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Indian Look East Policy and the Kaladan Project of Western Burma

On April 2, 2008, the Indian government signed an agreement with the Burmese military regime for the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project which is also known as the Kaladan Project. The project will connect Eastern Indian seaports, particularly Kolkata seaport in East India, with the seaport in Western Burma (Myanmar) Rakhine State’s capital, Sittwe—a total distance of 593km. It will then link Sittwe to the landlocked area of Mizoram in Northeastern India via river and road transporti . The project is divided into three main phases:

Phase 1: Development of Sittwe port to handle the future increase in shipping levels. This includes the expansion of its seaport and the construction of a new inland waterway terminal (IWT). This entails dredging the approach channel and the port area (some 562,000 cubic meters of material) to facilitate 6,000-ton ships, as well as constructing two jetties and extensive loading and storage facilities that will significantly expand Sittwe’s current size and capacity. The larger 219m x 15m port jetty will be capable of handling 20,000-ton ocean freighters, and a 54m x 15m inland waterway terminal (IWT) jetty will cater to smaller vessels that ply the river. At present, Sittwe’s port consists of a 78m x 15m jetty and is appropriate for vessels of 2,000- 3,000 tons.

Detailed plan of Sittwe port

Phase 2: Dredging of 225km of the Kaladan River between Sittwe and Setpyitpyin    (Kaletwa) in Chin State where another terminal will be built.

Phase 3: Construction of a 62km highway between Setpyitpyin (Kaletwa) and the  Mizoram border of Indiaii .

Originally, the first and second phases of the project were to begin before the end of 2009. However, construction only started in November 2010. The development of phases 1 and 2 in Sittwe, the river dredging and the IWT at Kaletwa were primarily executed by the state-run Inland Waterways Authority of India with Essar Projects Ltd, Mumbai (a division of the Essar Group appointed in May 2010 as the main contractor). Both RITES and IWAI are state-run Indian companies. But the third phase of highway construction will be headed by the Burmese Ministry of Transport. The construction of the highway from Paletwa to the India-Burma border was originally scheduled to start from the year 2011-12; however, the construction has now been delayed. The entire project is planned to be completed in three years (2014-5), with work suspended for five to six months of the year due to the monsoon.
Detailed route of Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project/ Kaladan Project
Development stages of the project

Due to the challenging and technical difficulty of dredging small islands and rocks, especially the upper part of the Kaladan River, the second and third phases have had to be altered: dredging of 225km of the Kaladan River between Sittwe and Setpyitpyin (Kaletwa) has been reduced to 158 km between Sittwe and Paletwa in Chin State, where another IWT terminal is being built at Paletwa to transfer cargo from river to road transport. As a result, the construction of the highway has to be extended from 62km to 129km between Paletwa in Burma’s Chin State and the Mizoram border of India.

According to Mr. N Unni, Project Coordinator from IWAI, shifting the location of the planned Kaletwa river port further downriver to Paletwa has reduced the amount of dredging required by around 95 percent. Thus, it will now only take place at four or five sites to ensure a minimum depth of two meters, and no rock blasting or land acquisitions are needediii . Therefore, more than 400 tons of estimated explosives required for the river dredging will be totally avoidediv .

The project has been piloted and funded by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. The preliminary feasibility studies, such as hydrographic surveys, etc., were carried out by the state-run Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES). However, no open and clear transparency regarding these studies has been made public. The development of Sittwe port and Kaladan waterway is expected to cost US $68.24 million, and the highway construction between Kaletwa and the Indian border is expected to be around US $49.14 million.

According to the April 2008 Framework Agreementv , the Government of the Union of Myanmar will provide the required land and security for the project, including for all personnel and technicians, free of charge. The Indian government will bear the full cost of the project, which was originally estimated at US $120 million, although more recently the cost has been estimated as US $134 million. Under previous agreements, the Burmese junta was supposed to contribute US $10 million to the project; however, in 2007 the Indian Government extended Burma a minimum interest loan in order to cover this. In the April 2008 agreement, it does not explicitly mention that the Burmese government is under any financial obligation for the cost of the Kaladan Project.

After completion, the project will be handed over to the Burmese government on the terms and conditions mutually agreed upon in the April 2008 Framework Agreement. These terms and conditions are outlined in two supplementary documents, however, they have not yet been made public. It is anticipated that the Burmese state will take full ownership of the transport system, but it will primarily be used by Indian companies to increase trade with Southeast Asia and links to the land-locked Mizoram region. It is expected, however, that few local citizens will use the Kaladan, since they will not be able to afford the tolls that the Burmese government will impose on vessels using the waterway.

Indian Look East Policy through the Kaladan Project

Over the years, Burma’s relationship with India has been inconsistent. In the past, various issues have caused problems, such as a brief dispute over Coco Island in the Andaman Sea, which is internationally considered to be part of Burma. In recent years, however, Indo-Burmese relations have improved significantly as trade has increased. Indian companies such as Essar and ONGC are among the investors, who have begun to capitalise on Burma’s abundance of natural resources.
Than-Shwe-with-Indian-premier-Manmoha Thein-Sein-with-Indian-premier-Manmoha
Former Burmese junta strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe
with  Indian premier Manmohan Singh.
Current Burmese leader Thein Sein pictured with India’s
PM Singh.
In 1992, following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the Indian government launched its “Look East Policy,” which, in the words of the then prime minister was, “a strategic shift in India's vision of the world and India's place in the evolving global economy.”

From then on a number of initiatives have been put in place to increase ties, largely in trade relations between India, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other Asian states. As India’s gateway to East Asia, the Burmese regime found itself in a key geo-strategic position, giving it a strong playing card in negotiations with India. Before the agreement for the Kaladan project was signed, a series of efforts by India’s Ministry of External Affairs to improve transport had hit a brick wall, as they were unable to meet the Burmese junta’s demands.

“India has two main reasons for this project, one to connect with ASEAN and one to compete with China,” said Kim, a long-term observer of Indo-Burma relations and author of “Unfair Deal”.

India’s relationship with Burma is also largely based on a need to counter China’s influence in the region. China has recently become Burma’s second largest foreign investor and has built its own port in Kyaukphyu, just 40km or so from Sittwe. This Kaladan Project has secured India’s Northeastern province with a lifeline for opening up trade and transport to the rest of ASEAN and the world.

Once completed, bilateral trade will grow manifold. Moreover, the overall development of India’s Northeast region, and particularly land-locked states like Mizoram, will be greatly increased. Bilateral trade meetings were held between Burmese trade and investment delegates and trade ministers from the four Northeastern Indian states in mid-September 2010 in an attempt to strengthen border trade.vii 

The Kaladan Project will likely open up the economic geography of the region, potentially connecting to the Asia highway in the future, which will open up international trade routes.

The Importance of the Kaladan River

Rivers in Rakhine State have played a fundamental role in the history, culture and lives of the Arakanese people and their civilization for thousands of years. These waterways provide irrigation, potable water, fish stocks and cheap transportation, supporting millions of livelihoods all over Rakhine. Rakhine’s most complex river system is made up of the state’s four major rivers namely Kaladan, Laymro, Naff and Mayu, plus their numerous tributaries. These rivers flow through the Northern part of Rakhine State before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.
Local-livelihoods-along-the-Kaladan-River Local-livelihoods-along-the-Kaladan-River1
Local livelihoods along the Kaladan River
Among these rivers, the Kaladan is the longest and most used river, connecting Rakhine and Chin States. Approximately 350 km (220 miles) in length, it runs from its source in Mizoram, India, cutting a narrow valley through the mountains of Chin State, descending to cross the fertile plains of Rakhine State, and finally emptying into the Bay of Bengal at Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital.

Its river valley is 113 km (70 miles) in length and is often referred to as the “Rice Bowl” of Rakhine. Sittwe, Ponnagywan, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U and Pauktaw townships are situated in its valley. The Paletwa region in Chin State is situated along the upper part of the river.

For the majority of Rakhine’s population, the Kaladan River is the primary means of transport. This is mainly because the few roads in the region are in terrible condition. Therefore waterways frequently serve as a lifeline for rural people to get access to essential goods and markets. In Rakhine State, boats travel up and down the rivers selling and trading firewood, bamboo as building material, and fish and farming/ agricultural products such as rice, fruits and vegetables.

“The Kaladan River is the primary source of water and transport, irrigation and fishing for our living in the area. We will find it really difficult for our daily survival if the river is blocked with larger vessels and dredged,” said a villager living along the Kaladan River.

Current and Potential Impacts of the Project
  • Damage on Local Livelihoods
Approximately a million civilians live in townships along the Kaladan River. The large majority of these people make a living from fishing and farming, and rely heavily on the river for both. Moreover, due to a lack of good roads in western Burma, transportation and the trade in both fish and agricultural products in the region is dependent on the use of this waterway.
Local-livelihoods-along-the-Kaladan-River2 Local-livelihoods-along-the-Kaladan-River3
Local livelihoods along the Kaladan River
If the developments entailed by the Kaladan Project go ahead, thousands of people will be forced to drastically adapt their lives without any compensation or assistance from the authorities. The developments along the river and around the Sittwe port area will damage and block access to fishing areas along the coast. If residents are unable to access and use the river as usual, both during and after the construction of these projects, the travel and transportation of goods for trade will be almost impossible, since no alternative means of transport exist.

Furthermore, the self-sustaining ecosystems on which locals depend upon will be devastated, likely causing a rapid decrease in food supplies in regions that are already highly food insecure.

Construction of Sittwe port and local concerns/ the impacts on local people

In November 2010, the construction of Sittwe port was started. However, it received a lot of local complaints because of the sand that was being transported from Sittwe’s Beach to be put in the port area. Worse still, construction of the port disturbed patients from Sittwe’s General Hospital and business at the Sittwe’s Bank along the Strand Road, whose buildings began to crack due to the impact of port construction. Furthermore, people along the Strand Road remain very concerned that their houses, shops and restaurants will be removed.

“We have big concerns about the construction of the port, as all of the houses, restaurants and other government buildings including Sittwe’s General Hospital along the Strand Road will be removed,” said a Strand Road resident. “According to those who have previously been relocated in Rakhine and other parts of Burma, usually no compensation is given to the owners. So we expect the same thing to happen to us when these buildings are removed. Without our houses we will lose a lot of business, as we mainly rely on our houses for doing business such as trading rice with rural folks and city dwellers.”    
Sittwe-port-construction-site Myanmar-Economic-Bank-Sittwe
Sittwe port construction site/ area   Myanmar Economic Bank (Sittwe) that was cracked due
 to the impact of port construction
Environmental damage due to the impact of port construction

If the Kaladan Project proceeds as planned, extreme environmental damage will certainly occur, as Burma’s military regime has historically practiced a policy of complete disregard for ecosystems, biodiversity and the migratory paths of important species. Even the smallest change to delicate ecosystems such as these can cause a long series of unpredictable changes, forcing villagers to adapt their lifestyles at an impossible rate, causing starvation and disease among those unable to adapt. The project will cause the following:

  • Extermination of benthic and nektonic species along the Kaladan River and in the area around Sittwe port; these species are essential sources of food for locals throughout the Kaladan River system.
  • Destruction of mangrove forests along the coast and in the river estuary; these form the base of the region’s ecosystems and can protect against tidal surges such as those that killed hundreds of people during Cyclone Giri in 2010.
  • Rapid deforestation to accommodate river expansion and the highway. This can increase the occurrence of floods or droughts, and will impact the habitats of endangered species such as Kaladan dolphins, tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, gibbons, hornbills, and Rakhine forest turtles, the latter two of which are already extremely vulnerable to extinction.
Local-village-on-the-Kaladan-River Islands-and-rocks-along-the-Kaladan-River
Local village on the Kaladan River Islands and rocks along the Kaladan River
One family story:
“I am the eldest son of my family that has seven family members. I am 27 years old and a second year university student majoring in English. But I had to unfortunately drop out from the university as my family cannot support me any longer. Since I am the eldest one, I feel I am responsible for taking care of my brothers and sisters especially for their high school education. So I have decided to help my father and his fishing business on the Kaladan River. Not only do we fish in the river, but it is also how we travel to other villages/townships to sell the fish we have caught, along with our agricultural produce. In fact, the river is very important for everyone’s lives. It is where we get our food and water and how we travel, and so we will find it really difficult for our daily survival if the river (Kaladan River) is blocked with larger vessels and dredged,” explained a resident of Latpanbra Village in Pauktaw Township, situated on the Kaladan River.

Conclusion and Recommendations

On behalf of all the people from Rakhine and Chin states, I would like to request and urge that the Burmese, particularly Rakhine and Chin people, protect regional ecosystems from deterioration and prevent the destruction of habitats that are home to endangered species and prestigious forests. Moreover, all people of Rakhine and Chin states need to endeavor to bring an end to the persistent abuse inflicted on our communities as a result of development projects that only empower and enrich Burma’s oppressive successive military regimes, and even current U Thein Sein’s Government and its cronies.

In order to give a voice to the affected communities in Western Burma and to ensure that an unbiased overview of these projects can be communicated worldwide, I would like to recommend that all domestic and international media follow the development of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project throughout and endeavor to keep the Burmese and international community informed of all its implications.

Aung Marm Oo is an Arakanese activist and Executive Director of the Arakan Human Rights and Development Organisation (AHRDO).

All photographs supplied by and copyright of Arakan Human Rights and Development Organisation (AHRDO)


ivMr. N Unni, Project Coordinator of IWAI Presentation’s slide 25
viPress Trust of India, “India betting big on Rs 1,700cr project to foster growth in NE”,, 5 September 2010.
viiKhaing Kyaw Mya, “Indian border state envoys to tour Burma”, Mizzima news online,, 4 September 2010.

Last Updated ( Friday, 25 January 2013 09:22 )  

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