Trade here is small-scale and localised. Indians sell their goods twice a week inside the bazaar in Myanmar… and the Myanmarese do that twice a week in our bazaar here."

Unless Stillwell is opened to India-China trade, observers believe little will change on this road, which helped the Allied Forces transport thousands of tonnes of military hardware seven decades ago.

According to Naqeeb Ahmed, who heads the Northeast Initiative at the Confederation of Indian Industries: "It is a potential totally wasted."

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Al Jazeera
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